Monday 24 July 2017

James Lawton: Reds foolish to stand by and let heart and soul walk away

'The name Steven Gerrard has become, and for all of the best reasons, part of the very breath of Anfield'
'The name Steven Gerrard has become, and for all of the best reasons, part of the very breath of Anfield'
James Lawton

James Lawton

As Liverpool head into their summer of regrets, suddenly it is impossible to obscure the force of the convulsion that accompanies Steven Gerrard's last hurrah at Anfield tomorrow.

It is also hard to see evidence that anyone at the club - in what passes for the hierarchy, at least - has begun to measure the degree and the meaning of the loss.

Of course, we are already hearing the first of the ritual speeches, all of them redolent with fierce Scouse pride in a favourite son - and also the ringing tribute of the best of this season's division of foreign mercenaries, Philippe Coutinho.

But, so far, not a peep of concern that maybe Gerrard is a resource that, ultimately, should not be let go.

Maybe Gerrard will prove, if he stays in the game beyond his playing days, that he is no more a grand strategist on the sidelines than he was on the field. But then at this stage of the club's injury-prone development this is hardly the point.

What Gerrard takes with him to Los Angeles, and what is stripped away from the club he has served so magnificently for 17 years, is nothing less than a heart and a soul.

Outstanding coaches may not be as numerous as so many of the advertisements they launch on their own behalf suggest, but there are enough, certainly, to cater for the needs of an organisation of Liverpool's resources and among them Jurgen Klopp is one the more notable examples.

Also available is the kind of competitive passion which Gerrard has always represented and which he would surely embody as long as he had any part to play at Anfield.

He is for Liverpool, supremely, a flesh and blood icon, and the casual way he was shunted in and out of the first team in his last playing season revealed, at the very least, an imperfect understanding of this.

The place he will finally occupy in the pantheon of Liverpool players will always be a matter of heavy debate. Certainly those who insist that he has proved himself the greatest of all time have fairly serious questions to answer.

Were his instincts as sure and innate as, say Kenny Dalglish's?

Did he understand the dynamics of running a midfield as acutely, and as ferociously, as Graeme Souness?

Was he as persistently sharp and abrasive as the man Bill Shankly once described as a natural-born middleweight, Ian St John?

And there is, of course, a more recent and vivid point of comparison, in the brief but profoundly destructive passage of Luis Suarez.

None of this, though, is relevant to the value of retaining around Anfield the presence of Gerrard.

Gerrard cares about the club in a way that goes to the heart of a tradition which Brendan Rodgers, for all his resources and his ideas of how he wants the team to play, has at times found desperately hard to renovate.

Some of Gerrard's effusions no doubt touch the mawkish, not least his declaration, "When I die don't bring me to the hospital, bring me to Anfield. I was born there and I will die there."

So, will Gerrard feel the first intimations of his mortality when the game against Crystal Palace is over tomorrow?

It doesn't have to be so. If Liverpool cannot keep a place for Gerrard, and one something more than ceremonial, it might be said that they have consigned, once more, some of the best of themselves to the past.

Gerrard may not be a sure-fire candidate to coach his old club but at this time when in the promotion of next season's first-team strip they present the marquee names of Martin Skrtel, Emre Can and the chronically injured Daniel Sturridge, his departure becomes the psychological equivalent of turning off the lights.

Gerrard the player may have been invaded by the march of time but his essence, his enduring image is one that still hugely survives the drift to misadventure so cruelly symbolised by his catastrophic slip against Chelsea's in last season's failed title challenge.

The supreme counter-point to that personal disaster will always be the sight of him with the Champions League medal around his neck in the Istanbul dawn.

Then, Gerrard was the best of Liverpool, the most compelling meaning of one of the great football clubs. The case for its retention in some tangible form is most eloquently, if unknowingly, put by Coutinho.

"It's going to be very emotional," said the Brazilian of tomorrow's farewell. "He is one of football's greatest and I admire him a lot on and off the pitch. He's a humble, hard-working character who gets on with everyone.

"He is also one of the best Liverpool players of all time, if not the greatest. He's had a great influence on me and I have to thank him for all that he did.

"I'm constantly observing him and the way he works in training. He's selfless and treats everyone equally, from the youngest to the oldest. He's an icon and having the opportunity to watch him close has had in itself a huge positive impact on me."

No doubt the Coutinho eulogy obscures a wart or two, on and off the field. Sometimes Gerrard's lack of discipline in both places has left him less than a paragon of all the virtues.

But this hardly makes the Brazilian's testament less telling. What Coutinho conveys is the force of a consistent and deeply ambitious presence, a point of certainty where all else has been cast in doubt.

No, Gerrard hasn't always been a stranger to the follies of excessive emotion and flaring anger. His heart has from time to time ruled his head.

The frequent assertion that he was one of the world's great midfielders didn't always stand the finest analysis but about one thing there could never be a question.

When he went out on the field he gave Liverpool everything he had. He scored titanic goals. His spirit surged and eddied through the biggest matches, and never more than when the great prize was snatched from AC Milan on that extraordinary night in Turkey.

The name Steven Gerrard has become, and for all of the best reasons, part of the very breath of Anfield.

This is what makes it so odd, so wasteful that the chances are that it will be extinguished in just a little more than one last day.

Irish Independent

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