independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Stevie G – the right man in the wrong place at the right time

The story of Steven Gerrard's 100th cap was much like the story of his previous 99. It began with the anticipation which included something of a coronation. Gerrard then previewed it with words of self-rebuke which on closer examination were more of a general rebuke. And it ended, as it always seems to end for Gerrard and England, with somebody else demonstrating how it should be done.

Last summer, Gerrard was said by many to have had an excellent European Championships but it wasn't until England played Italy that we were given a midfield masterclass in an England game. And it was Andre Pirlo giving the lesson.

Gerrard was stranded as Pirlo showed how to play in midfield while Gerrard struggled even in being a midfielder who can destroy.

Gerrard had no idea what to do about Pirlo but that was only partly his fault because he had been encouraged for a long time to believe that he could do something about it.

Gerrard is Woody Allen if Woody Allen had never emerged from the period when he felt it was his calling to be Bergman's heir. Gerrard is Woody Allen if he had made Interiors for the rest of his life.

Woody Allen eventually reached a point of maturity which meant he was comfortable, or as comfortable as a neurotic can be, with his role as a comic genius.

Gerrard was, he claimed last week, his own worst critic. He may well have been his most misjudged critic. Gerrard might have had a sparkling England career if he had established at an early stage that he couldn't be the thing he most desperately wanted to be, a central midfielder who shapes a game and dictates its tempo. No matter how much evidence of this was presented over his career, few wanted to confront this problem at international level.

English football asked the wrong questions. They asked if Gerrard and Lampard could play together when they should have been asking why would you want them to? Nobody appeared to notice that Gerrard and Lampard didn't play in midfield for their clubs which was probably a handicap in asking two of them to play there for England.

In encouraging Gerrard to be what he is not, they may well have taken away from a great career. At his peak, Gerrard reacted to situations with more explosiveness than anyone in football. Yet he modelled himself on men like Bryan Robson, a truly great England midfielder, and Roy Keane, whose self-searching criticism he tried to emulate. Yet Gerrard always sounded agonised, rather than at war with himself as Keane appeared to be. Keane's war with himself quickly escalated and led to the opening up of several other fronts and eventually a global thermonuclear conflict.

Gerrard's honesty is not so searing so when he says he would give himself six out of ten for his England career, he is being truthful but not particularly harsh, especially when he says that only the 1966 World Cup winners deserve to be considered England greats.

There seemed to be very little to show for his 100 caps. There was the victory against Germany in Munich and then a series of anti-climaxes. These were collective failures. It was also a perverse failure of the imagination, a failure to imagine Gerrard as the thing he most obviously was – an attacker – and try to wish another role for him instead. As if the world had conspired to view Bob Dylan simply as a painter. Gerrard can't be blamed for being seduced by this. He witnessed David Beckham create a virtually fictitious position for himself as a legendary figure in the game. Gerrard would have been stupid not to marvel at the way Beckham continued to make himself relevant.

Beckham had more ambition than most which meant that he wouldn't be defined by his failings. Instead he created several plots which could sustain his England career as well as his life as a football diplomat for which he is well suited.

Gerrard is also trying to reinvent himself. He talks about his retreat to a deeper role as if it is simply a question of standing somewhere else on the pitch, forgetting that for much of his international career he has been standing in the wrong place. Last week, he talked about his admiration for Paul Scholes and remarked that Scholes' game is "very similar to mine".

Earlier in the season, Gerrard said he was not ready to retreat to what people like to call the 'Paul Scholes role' as if playing with extraordinary vision, touch and awareness will happen simply by appointment. "I'll play the Scholes role when I feel it's time, but it's not time yet. I can play that role no problem, I played it when I was 21, so I can do it when I'm 32, 33 or 34."

Gerrard has never been able to do what Scholes does. For England, when the important games came around, he was diminished further. As David Stubbs' wing commander put it, " Steven Gerrard's play was almost telepathic – it was as if he was passing to colleagues who existed only his own head."

Scholes retired from international football after a tournament spent on the left of midfield, while Sven-Goran Eriksson continued to wonder if Lampard and Gerrard could play together.

Gerrard reached 100 caps still glittering with promise because there are few players as talented as Gerrard. Yet this talent never seemed to be enough for him or England who felt they could get more.

The goodwill may not be there for England's next centurion. Some time next year Ashley Cole will reach 100 caps. If there are retrospectives they will be accompanied by hand-wringing ambivalence, a regret that a man with so many character flaws could become a necessary part of the England team.

Cole is, in fact, Mr England and his contribution is far greater than Gerrard's. Whether it was through unpopularity or mental strength, Cole was able to detach himself from the collective yearning that paralysed Gerrard among others and play without fear.

Cole has always been happy with himself, considering it irrelevant that many people, including perhaps those married to him, weren't happy with him at all.

Gerrard, on the other hand, tried to be something he's not. His torture comes from failing to be the player he wanted to be. Yet the player he was might have sustained him all along.

dfanning@independent.ie

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