Sunday 18 August 2019

Dion Fanning: Galaxy's brightest star contemplates return to a world of impending doom

That Was The Week cartoon
That Was The Week cartoon

There is a story told about Major League Soccer which reveals something about the principles underpinning American sport, the differences with Europe and the ongoing willingness of many in the US to believe that anything is possible.

During one of the many scheduled flights teams are required to take each year, the majority of the LA Galaxy squad found themselves in economy while their three designated players, Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane, were seated up front in first class.

In the old world, this might have been a problem, a source of grumbling, but this was not the old world, this was America. "One day," a member of the squad announced in the direction of the good seats, "I'm going to be sitting up front with you guys."

If Steven Gerrard had been at LA Galaxy at that time, he might have taken it upon himself to tread harshly on the dreams of this player and on the American dream itself.

In his recent autobiography, Gerrard outlines the message he gave to the England players before they played Uruguay in the World Cup which followed their defeat in the opening game against Italy. Keeping it brief, if not breezy, Gerrard pointed out they faced a "terrible summer" if they lost to Uruguay, a summer where they would "mull over" everything that had gone wrong "again and again".

He told them he was speaking from the memory of his own suffering. "I was not out to scare anyone. But we had a lot of young players and it was important they understood the importance of the game against Uruguay."

If they had any doubts, he then turned to Luis Suarez. Gerrard went to the tactics board and, inverting the approach of Bill Shankly, wrote down "all Suarez's strengths and his very few weaknesses".

Suarez might have come into the tournament with an injury but Gerrard told them to forget about that, forget about everything that made you feel confident in any way. "Never, ever think that it's fine and you've got him sorted. You can never relax against him. Suarez will come at you again and again."

After that rousing rallying cry, England managed to find 11 players to take the field in Sao Paulo and some could find a lot to mull over in the fact that Gerrard, having provided the starkest of warnings, headed the ball into Suarez's path for Uruguay's winning goal. He felt he should have received a call from his centre-backs but that didn't matter. "The old emptiness took hold of me," Gerrard writes.

In football, Gerrard has never really managed to shake off the old emptiness so it was no surprise to read last week that aspects of American life and, in particular, aspects of MLS have taken him by surprise.

Certainly he is not a man to embrace the unchecked optimism and the frontier spirit of the Californian way of life but there have been other shocks.

"Going on the road, playing on turf, playing at altitude, playing in humidity, those are the hurdles that I've had to face over the last three months that I wasn't aware of," he told LA Galaxy's website. "Every away game has a different challenge."

A piece in the London Independent detailed the long weekends he faces on the road thanks to MLS regulations which, in an attempt to ensure wealthier clubs like Galaxy don't have an unfair advantage, limit the number of charter flights a team can take in a season.

Perhaps the old emptiness had taken hold when Gerrard spoke and suggested that he might have to retire next season, in part exhausted by the demands made of him. When Galaxy were knocked out of the play-offs last week, he would have found himself wondering what those flights were all about.

He has, it is said, enjoyed the anonymity of LA life but maybe that would not be as attractive as returning to Liverpool, the club and the city, even with the attendant scrutiny. The stories last week that Liverpool were considering re-signing Gerrard as a player were immediately dismissed by Jurgen Klopp and those who remembered Gerrard last season would have understood why this was the sensible option.

There are those who insist that a role must be found for Gerrard. Some feel his association with Liverpool would be best extended by a place on Klopp's coaching staff but this seems unnecessary.

There is, also, no need for old players as part of the coaching staff except for cosmetic reasons. Is Ryan Giggs' presence at Manchester United a shield from criticism for Louis van Gaal or does he simply become an obvious replacement, despite achieving nothing as a manager, simply because he sits alongside him every week?

Gerrard also appears to be temperamentally very different from Liverpool's new manager.

When Liverpool drew with Southampton at Anfield a couple of weeks ago, Klopp spoke afterwards about the lack of belief in the side when Southampton equalised. "We conceded a goal and it felt like the end of the world."

As a player, Gerrard was often liberated by this feeling of impending doom. The end of the world, it could be said, brought the best out of him. In Istanbul in 2005 and in the FA Cup final the following year, he performed at an exceptional level when all seemed lost.

But as a presence in the dressing room, this sense of doom may not be so welcome. There has always been room in a management team for a gnarled old football man whose role was to remind players who were getting carried away that they were human with human failings. Ronnie Moran often fulfilled these duties during Liverpool's glory years but Gerrard's personality may be too big for him to be the counterweight to the almost Californian optimism Klopp is trying to encourage at Anfield.

If Gerrard stays in California, he may rid himself of that old emptiness and find he is refreshed by the spirit of relentless hopefulness.

He will be sitting in the good seats in the plane but as the transformation takes hold, he will come to believe that, in America, a man can be whatever he wants to be.

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