Anfield ready to roll out the red carpet one last time
Gerrard will say emotional farewell at Liverpool, but tears will soon dry knowing his return as coach is inevitable.
A career spans a few years, but a reputation lasts an eternity. The esteem in which Steven Gerrard is held by Liverpool will only deepen beyond the final whistle against Crystal Palace today.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers led the tributes ahead of Gerrard's farewell performance, describing the captain as an emblem, not only of the club, but of the city he leaves behind.
"In Barcelona they have the quote 'More than a club'. You look at Steven Gerrard and he is more than football," said Rodgers. "He is a real iconic figure for the support he has given to people in this city. I've only been here a short period, but in that time I've learnt the impact he has had as a footballer and as a person. It is a privilege to have worked with him.
"Our relationship is more like brothers, we support each other in our work.
"He is someone I hugely respect. What he's given to this city, politicians haven't given to this city. He is 'Liverpool'."
Anyone still asking why Gerrard turned down so many offers to leave over the past 17 years will witness the emotion at Anfield today and finally understand.
Being granted the red-carpet treatment when you arrive is not so difficult in football. To have it rolled out when you leave - after 17 years in which serenity has been as elusive as the Premier League title - is worth so much more than any medal.
A guard of honour and a Kop mosaic with the initials 'SG' his number '8' and 'captain' will mark the occasion. He departs with no cause to seek redemption, no sheepish statements requesting understanding for why he pursued success elsewhere; no revisionist study to assess how good he really was. He can spend his post-Anfield days watching his legend grow.
The Kop will say thank you. Thank you for being everything you promised as an 18-year-old. Thank you for the 185 goals; thank you for the match-winning performances that could fill the Anfield museum; thank you for the Olympiakos life-changer and the second half in the Ataturk; thank you for the 2006 FA Cup final and every other major occasion you showed up for.
Most of all, thank you for still being here through some of the most turbulent periods in the club's history.
What he leaves behind will only sink in next season. When the players convene for summer training and realise their mentor is no longer around to offer a quiet word or a rallying cry. When Rodgers, while staring at a dressing room that mostly looks like it has been delivered enthusiastically from kindergarten, seeks a senior player to convey his message. When Liverpool need an intervention to prevent a dour draw or deflating defeat, and their captain is not there to demand the ball and fling himself into every tackle. When periods of introspection call for a comforting voice to speak to supporters, capturing the mood with another scathingly honest post-match assessment or restoring optimism with his defence of an under-siege manager or team-mates.
And even when the ever expanding multitude of analysts search for a reason for an upturn or downturn in form, turning their annual gaze on the captain, assessing how or where he fits into the tactical master plan.
"For so many years Steven has been the go-to man, not just for this group but a whole raft of players," Rodgers said. "This will provide the opportunity for others to show leadership qualities. Let's not forget we have won games when Steven has not been playing and won some big games, but there is no doubt with the respect that he has - because of the level of player he is and because of his behaviour - he will be missed. When you're a world-class player that is the standard you're held to. Now is an opportunity for the young players to show they can take on the mantle."
When the laments about lack of leadership, quality and empathy seep through, Gerrard will be in Los Angeles, the responsibilities he has cherished but also burdened himself with having passed to others.
So many at Liverpool have thrived by touching the hem of his greatness, trying to portray him as a participant rather than engineer of one of those most celebrated triumphs. Gerrard did not merely make his mark on Liverpool history, he changed the course of it, bending it to his will.
We must speak of Liverpool before Gerrard's debut in 1998 and after it. When he started, Paul Ince was captain, a brilliant player with a personality disconnected from the Kop. Gerrard arrived in a line-up often accused of lacking character and having forgotten how to regularly win Merseyside derbies, never mind trophies.
He would hold the League Cup (three times), the Uefa Cup, the FA Cup (twice) and the Champions League. He would score in a final of each of these competitions.
There was frustration when he finally opted to relocate, not simply because he was taking his ageing talent to the States but also his insight and football wisdom.
Liverpool have had the sense to map out a plan for his return before the ink is dry on the farewell card. You can allow Gerrard his sabbatical, but it would have been negligent to fail to secure his apprenticeship as a coach.
No one is bigger than Liverpool Football Club, they say. That convenient phrase rolls off the tongue with little to challenge it, and in 99 per cent of cases it is correct. What that does not account for is those who define the club. The personalities who come along once in a generation and embody Liverpool, its values and its aspirations; those who naturally speak for it.
The institution itself only began to thrive because those of talent and vision - obsessive, achingly passionate football men - propelled it to excellence. They are the safety net within, those whom supporters can rely on to protect their interests and match their wants off the pitch as much as on it.
They may be managers, players, backroom coaches and, yes, even administrators (see former chief executive Peter Robinson for more details), but they are integral to the club remaining true to themselves.
At times you would sit in a room with Gerrard and he would be concerned his words would lead to "big headlines". Twenty minutes later you would leave with his state-of-the-nation address.
His unrepentant desire for those in power at Anfield to pull their finger out was an undercurrent of virtually every discussion. His frowns during darker days betrayed his feelings of disillusionment. His interviews cut through the speculation either to confirm his doubts regarding the future or his decision to stay.
Yet for all those frustrations, anxieties, the head-shaking at the transfer duds, ownership squabbles and irritation at politicking behind the scenes, he stayed. The pursuit of another Istanbul - the Premier League title would have been it - kept him going. Footballers and managers increasingly arrive at clubs just passing through.
They can arrive as part of their career development plan, seeing themselves in a venue for a couple of years before continuing their journey. You cannot blame them, as most are no longer masters of their own destiny.
Transient relationships with fans are inevitable.
That is why those such as Gerrard are so rare and why their departures are epochal.
The modern history of Liverpool begins with Bill Shankly, working through the boot room to Kenny Dalglish and all he characterised. Gerrard belongs in their company.
"He's had a number of opportunities to move from here to prestigious clubs but Liverpool is his home," said Rodgers. "This is his place, these are the people he loves, he grew up around the corner. He went on to play for the club he supported."
The goodbye will be moving. Tears are inevitable but they will dry soon enough. For all he has achieved and represents, an inspired Steven Gerrard comeback is a formality. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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