The Irish Mail on Sunday
It’s cruel and it’s unfair but I can’t just go on feeling sorry for myself
ALREADY it has become the defining image of the English title race: the slip, the desperate scramble to get upright and the despairing chase as Demba Ba closes in on goal to score for Chelsea. It encapsulated everything that has made the Premier League a compelling global spectacle. There was genuine pathos in seeing a player of Steven Gerrard’s stature close to a title that no one had ever imagined him winning, only to see it fall away in the final games of the season, in part as a result of his own mistake.
It was almost irrelevant that title races are not decided in single moments, that a combination of events over nine months determines the outcome and that in that Chelsea match there was still time for Liverpool to recover. Such rationality is obscured by the power of a 10-second video clip that seemingly changed Gerrard’s destiny.
‘Yeah, it was unfair, of course it was,’ said Gerrard, last week, talking publicly about that moment for the first time. ‘Because of the timing, with three games to go. We were top of the league. It’s cruel. But that’s football, that’s life. I can’t feel sorry for myself. It’s done.’
And for Gerrard, the words have to be meaningful rather than a mantra he repeats to comfort himself. He is sat in the Vale do Lobo resort on the Algarve coast in Portugal, here on England duty now and he is the captain of a young, inexperienced squad that is about to travel to Brazil to play in the World Cup Finals.
Football challenges do not come much greater and for Gerrard there is no time for introspection. Not that he is one to dwell on failures. He has managed to avoid viewing a repeat of his error.
‘I haven’t seen it. When you slip … is there anybody who hasn’t slipped at any time in their life?,’ he said. ‘The difference is I did it at a bad time at a bad place and at a bad moment.
‘If I had done a bad back pass, scored an own goal, or done my job wrong it would have really beaten me up for a long time. I keep saying to myself, how, where and why? There are no answers because it was a slip.
‘If I had made that mistake when I was younger – for example when I scored that own goal against Chelsea (in the 2005 League Cup Final) when I was around 23, that killed me for a long time. But you are not experienced enough to know that you can make up for it with time, that the memory will fade away.
‘I would have put myself under an awful lot more pressure then. That’s not to say that I won’t put the same pressure on myself to make up for this one, but I have learned to cope better with setbacks through age.
‘Of course, I don’t like making mistakes, big mistakes at important times. I’ve made a few, more than a few through my career. And, as a player with experience, you learn to deal with them that little bit better the older you get. But, yes, it hurt a lot – not just the slip, it was more letting the title slip towards the end because we had come so close and had a terrific season.
‘I was disappointed for all the lads, for all t he s upporters a nd everyone at the club, that we couldn’t hang on and do it.
‘It would have been a monumental achievement to go from seventh to first. But with experience you tend to look back at the positives as well as the negatives. To finish second in the hardest league in the world and to have the season I’ve had personally, to watch the likes of Raheem Sterling grow and to see the team do so well was fantastic.’
His response is unsurprising. The end of the season must have been a crushing disappointment but he is 34 next week and old enough to maintain perspective.
He is married to Alex, has three young daughters and they are quick to focus his mind on other matters.
‘They don’t get involved with the football,’ said Gerrard. ‘Alex is clueless when it comes to football and none of my girls is interested, so I had to deal with it myself.
‘I don’t want anyone around this table thinking I’m a young, naïve, insecure person who goes home and cries in his bedroom. I’m 33 years of age with 100 or so caps and 600-odd appearances. I’m big enough and brave enough to take it on the chin.
‘I take responsibility for the slip and the damage it’s done. It wasn’t the first mistake I’ve made. I’ve made many and I’ve got over them and I’ll prove to everybody in this World Cup that I’m fit, fresh and ready to perform.’
THOSE reflections also betray a trace of the thoughts of Steve Peters, the renowned psychiatrist with whom Gerrard works and who is accompanying the England squad to Brazil. Gerrard once would have been marked down as a worrier; certainly former England manager Fabio Capello thought so.
That does not seem to be the case today. ‘I already have spoken to Steve about it,’ said Gerrard. ‘I talk to Steve about the good things I do, the bad things I do in every single game and every single training session. It’s not just about the one case that I’ll dwell on for a long time. I suppose having Steve there is a bit of a help in dealing with it.’
And clearly, with the World Cup upon us, there are more pressing matters, for which Gerrard is grateful. ‘Otherwise I would be sitting on a sun lounger wondering back to the last three or four games of the season, keeping going over and over where it’s gone wrong and asking myself why and where and driving myself potty,’ he said.
‘I’ve got to park the slip at the back of my mind and forget about it for the time being because I’ve got a huge tournament coming up.
‘Once you start playing and training, different things come up to think about: for example, Italy, Uruguay, Luis Suarez, Costa Rica. Those are the things on my mind. I’ve got to make sure for everyone’s sake that I have to park the memory – I can’t change it. I’ve got to try to perform as well as I can for everyone.’
Indeed, the vibrancy and youth of this England squad may prove to be the best antidote to Gerrard’s disappointments.
‘There’s lots of energy in the camp, thank God,’ said Gerrard, as he gestures to 19-year-old Sterling sat nearby. ‘I haven’t told him yet but he’ll be doing all my running!
‘There’s plenty of legs, plenty of energy, plenty of excitement in the squad but it’s also mixed with a couple of older, more experienced lads who have been around the block who will support them and take all the pressure off them.
‘We want them to go out with no fear and go and do as much damage as they can do. They’re certainly capable of it.
I keep on saying to myself, how, where and why? But there are no answers there
‘I’m excited to be here surrounded by a lot of young talent. I’ve got confidence and belief in them.’
FOR Gerrard, of course, it could be a last appearance on the world stage for his country. International retirement looms at the end of this tournament, though manager Roy Hodgson will undoubtedly attempt to talk him out of it.
‘I’m not going to leave anyone hanging,’ he said. ‘As soon as the World Cup is over I’ll sit down with the manager at the right time and I’ll make the decision. I haven’t made that decision because I haven’t had the chance to chat with the manager at length.
‘But I’ll be chatting to (Liverpool manager) Brendan Rodgers, Roy Hodgson and a few important people around me, whose opinion I respect. I’ll chat to them all and make the right decision at the right time.
‘It does depend on how the World Cup goes, how I perform, how the team performs. Am I still going to be wanted after the World Cup?
‘These are all the questions we’ll have to sit down and answer. I won’t stay around if I’m not wanted. I hope I perform to the level where I am wanted and I’ve got that difficult decision to make.’ After all, next season Liverpool will play in the Champions League, an additional if welcome burden. ‘That will be a factor,’ said Gerrard earnestly, before smiling. ‘But we have to wait and see whether I’m selected to play in those Champions League games,’ he added. A new generation is clearly knocking on the door, impatient to arrive. But England and Liverpool will doubtless want to call on Gerrard for a year or two yet.