I don't know if you've heard about it but Steven Gerrard is playing his last game for Liverpool next week. You may not have heard about it, it's not as if it's been the biggest story of the last few months. It's not as if it's completely overshadowed the rest of Liverpool's season and their quest to finish in the top 4. It's not as if every game over the last few months has been framed as "Stevie's last Merseyside Derby" or "Stevie's last trip to Wembley" or "Stevie's last game against Man United". It's not as if....oh, wait a second.
I love Steven Gerrard. I love the goals he has scored for Liverpool and the countless games he has changed over the past 17 years through force of will. I love the way he stayed loyal to the club when it would have been easy for him to join another club at the drop of a hat and earn more trophies than he has ever won here. I love the way he presents himself in public and the message he gives to people. I love the fact he is an honourable family man who has risen to the top, and maintained it for so long, through a fair amount of ability, and an awful lot of hard work.
But there is a counterpoint to my love for Stevie that I've been fighting against for the past few months, that I can't but now help admit. I'm glad he's going. This may sound sacrilegious to some people but it's something I strongly feel. I'm glad he's going because the circus surrounding him playing games has been bigger than the games themselves. I'm glad he's going because, where once he seemed to be pulling his team to victory, now he seems like a lead weight that needs to be pulled.
People will argue otherwise of course. Do I not remember Istanbul? Do I not remember Cardiff? Do I not remember all the countless times over the years he's got into his superman costume and bailed us out of trouble? Course I do, but time waits for no man and unfortunately, to my eyes at least, Stevie's time has passed. People have used his recent goals as further credence to the "Another year for Stevie" Campaign. But that really ignores the central point. Sure he can still head the ball, he's been one of our best headers of the ball for years, and it's been a facet of his game that has been criminally undervalued for years by letting him be the chief set piece taker. He can still (bar the odd miss) take penalties. He can still hit a great pass and a mean free kick. But the rampaging all-action Steven Gerrard that we had for all of the 00's and some of the current decade has gone and, unless he can be scientifically cloned, it's never coming back.
This has been a massive bone of contention amongst the fan-base over recent months and the loss of Gerrard for next season has been used as yet another stick to beat Brendan Rodgers with. Now there's a LOT you could criticise Brendan Rodgers for this year. You could criticize him for the shoddy transfer record, the complete inability to utilize Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert effectively, the Andy Cole like use of the word "Outstanding" for any half decent performance we've had. There's so many things that you could legitimately lambast Rodgers about, but underutilizing Steven Gerrard is not one of them. If anything, you could argue he has used him too much.
Unconvinced? Well, just for argument's sake here's a quick stat on the premier league record of Liverpool with a starting Steven Gerrard this season: P 23 W9 D7 L7 Pts 34 (avg 1.5 pts per game) Without him the record stands at P 13 W9 D1 L3 Pts 28. (avg of 2.2 pts per game). Pretty big difference don't you think? That's not including the game against Manchester United when it could be argued his introduction and subsequent sending off cost us further points. It's also not including cup games such as against Aston Villa when he was overrun in midfield by a more vibrant and-crucially- younger Villa midfield. So, from a purely playing perspective, it won't be sad to see him leave.
And still Rodgers gets criticised for not using him enough. He got criticised for not playing him away against Real Madrid (How dare he not give Stevie a send off in the Bernebeu) despite the fact that he was part of a side that lost 3-0 at home to said team only a couple of weeks beforehand. He got criticised for not using Stevie effectively at 35 when Ferguson could still use Giggs and Scholes at 40. This, of course, neglects the fact that Giggs and Scholes were never regular starters from their early 30's onwards and, in Scholes' case, never relied on pace for their game. Gerrard could have been used, ala Scholes and Giggs, as an impact sub for the next few years, he simply declined the offer. Do people still blame Rodgers for that?
This is not a denigration of Steven's achievements for us because he has been truly wonderful. But if it had been Joe Allen say, that performed in this way over the past year, would people still clamour for him to stay?The essential tenor of the argument seems to have been lost. It's the 1998-2014 version of Stevie that people will miss, not the 2015 version.
Yet that is not the only reason that I'm glad Stevie is leaving. Of course football is a cruel business and it's sad that he has to leave, but paradoxically it would be sadder if he stayed. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for him because it's arguable whether any footballer has suffered the amount of jeering Steven Gerrard has suffered over the past year. Maybe Luis Figo, when he left Barcelona for Real Madrid of course, but at least then, he was a player in his prime, who could easily silence any critics by winning more trophies at his new club. Steven Gerrard has spent the last year listening to "hilarious" chants about how he's never won a league title, while knowing he, nor his team, had the physical capabilities to win it again. Do you want him to have another year of suffering that?
The personal effect on him of the past year has been horrendous and I don't want him to have to listen to another year of gobshite fans taunting him about what could have been. You could say, of course, that footballers get paid a lot of money and have to expect to put up with abuse. Well, maybe no footballer deserves to be paid as much as Steven Gerrard, but then no one deserves to be given the amount of abuse he has been given either. If you offered him the chance to re-play THAT Chelsea game again tomorrow, how many millions would he be willing to pay?
I can't imagine how he felt going out each week knowing that the most nightmarish moment of his career would be continually recounted in front of thousands of people. You only had to look at Gerrard's physical appearance in the subsequent game against Crystal Palace last year to realise it. It's a phenomenon almost completely unique to football. Do people turn up to watch Jimmy White play snooker and mercilessly mock him over the six World Championship finals he lost? Do people follow Jean Van Der Velde around the golf course so they can goad him about that time he blew the British open in 1999? Maybe they do, but I would worry for the sake of society if that is the case.
Of course you could say that Football is a tribal team game and mocking the opposition fans and their players is part of the fun. It's true that the misfortune of opposing sides and players is often feed for "banter" and Liverpool fans are not averse to it. Think about all the famous Munich songs or the sickening chants about Lee Carsley's child when he played for Everton. But let's put the shoe on the other foot for a second. Just imagine say, Tony Hibbert, or some other one club man had played all his footballing career waiting to reach the summit of his profession: winning the League title. After multiple years of trying, he had engineered himself and his team into a position whereby with a few games to go he looked a certainty to win it, only for his unfortunate slip to cost his boyhood team the glorious prize. Would you still remorselessly rip him for it? Well, maybe some would, but I'd like to think I wouldn't.
So while there is a sense of sadness about a great player, perhaps our greatest, leaving the club, there is also a sense of relief. We've lost some fantastic players in recent years - Carragher, Hyppia, Alonso, Mascherano, Torres, Suarez - but none of them have ever carried the emotional baggage of Gerrard. None of them have gone out every week to play for their hometown club with such an enormous sense of responsibility and expectation. He must have looked around that dressing room many times and thought to himself "If I don't do it today, who will?" Can you imagine the pressure that carries? So while of course it's massively sad he's leaving, in another way, it's a massive release.
So despite feeling somewhat sorry for him, I also feel happy for him. He can go to Hollywood, play a few Hollywood balls, earn some money, be the best player in the league, without having to worry about some snide United/Chelsea/Everton/City fan giving him both barrels about what might have been. Maybe without the burden of playing for his hometown club, he might actually enjoy his football more. Maybe rather than be sad that an unique chapter of Liverpool football history has been ended, be grateful that another one is beginning. He's done the club some service. Thanks Stevie.