Wednesday 25 May, 2005. I am ten years old and excited that I am being allowed to stay up later than usual on a school night to watch football with my father. Football isn’t my 'thing' yet but my Dad wants Liverpool to beat AC Milan, so I do too.
We both wince in unison when, within the first minute of the match, Paolo Maldini scores for the Italians. AC Milan are the best team in the world and the stone cold favourites to win with players like Cafu, Kaká, Seedorf and Pirlo. None of us are really expecting Liverpool to win but as Hernán Crespo adds two more goals before the stroke of half time, we are starting to think that they are going to be humiliated.
Half time. 3-0 to AC Milan. The fans are dejected and in the tunnel of the Ataturk Stadium, the Italians are already talking about how they are going to celebrate their victory. There is silence in my living room and desperation across the faces of all eleven Liverpool players on the TV.
What happens next is a footballing fairytale. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s talismanic captain, who had been at Liverpool since he was nine years old, scores a straightforward headed goal. It is hope. He runs the length of the pitch passionately gesturing to the fans; his own personal red army who had followed him to Turkey. He galvanises them. He asks them to keep fighting. He makes them believe that this isn’t over yet.
Minutes later, Vladimir Smicer scores in his last ever game for Liverpool and Xabi Alonso moves quicker than he ever had in his career to plant the rebound of his saved penalty in the back of the net.
As Andriy Shevchenko steps up to the mark for Milan in the penalty shootout after a gruelling period of extra time, the Liverpool players are on their last legs. Carragher is being ravaged by cramp and Hamann looks like he can’t breathe. Shevchenko is the best player in the world, the Messi of the day, but takes an uncharacteristically hesitant run up and his penalty is saved by Jerzy Dudek.
Football fans who are ignorant of the events in Istanbul that night are few and far between. People remember it as a rags to riches story of achieving the impossible; a story more romantic than anything penned in the script of a Hollywood blockbuster. However above all, people remember Steven Gerrard on the night he became synonymous with the culture of Liverpool Football Club: tenacity, unity and passion.
That night I fell in love with that man and everything he and his club stood for. I fell in love with a team and I fell in love with a truly beautiful game.
Steven Gerrard is the only player ever to have scored in a UEFA Cup, League Cup, FA Cup and a Champions League Final and, last week, Liverpool FC announced that, come the end of the season, he would be leaving his boyhood club to pursue new challenges elsewhere, ending a 17-year career with the Reds. Whilst at this point, his destination for next season is unknown, in a last act of loyalty towards his team, Gerrard expressed in his statement the impossibility of playing for a club that would come into direct competition with Liverpool. He described the thought of playing against his club as “something I could never contemplate”.
Despite a growing tide of criticism since England’s underwhelming performances at the World Cup, at 34 Gerrard is as solid as ever. In the last eighteen months, the LFC captain’s pass accuracy sits at 86% and last season he totalled 13 assists; the best stats of his career so far. He has over 690 Liverpool appearances, a tally that will likely breach 700 by the end of the season and in that time; he has established himself as the second highest scoring midfielder in Premier League history with 116 league goals and 180 total career goals.
One of the factors key to Gerrard’s undeniable greatness is his penchant for being the reliable saviour that makes decisive contributions at moments of dire need. You could lose count of how many matches he has won for Liverpool single handedly through trademark brilliance. People will remember his unparalleled strike at Anfield against Olympiakos in the 2004 group stages of the Champions League. It gave Liverpool the 3-1 win necessary to put them on the road to that miracle win in Istanbul and it did so in spectacular style. Merely twelve months later, he did the same in similarly breath-taking fashion, contributing with a stunning strike in the 2006 Liverpool FA Cup victory against West Ham United. As a Captain it was clear that he was a force of nature, whose pluckiness of spirit was as valuable as his skill as a footballer.
However, like most heroes, Gerrard has had dark days, possibly none more so than the day of his costly slip in the 2013/14 season against Chelsea that allowed Demba Ba to take the lead for the Blues. A media storm ensued. Internet trolls pounced on the open wound and milked the cruel irony of the fact that the Liverpool skipper, who wanted to win the Premier League title more passionately than anybody could have damaged his side’s chances of doing just that so profoundly. As a fan I was devastated, not for the title challenge but for my childhood idol whose resilience was being tested. Gerrard, unless there is a league upset of galactic proportions, will never win a Premier League title with his beloved Liverpool but the way he silently bore the burden of the media’s malice could only be a testament to such a dignified man.
Steven Gerrard has truly cemented his status as one of Anfield’s greatest ever players. He has become another shining star in a constellation that includes monumental talents such as Souness, Rush, Hansen, Keegan, and Dalglish. What sets Gerrard apart from these men is they played in fabulous teams that contained eleven superstars at a time. Throughout his Liverpool career, Gerrard has been expected to carry teams of perpetual under achievers. Steven Gerrard won the Champions League in a team that contained Harry Kewell and Djimi Traoré. Enough said.
I always felt that through times when the integrity of Liverpool FC was being questioned, as its name was dragged through the mud by loose cannons like Luis Suárez, Gerrard served as a poignant reminder of what our club stood for. As a man he has shown himself to be fiercely loyal, devoted and passionate, commanding the utmost reverence from friends and foes alike. He is a man of the people. He makes being a supporter of Liverpool football club all the more romantic.
For the world, he is Steven Gerrard: a hero synonymous with Liverpool, a respected sportsman and a humble and diligent professional.
For me, he is the man who kick-started my love affair with football and to whom I will be eternally grateful.