Steven Gerrard: The kid in the playground we all wanted on our team

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Remember when you’d play football during your school lunch break, and there was that one kid who played for an academy at the age of eight, and he was just miles better than everyone else?

When teams were picked before kick-off, his was the first name called by whichever lucky captain won rock, paper, scissors for first-choice. And if it were a P.E. lesson, the teacher always had to set a handicap on the prodigy, hoping to make it more of a fair fight for the rest of us.

Steven GerrardSteven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard | Alex Livesey/Getty Images

He’d demand the ball from his goalkeeper, and then proceed to dance through thousands of clumsy, mistimed challenges before smashing the ball home and jogging back to his own half with his arms aloft.

And if by some catastrophic miracle, the school’s best player found himself on the losing side with minutes to go, he would conjure up a dose of strength and determination that no other child could muster, tapping into an innate winning mentality built from a selfish desire to always be a winner.

For five out of six hours a day, this child was just like everyone else. But for those 60 minutes on the playground, he was a god, frolicking among mere mortals, unaware of just how inspirational he truly was.

Well, that was Steven Gerrard as a professional footballer.

When Gerrard made his Liverpool debut against Blackburn Rovers on 29 November 1998 as a nervous, slight 18-year-old, he resembled a young boy who had been brought along by his older brother to have a kickabout with his much bigger and intimidating mates.

Tense, edgy, and a ball of nervous energy. They were emotions that probably hadn’t surfaced too many times in his young career, nor would they often reach such anxiety-evoking heights again. But very few supporters could have imagined that this scruffy bag of jangling bones would go on to become one of the Reds’ greatest ever footballers.

Once the teenager had established himself as worthy of dining at the top table though, there was simply no stopping him. Talent, technique, and a right foot that packed the punch of a hammer and the artistry of a paintbrush. There was no doubting his credentials.

But the one trait that separated Gerrard from the other excellent players in that Liverpool team was something deep within the midfielder. Something that you can’t fake. Something you can’t learn, nor teach.

Relentless hunger. Self belief. And a refusal to lose.

Liverpool FC Kit LaunchLiverpool FC Kit Launch
Liverpool FC Kit Launch | Ian Walton/Getty Images

Gerrard was a born winner. And when times were tough, when those around him were simply not good enough, or didn’t think they had in their locker what it took to get over the line, the Liverpool legend dragged them there, no matter how steep the hill.

Winning comes at a cost. That’s something Gerrard would have learned from an early age. How many of Liverpool’s players genuinely believed that they could turn the 2005 Champions League final around, having been torn apart by one of the greatest club sides ever built for 45 excruciating minutes?

Perhaps even Gerrard had doubts that they could grab three second half goals against Milan without reply to take the game to extra-time. But did he let those fears take hold? You can bet your life he didn’t.

Liverpool's England's captain and midfieLiverpool's England's captain and midfie
Liverpool’s England’s captain and midfie | FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/Getty Images

Liverpool still had to ride their luck in that final, but every player, even Djimi Traore, stood up to be counted when the pressure was on. That incredible second half response could have been born from a sense of occasion, an understanding of how rarely chances like this come along, or it could even have been that the shackles were off with the game all-but over.

Or maybe it grew from a single glance at the best player on your team, someone you’d do anything for, simply to receive a throwaway compliment or an emboldening word of encouragement – just to momentarily feel as an equal to this supernatural being.

We all know the role Gerrard played in that impossible victory in Istanbul, and the similarly heroic exploits he pulled off on the road to that particular success, especially in those dying minutes against Olympiacos.

A moment which young boys and girls will have tried replicating for hours on end, rounding it off with a scream of ‘Ohhh, you beauty! What a hit son!’ while their neighbours silently rued the day they didn’t burst the ball when it flew over their fence that time.

If Istanbul was a miracle, Gerrard proved lightning can strike twice only a year later, rescuing Liverpool from FA Cup heartbreak against West Ham. More importantly, he saved football from years of Alan Pardew crowing about being a cup winner. Thanks for that one, Stevie.

On that day, even the Reds’ number eight looked out for the count. A goal down and hunched over with cramp, his Liverpool teammates must have looked at their captain and, for once, seen only a man. A tired man, who despite being one of the greatest footballers on the planet, was unable to pull it out of the fire this time.

But when mortality begins to set in, and all seems lost, only hope remains. Hope is a cruel concept in football. It leaves us in firm denial, unable to accept crushing defeat, more heartbroken than if we’d simply given up on our dreams from the off.

When that final whistle sounds, and all hope is finally lost, seldom do we appreciate the fact we were allowed to dream for even a split second. But we dreamt, purely because we possessed a hero so unflappable, that even 3-0 deficits in Champions League finals against far superior enemies seemed recoverable.

A man who, even when his legs had given up on him, could rely on his mind, spirit and will to produce unforgettable moments, like long-range screamers in FA Cup finals. A man who didn’t always win, but his mere presence made us all dream, whether it be for Liverpool or England, that no matter how great the obstacle, there was always a chance.

Thank you, Steven Gerrard, for giving us hope. And thank you for letting us be on the winning team with you so many times.

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