For the last 15 years, one name has become synonymous with the club that once proudly called itself the greatest in England, and possibly even the world.
Players of the immense quality of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, David James, Michael Owen, Xabi Alonso and Fernando have come, become darlings of the celebrated Kop, and gone in search of greener, more successful pastures. But this one man stayed on with the club he fell in love with before he could walk, despite all the hardships, all the pain.
For close to 10 years, this man captained the only club he loved, leading Liverpool to the tremendous glories of Champions League success. On countless occasions, he dragged a team of lesser players through every adversity, carrying them past the finish line when no one else would. The weight of the red jersey of Liverpool, and the firm, unforgiving grip of the captain's armband for the Liverpool and England national teams would have proved unbearable for almost any other player, but this Huyton-born rose to the challenge every time, and over the course of his glorious career, established himself as one of the true legends of English sport, of Liverpool Football Club and of the Barclays Premier League.
This man, needless to say, is Steven Gerrard. This article takes a look at some of the most memorable moments of the Kop legend's illustrious career.
1) The debut - November 29, 1998 vs Blackburn Rovers, Anfield
What better place to start this list than, well, at the very beginning! However, it was a humble beginning to what would go on to be a glittering career, as an 18-year-old Gerrard came off the bench in the last minute of a 2-0 home victory against Blackburn to a round of applause.
The early months of Gerrard's Liverpool career weren't all that special, as he struggled to establish himself in the first team following less-than-impressive performances and immense competition for spots from the likes of captain Paul Ince, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp. Gerrard was often given what he and close friend and Academy product Danny Murphy called the "graveyard shift", out on the wide right of midfield. At the time, Gerrard was a defensive-minded player, and struggled to settle into the attacking role he was given.
2) The first goal - December 5, 1999 vs Sheffield Wednesday, Anfield
A rampant 4-1 victory against The Owls saw Gerrard grab his first senior goal for Liverpool. And what a beauty it was. In a manner that was to become characteristic of the marauding midfielder, he picked up the ball in a seemingly harmless position in midfield and launched into a diagonal run towards the penalty area. Riding past one challenge, then another, and Gerrard found himself in the penalty area, straight through against the keeper! And ... GOAL! A cool finish into the far bottom corner, a display of composure that defied his age, and the midfielder dived onto the Anfield turf as a crowd of 40,000 celebrated the birth of a legend, while his team-mates piled onto him to congratulate him.
Gerrard's first full season in the Liverpool squad proved to be memorable, as he established himself in the centre of the pitch, forming a strong partnership with Jamie Redknapp. Gerrard ended the season with 31 appearances and the one goal to his name. A star was fast being created, and Anfield could sense the beginnings of something special.
3) First full season, 2000-01 & trophy treble
If the 1999-2000 season had seen Gerrard settle into the club of his dreams, the 2000-01 season saw him firmly establish himself as one of the best players in England. "Stevie G" made 50 appearances as Liverpool won the treble of the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup. Gerrard began evolving into an attack-minded, box-to-box midfielder under manager Gerard Houllier, and ended the season with 10 goals.
He also scored in the 5-4 win (courtesy an extra-time own goal) against Deportivo Alaves in the final of the 2000-01 UEFA Cup, thus embarking on a run that would see him score in the finals of the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup, a truly unique achievement.
Gerrard ended the season by winning the PFA Young Player of the Year and the PFA Fans' Player of the Year awards to announce himself to the footballing world in spectacular style.
4) Club captaincy, 2003-04
Gerrard was one of the first names on Houllier's teamsheet by now, and was even vice-captain to the massive Finn, Sami Hyypia. However, on October 15, 2003, Gerard Houllier surprised many by offering the 24-year-old the permanent club captaincy in a bold show of his faith in the man he had nurtured into a prominent role in the team.
That season was to prove a barren one for Liverpool, as they finished fourth in the league. Gerrard was even enticed into considering a big-money move to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, but later committed himself to Liverpool after talks with new manager Rafael Benitez.
5) Olympiakos & Istanbul: Nights to remember, 2004-05
On the domestic front, there wasn't much cause for celebration for either Liverpool or Gerrard, as Benitez could only lead the club to a fifth-place finish in the league, and Gerrard's own goal contributed to the loss against Chelsea in the final of the League Cup. Things were to get very bad before they got better, as Gerrard missed two months of the season due to injury.
However, on his return to first-team action, Gerrard highlighted his importance to the club by scoring one of the most memorably spectacular and equally crucially goals of his career. The clock read 86 minutes at Anfield. Liverpool were leading Rivaldo's Olympiakos 2-1, but needed to win by at least a two-goal margin to progress from the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Time was fast running out.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as they say. After a spell of possession down the left flank, the ball was floated in towards the penalty area, and Neil Mellor provided a cushioned header back towards the centre of the pitch from where Gerrard lashed a shot into the left bottom corner of the Olympiakos goal from all of 30 yards out! It was the greatest moment of the young captain's career so far, the most important goal he had scored for Liverpool, and one that has been talked about in hushed tones of awe many times down the years. The goal against Olympiakos was probably the first instance where the captain had risen above and beyond the rest of the players on the pitch and singlehandedly ensured victory for his team, and it wouldn't be the last.
Fast forward to May 25, 2005, a starry night in Istanbul, Turkey. A Liverpool squad that is average at best, up against the mighty Milan, boasting a star-studded lineup that includes Maldini, Shevchenko, Kaka and Stam. The match seems to have finished almost as soon as it started, as captain Maldini gives Milan a first-minute lead, and Ancelotti's men build on their domination of the early exchanges to take full control of the first 45 minutes. The teams head into the tunnel at half-time, the scoreboard reads 3-0, Liverpool look lost.
As the players emerge onto the pitch for the second 45, Gerrard and Co. carry looks of steely determination on their faces as the travelling Liverpool fans chant the club anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone" at the top of their voices. It could have the Merseysiders who were 3-0 up. The referee blows the whistle, the game resumes. Liverpool look up for it. A few neat passes, Dietmar Hamann and Xabi Alonso keep possession well, while Gerrard moves up the pitch, playing just behind Milan Baros. Nine minutes in, a lofted ball towards the Milan defence, Gerrard rises, GOAL! Liverpool have pulled one back, and Gerrard rallies the battle cries, spurring his team on. Two minutes later, Vladi Smicer from distance, GOAL! Another one in the bag, a comeback could be on. You can feel the wind in the sails of the Liverpool players. An hour into the game, Gerrard makes another surging run into the penalty area, Gattuso hauls him down, PENALTY! Xabi Alonso steps up, and fails at the first attempt, but scores off the rebound, and LIVERPOOL ARE LEVEL! The crowd goes into frenzy, the players shrug away the fatigue to celebrate, Rafa Benitez churns out instructions from the touchline, the epitome of confident calm. You would've thought he had planned everything that Istanbul was witnessing.
Liverpool hold on for the rest of the game, and survive extra time. Gerrard is forced to play through severe fatigue and mark Brazilian wing-back Serginho, a difficult task, but the captain proves he would do anything for his club. The game goes to penalties. Serginho, Shevchenko and Pirlo fail from the spot, and Jamie Carragher is first off the halfway line, launching himself towards the euphoric keeper Jerzy Dudek, as the rest of his Liverpool team-mates celebrate the most unlikely comeback in the history of European football. Later, Steven Gerrard lifts the Champions League trophy, as Liverpool are crowned champions of Europe.
Gerrard was the inspiration behind the most unthinkable of comebacks that night. He came into his own in the second half, and chased down every loose ball, calling on his team-mates to do the same. He tracked back when needed, dived into tackles, rendered the presence of the Milan midfield inconsequential. If the game between Liverpool and Milan was the greatest in the history of the game, then Gerrard's man-of-the-match performance was certainly the greatest display of leadership in recent memory.
6) Contract Renewal, 300th appearance and "The Gerrard Final", 2005-06.
Gerrard entered the new season having extended his contract by four years after a tumultous summer that saw him almost succumb to the lure of playing for Chelsea for the second time. He made his 300th appearance for Liverpool in a 2-0 league win at Aston Villa on November 5, 2005, and finished the season with 23 goals in 53 appearances, his best return so far.
Two of those goals were to come against West Ham in the final of the 125th edition of the FA Cup on May 13, 2006 in a game that has come to be known as "The Gerrard Final". Favourites Liverpool found themselves two goals down, but Gerrard had his say in the match by creating a goal for Milan Baros and then slamming the ball into the back of the net himself from inside the penalty area, drawing Liverpool level. The Hammers managed to score again, and the game headed into injury time. With Liverpool trailing 2-3, Gerrard saved his club by scoring a spectacular right-footed volley from 30 yards out, a feat of such immaculate technique and spirit that even the West Ham fans couldn't help but applaud the player as, with his back to the crowd, he patted on his back, as if to indicate the name plastered on the back of his shirt. Jamie Carragher so eloquently shouted into his ear: "They know who you are!" Liverpool went on to win the game on penalties after a goalless 30 minutes of extra time, marking yet another occasion when Gerrard had taken the club from the brink of defeat to the very podium on which he would lift the trophy.
Gerrard was voted PFA Player of the Year for the 2005-06 season.
7) On the brink of Premier League glory, 2008-09.
It is a nearly inconceivable truth that a player of the calibre of Steven Gerrard has not once tasted Premier League success. The closest he ever came was during Liverpool's second-place finish in the 2008-09 season.
Gerrard made his 100th European appearance for Liverpool on March 10, 2009, and scored two goals as the club beat giants Real Madrid 4-0 in a superb game at Anfield. Forming a fantastic understanding with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in midfield behind Spanish striker Fernando Torres, Gerrard led Liverpool to within four points of champions United, despite having led the race for Premier League glory for most of the season. Gerrard's personal highlights from the season were his hat-trick against Aston Villa (5-0) which followed a penalty in a brilliant 4-1 dismantling of United at Old Trafford.
Gerrard scored 24 goals in 44 games, the best return of his career, and was named Football Writers Player of the Year, fending off United's Ryan Giggs.
The next few seasons would see the departure of Rafael Benitez, the unsuccessful stint of current England manager Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish's second spell as Liverpool manager, and Brendan Rodgers' subsequent appointment in the summer of 2012. The spate of managerial changes, and the departures of the likes of Torres, Mascherano and Alonso meant that Liverpool's domestic and continental fortunes suffered steady declines, until the club failed to qualify in the Europa League at the end of the 2012-2013 season. Gerrard himself suffered from consistent injury woes that would keep him out for long spells of time. He would go on to lead Liverpool to their first trophy in six years, winning the League Cup on penalties against Cardiff on February 26, 2012. Two weeks later, he scored a fantastic hat-trick in the famed Merseyside derby against Everton, leading Liverpool to a comprehensive 3-0 victory.
Gerrard made his debut for England on May 31, 2000 against Ukraine, and has gone on to represent his country 102 times, playing in five major tournaments and scoring 19 goals. He is the current captain of the England national team under Roy Hodgson.
While one article is nowhere near enough to go through the many highs and lows of the career of one of the greatest players ever to have played for England and Liverpool, I hope that those who have read this have had the chance to reminisce about the memorable moments of his 15 years at Anfield. While his testimonial match against the opponents he so famously scored against in 2004 does not by any means present the last chance for us to view the talismanic midfielder in action, it does signal that the end of his playing career is approaching. Seeing as Brendan Rodgers is masterminding something of a revival of Liverpool's trademark free-flowing, attractive football, and will aim to hasten Liverpool's return to the Champions League, it will be interesting to see how much the 33-year-old captain can offer. Honestly speaking, Gerrard has the determination and drive to keep him going at the top level for a few more years, which means we will see a lot more of him in a Liverpool shirt.
For now, all we should be doing is celebrating the magnificent career of one of the true greats of the Premier League. He may not have won the league title, but he has never stopped winning over football fans around the world, irrespective of club loyalties. Praised by many, insulted by none, Gerrard is a true legend of the game, and when he does decide to call time on his career, will be dearly missed.
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