LONDON, April 15 – As Steven Gerrard soaked up the sunshine in the quiet Merseyside suburb of Formby on Monday, it was hard to imagine that just 24 hours earlier the unassuming man in the James Dean T-shirt had stoked up an emotional whirlwind which looks set to sweep Liverpool to their first league title in 24 years.
Gerrard’s tearful response to Liverpool’s crucial 3-2 win over title rivals Manchester City on Sunday signified just how much the prospect of lifting the Premier League trophy means to the Reds captain after so many years labouring in vain to restore his club to the summit of the English game.
The 33-year-old will do everything in his power to seize this unexpected chance in the twilight of his career, as he showed in a stirring pep-talk to his team-mates following the final whistle at Anfield.
“This does not f***ing slip now,” Gerrard implored the players huddled around him on the pitch.
If Liverpool can fulfil Gerrard’s dream in the 25th anniversary season of the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Reds fans during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, it would be the most uplifting story in the history of the Premier League.
Gerrard’s cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was one of the victims and the pain of discovering he would never see his relative again remains a driving force for the star, who recently admitted: “Every time I see Jon-Paul’s name cut into the cold marble outside the Shankly Gates, I fill with sadness and anger. I have never let anyone know this before, but it’s true: I play for Jon-Paul.”
That emotional reaction perfectly encapsulated why it isn’t just the dyed in the wool fans on Liverpool’s famous Kop, but many neutrals as well, who hope Brendan Rodgers’ exciting team can hold off City and Chelsea over the final weeks of the title race.
Even when Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford in March 2009, Gerrard wasn’t this close to getting his hands on the title as the victory still left them four points behind leaders Manchester United, who also held a game in hand, and ultimately fell short.
Now four wins from their last four matches against Norwich, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Newcastle will see the Reds crowned champions.
Gerrard’s ability to recognise his limitations has been vital to Liverpool’s renaissance and when Rodgers approached the midfielder with a plan to switch him from his rampaging box-to-box role to a deeper position in front of the defence, he was quick to see the benefits of the move and his team have reaped the rewards of that selfless gesture.
Football dressing rooms are arguably the most unsentimental places on the planet. But the depth of respect for Gerrard among his Anfield colleagues is hard to hide.
They recognise Gerrard’s lifelong commitment to the club, which saw him spurn two opportunities to make what would have been a lucrative and more successful move to Chelsea, and would love to reward that dedication with the title.
“It is phenomenal. He has carried this club for years and he deserves this,” young Reds defender Jon Flanagan said.
“I think all the lads are doing it for themselves but also for Stevie as well.”
Gerrard has already enjoyed plenty of memorable moments in a Liverpool shirt of course.
He catapulted himself into Anfield folklore by sparking Liverpool’s epic comeback from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan on penalties in the 2005 Champions League and then almost surpassed those heroics a year later when he dragged his side to FA Cup final victory over West Ham.
Yet Gerrard knows better than most that Liverpool regard the title, as their legendary former boss Bill Shankly once said, as “their bread and butter”.
With those words etched in stone as the guiding philosophy of the Liverpool Way, leading his club back to the top after so long would surely count as the crowning moment of Gerrard’s illustrious career.