There are all sorts of types of greatness in football. Some players are handed the title of great due to sustained excellence in performance. There are also players who are considered great for being long-timer servants of their club. And still others can be given such status for a memorable moment of greatness and glory.
But in exceedingly rare cases, such as with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, one player easily checks all three of those boxes.
The Englishman’s glittering sixteen year career with the Reds places him near the top of the club’s list of greatest ever players. Gerrard’s bagged 111 goals in 475 appearances for his hometown club to this point — or just under a goal every four matches — an impressive tally for a midfielder. Have a look at his CV and you’ll find a list of individual and team accolades to which few other footballers can lay claim. And of course many will fondly recall Gerrard almost singlehandedly hauling Liverpool back into the 2005 Champions League Final.
But making mention of his now recently ended international career, one that didn’t exactly see him set the world on fire, and suddenly Gerrard’s greatness is cast into doubt.
Upon Gerrard’s announcement last week that he was retiring from the English National team, a flood of opuses to his career filled the pages of the internet. Many of the kinder ones stemmed from those sympathetic to his club, while quite a few others slagged him off as a failure and crusher of dreams. And though I’m neither a Liverpool sympathizer or a huge fan of Gerrard, the latter type of articles really got under my skin.
I agree that Gerrard’s international career wasn’t the greatest. Admittedly, he struggled to have the same impact for England that he has for Liverpool. Steven himself has admitted as much. His strike rate wasn’t as high as at has been for his club either, with one goal in just over every five appearances. And perhaps most damningly to some, he never led the Three Lions back to the promised land of trophies.
But it’s not exactly as if he’s the only one to blame for all of those outcomes.
For a sizable portion of his international career, he was forced to play out of position. Sven-Göran Eriksson long tried and failed to make a pairing with the similarly skilled Frank Lampard work in the English midfield, instead of playing him in a more advanced role alongside a more traditional holding midfielder — think of how he was paired with Xabi Alonso during their Champions League winning run. Eriksen’s successor Steve McClaren failed with it as well. And during Fabio Capello’s tenure in charge, he even shoved Gerrard out wide left, a position he hadn’t really been forced to play since he first cracked into Liverpool’s first team more than a decade earlier.
Too, it’s not as if Gerrard failed to resurrect England to its former glory all on his own. A member of a so-called English “Golden Generation” — a term I don’t think should ever be applied to a group of players who has yet to win anything — none of the presences of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Ashley Cole or Paul Scholes were able to inspire the Three Lions to achieve anything either. Yet for whatever reason, Gerrard seems to have shoulder most of the criticism for their failures so far.
Plenty of other players have also led brilliant club careers and achieved little in the international realm, but didn’t have their greatness questioned in the manner Gerrard has. Mexico’s Hugo Sánchez, Spain’s Raúl, or Italy’s Francisco Totti all come to mind off the top of my head, yet I don’t recall them getting raked over the coals.
The man still amassed the third most caps ever for his country. He captained the side as well, which a fair few great players have never had the privilege of doing either. And he scored some important goals for them as well, even if not as many as the masses would have preferred.
But just because he wasn’t able to be the player for England that he’s been for Liverpool, that doesn’t suddenly nullify his greatness. For some of the greats, it just never clicks in that sphere of the game.
In short, Gerrard’s greatness might solely be defined by his play for his club. And for me at least, that is more than enough.