Family man Steven Gerrard savours idol moments
Feature by The Times
Updated Monday, 1st October 2007
Settled in central midfield for club and country and as contented off the pitch as he is driven on it, the Liverpool captain cuts a relaxed figure as he goes back to his roots.
The kids gawp at the car, never mind its driver. "Is that really yours?" one of them asks Steven Gerrard, gazing at the gleaming black Bentley Continental as if it is a spaceship. "Can I come round your house?" asks another.
It is not every day that children at the KIND centre in Liverpool get to rub shoulders with England players (or flash motors), so they grasp every opportunity short of asking Gerrard if he has room for lodgers.
One wants to know if Didier Drogba is a diver, another how much Gerrard earns a week. "What's your wife's cooking like?" "Have you ever been on the pitch and needed to take a leak?" (His responses, incidentally, are: "There's a journalist at the back so I'd better not say"; "It's a secret"; "She's getting better"; and, no, he has never been caught short at Anfield).
It is quite an interrogation, but one issue comes up time and again. "Can we win the championship?" "Are we gonna win the championship?" In the end, one woman turns the question into a heartfelt plea. "Please win the championship," she implores the Liverpool captain. All he can do is tell them that nothing on earth would make him happier.
"They call it the bread and butter around here and we need to win it," he says. "I'm desperate for the league. I can't describe to you how much I want it. I think it will be bigger than the celebrations after Istanbul [where Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005]. Seventeen years? That's far too long and we feel we have all the tools now to pull it off. We've got the manager, the team, the new owners putting money in and a stadium to come. The manager has strengthened in the right places, there's no doubt about that."
Big money has indeed been invested, more than £20 million of it in Fernando Torres. If only Rafael BenÍtez would stop trying to be clever and play his outstanding new forward in all the Barclays Premier League matches. "We've got to believe in Rafa's methods," Gerrard says, diplomatically. "He's not going to change through media pressure." Or player power, he might have added.
They have not matched Arsenal's panache, but Liverpool remain unbeaten after Saturday's 1-0 victory away to Wigan Athletic. With Torres settling into English football quicker than anyone expected, Gerrard has reason to believe that he can become the first Anfield captain to lift the championship since Alan Hansen in 1990.
BenÍtez's tinkering is a cause for concern, but Gerrard is as optimistic as one of life's worriers can be. Football always seems a serious business for the 27-year-old, but he promises that his permanent half-frown masks a growing contentment at how his life and career are panning out. He has a wife and two daughters - "I'm a real family man these days" - and a place at the heart of the Liverpool and England teams. He has endured moments of insecurity with club and country, almost leaving Liverpool for Chelsea two seasons ago and wondering if he was truly valued by successive international managers. Now he has central roles for both and claims to be free of all the off-field concerns that have undermined his form.
Gerrard has talked candidly of suffering from homesickness and his distress at his parents' separation. "But I'm happy and settled, so there's no excuses now," he says. "I've signed a new deal for Liverpool, I'm playing in the middle, I've got my family - what have I got to complain about?"
Eclipsed by Frank Lampard at the European Championship finals in 2004, Gerrard has become the mainstay of Steve McClaren's England midfield, seemingly immoveable in the centre even if that means that Lampard can no longer be guaranteed a start. The shift came in the spring, when, with McClaren's regime under huge strain, the head coach decided to pin his faith on a few redoubtable figures.
"People don't see this because it is behind the scenes," Gerrard says. "But when a manager grabs you and says 'this is what I want, go out and do it in your favourite position', there is nothing better than to feel that belief, that trust. I had a few chats with Steve and he talked about giving me responsibility and that is what I wanted to hear."
Gerrard says that he had a "really good relationship" with Sven-Göran Eriksson, McClaren's predecessor, but that it is "difficult to find consistency when you are turning up and don't know where you are playing. Sometimes it was on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes defensive. It was depending on who was fit and if there were dropouts. I don't mind playing different positions and I can adapt, but that was my downfall.
"At Liverpool, we've got more options out wide now and I started the season strongly through the centre. The toe [he suffered a fracture in the first week of the season] has been a bit of a setback, but I am pain-free now."
Hearing him talk of the pride that would come with lifting the domestic crown for Liverpool, it seems unthinkable that he came so close to leaving for Stamford Bridge. "I don't think I would have been able to live with myself if I'd gone and regretted it," he says. His shirt was burnt outside Anfield while he agonised over the decision, but, as the welcome he received at KIND proves, he is back in the bosom of the Mersey family.
His signed jersey will be given pride of place in the sanctuary that provides for children from homes blighted by drugs, poverty and domestic strife. His visit has been timed to coincide with a £2,000 gift through the Premier League's Creating Chances programme, which will pay for a kitchen.
Gerrard has been brought along to tell the children about healthy eating. He also tells them about the importance of education and he could have done worse than drop off copies of his autobiography, perhaps the only book produced by a serving England player in the past 12 months not to be either ignored or ridiculed.
Unusually for a footballer, it is as honest about his vulnerabilities as it is about his occasionally brutal tackling. "There is nothing worse than seeing a footballer who thinks he's something special, who thinks that he's more than he is," Gerrard says. "I don't think I've ever had a problem keeping my feet on the ground."
Like most lads from Huyton, he had some childhood scrapes, although his worst crime - a failed theft of graph paper from Woolworths - hardly marked him out as a budding gangster. "I couldn't find the Parker pens," he says. "I probably got away lightly. I said to my dad, 'I can't win. If I don't have graph paper I can't do my home-work and then you'll have a go at me for that.' My dad was tough, but for the right reasons. He realised from when I was a young age that I had a decent chance of playing football for a living. He knew what area we were in and the bad avenues you could go down - the alcohol, drugs, the aggro.
"I had an older brother who got into a bit of trouble now and then and I didn't want to go down that road. I've always taken my football very seriously since I was a kid. I get very upset when I don't get what I want or think I deserve."
He had reason to doubt Liverpool's ambition for a year or two, but they could be in the thick of a four-way fight for the title. Gerrard expects Chelsea to be involved, even though they have lost José Mourinho, a man he cannot help admiring. "We used to look out for what he'd say in the interviews," Gerrard says. "We might not like it, but he was a great character. I hope he comes back. Chelsea have too much power not to be involved, but we have to just think about ourselves, about putting Liverpool right up there in contention."
The early indications are that they will be serious challengers for the first time in years, but second place will not satisfy Gerrard or the expectant youngsters at KIND.