Stevie the Wonder

N. U. Abilash

We can do it, boys: Steven Gerrard celebrates a Liverpool comeback goal in the UEFA Champions League final against AC Milan.-ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES

IF his pep talk to teammates just before UEFA Champions League final against AC Milan at the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul, is any indication, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard would give a complex to an academic. While everybody around was reeling names of Anfield legends of European Cup conquests — Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kevin Keegan, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, Bruce Grobelaar, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, John Barnes — check out the England central midfielder in inimitable Scouse: "We want this so badly and Milan want to take it away from us — we can't let them. We shouldn't come off at the end with regret, it is all about seizing this moment." The 25-year-old Liverpudlian working class boy could well have been making the point that institutions — such as the club he has been captain of since 2003 — which are backed almost exclusively by history and myth-making run a greater risk of not being able to put matters into perspective while on the edge of actual non-reflected glory.

Carpe diem is indeed a timely reminder for anybody with a millennial emotional investment in the Red corner of Merseyside, which is saddled and burdened by the 1970s and 1980s. And, to think it came from the skipper, a confessed Liverpool fan from birth who has spoken in the past of hearing Souness' voice in his dreams.

How right Gerrard was! He and his teammates, in the first 45 minutes of play, were too overwhelmed by the thought of joining the inventory of legends. Things turned around for Liverpool in the second half. We know that Rafael Benitez, the master tactician, tweaked the formation at half time. (It involved a change in Gerrard's role as well — the captain was asked to shift from the central midfield to the role of an inside forward.) And, we can safely put money on Gerrard repeating his pre-match talk during the half time as well.

Barely six minutes into the second half, the captain's head was at the end of a wonderful delivery by John Arne Riise from the left. The somnolent Milan defence was caught napping — that happens a little bit more frequently than Sir Don Bradman getting out in single figures — and the skipper was off sprinting to the touchline, arms flailing, motivating his teammates and exhorting the 25,000 Liverpool fans to support his team. In less than 10 minutes, Liverpool was level after Gerrard was brought down in the Milan box and midfielder Xabi Alonso slotted home the rebound after Dida saved the resultant penalty.

Steven Gerrard kisses the UEFA Champions League trophy.-ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES

Gerrard had not finished. When Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti substituted Clarence Seedorf with promising Brazilian Serginho on the left wing, Benitez responded by switching his captain to the right-back position. For the rest of the match, including the extra time, Gerrard was seen blocking, clearing, tackling and marking, as he does everything else — with passion. It was down to the shoot out, where Benitez pencilled down Gerrard's name last. Thankfully, Milan's penalty takers ensured that he was spared of what would have been his fourth role of the match.

The wheel had come full circle for Gerrard — as a 11-year-old he had inspired his Catholic school's comeback win in a Cup final after being down 0-3 at half-time. Gerrard is known as being extremely tunnel-visioned — he is nowhere as opinionated about referees and his rivals as fellow England central midfielder Frank Lampard and is almost frigid when compared to the temperament of Paul Scholes, the other lynchpin of the England central midfield. The total shutting out of extraneous details in Gerrard's mind makes his comeback win in school as special for him as the one for Liverpool. (It can also give rise to embarrassing situations such as the one in South Africa in 2003, when Gerrard and a few other teammates did not travel with the rest of the England team to meet Nelson Mandela — he said that he was tired after a long flight from England and wanted to focus on the `friendly' against Mandela's country the next day.) It is merely incidental that as a result of the most recent comeback win, his employers are talking about a �100,000 a week wage packet to keep him at Anfield next season at a time when Roman Abramovich's money is ubiquitous.

Incidentally, west London had come calling for Gerrard around the same time Madrid beckoned his star teammate Michael Owen, and Gerrard had displayed more patience than the England striker by staying on for one more season which he believed would end in Liverpool's title drought. "How can I think of leaving Liverpool after a night like this?" was his puzzled response to a TV interviewer who should be a hands-down nominee for the award for the most inappropriate question in the history of television journalism — it was just minutes after Liverpool won in Istanbul.

In the modern age of football, when only the Premiership and the Champions League count as major competitions for the big clubs, Liverpool's previous decade can actually be called a drought. Never mind the fact that Owen and Gerrard had inspired them to a UEFA Cup win in 2001 — Gerrard had scored once in the final in the 5-4 win against Spanish minnows Alaves — and an FA Cup win against Arsenal in the same year.

Even though Gerrard did play a central role in the single most influential event in England's international calendar in the last five years — he gave his team a 2-1 lead at the stroke of half-time with a 30-yard bullet in England's 5-1 trouncing of traditional archrival Germany in Munich in a World Cup qualifier in September 2001 — he has not achieved much of consequence with England as well. He was unlucky to miss the 2002 World Cup — and the defeat of post Falklands archrival Argentina — due to a groin injury, which needed surgery. And, in England's first match against defending champions France in the 2004 European Cup, in keeping with the tradition of last-minute Euro howlers by England players (remember Phil Neville's `horror tackle' of 2000), Gerrard's mis-hit back pass in injury time to goalkeeper David James was intercepted by Thierry Henry, who was brought down by James and Zinedine Zidane slotted home the penalty. 2-1 to France, at the stroke of the final whistle. A shell-shocked Gerrard was sulking for the rest of the tournament as England went down to hosts Portugal in the second round in the shoot out.

The memories of that night would have been quietly erased in Gerrard's mind by the shoot out in Istanbul. He woke up in his hotel room in Istanbul on the morning after the final with the Champions League trophy in his bed. ("Stevie's girlfriend wasn't there, so the captain had the Cup instead," quipped fellow midfielder Vladmir Smicer who scored Liverpool's second goal.) Gerrard, England's captain-in-waiting, must surely be dreaming about waking up in a hotel room in the southern hemisphere, most probably Johannesburg, in 2010 with the FIFA World Cup in his bed. If that were to happen, it would be time for him to plug in completely to Bill Shankly's words for the rest of his life without worrying about the burden of history. "Football is not a matter of life and death. It is more important."