'Whatever you do, just don't call me an England legend'

A century of caps, captain for club and country, but Steven Gerrard remains his own harshest critic, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Online

When Steven Gerrard was called up to his first England squad in February 2000, he borrowed his dad's Honda to drive from Liverpool to Burnham Beeches. While there Martin Keown took pity on the lonely teenager and took him shopping. On the occasion of his first cap, three months later, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman trashed his hotel room to the extent that Gerrard had to make a discreet trip to the kit room to get some dry clothes.

It is all a far cry from the elder statesman of the English game now, 99 caps down the road, captain and, tonight in Stockholm, about to become only the sixth England centurion in 149 years of the history of the Football Association. He is, by any measure, a major figure in modern English football, and whatever the conflicting views on his career, his place in history is assured.

In the crucible of the contemporary game – its riches, its pitfalls, the scrutiny and the unending expectation –Gerrard has survived and thrived. He has not won everything in the club game, but he is not alone there. He has not won a trophy with England. Few do. But at 32, and for all the fame and adulation, he remains true to his 19-year-old self driving south in a borrowed car, in love with the game and desperately eager to do well.

At the team hotel in Manchester this week, he discussed his England career with the usual disarming frankness. How about this when asked about joining Sir Bobby Charlton and the late Bobby Moore, the only centurions to have won a World Cup? "They will always be heroes of mine and heroes of the English public," Gerrard said. "In football, the hero and legend status is given out far too easily for me. As far as playing for England goes, there are 11 heroes [in 1966], the rest haven't really delivered, for me."

That is the thing about Gerrard. Think of the most severe criticism you could muster about the England team or their current captain and Gerrard has already confronted it, often with the kind of bluntness few could manage. Asked what rating he would give out of 10 for his own England career, he shot back "six, maybe seven".

He launched his international career on a warm May night against Ukraine at the old Wembley 12 years ago. Since 2001 he has, when fit, been an automatic first choice. He has been part of England teams eliminated from tournaments on penalties on three occasions – 2004, 2006 and this summer – and he knows what it is to miss from the spot. A member of the so-called "golden generation", albeit a man who never fails to say how much he dislikes the label, Gerrard is the best-placed to articulate the condition of the modern England footballer. He says that even as captain of Liverpool, and with all that club's longing for a new dawn, playing for England is still the biggest thing he does.

"Pressure-wise, yeah it is," he said. "With England, you play seven or eight games a year and you are coming into a group you are not used to playing with. There is a lot more coverage and a lot more people watching and with all due respect to you guys [the press] it's a hard crowd.

"Playing for England's a tough gig. If you've not got a good result then playing for your club helps you put it to the back of your mind but ideally you would go and play for England again. You want to straighten your performance out for England. Maybe you have to wait a couple of months which is not ideal."

But for all the memories of the near misses and what might have been, tonight, and the friendly against Brazil at Wembley in February, will be a time to celebrate Gerrard's international career.

* The FA and Vauxhall have announced a new annual awards dinner with player of the year awards for all 24 teams including the senior men and women, all youth levels and disability. The first will be held at St George's Park on 3 February.