A journalist from Finland was at Liverpool's Melwood training ground a few days ago, compiling one of those "My Favourites" lists with Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain obligingly answered the questions. Food: Italian. Drink: Can't say beer, can I? Make it Lucozade. Clothes: Casual. Music: Pop. Actor/ actress: Robert de Niro/Jessica Alba. Movie: Scarface. And finally, he was asked: Your dream final in World Cup 2006, and how will it go? "England-Germany," came the animated reply. "Three-nil; Gerrard hat-trick."
Only hours later, that buoyant demeanour could not have been more transformed as news filtered through of Wayne Rooney's fractured metatarsal, which severely diminished the satisfaction of two superb goals in Liverpool's eclipse of Aston Villa. While others offered a range of reactions from sympathy to cautious optimism, Gerrard preferred to shoot from the lip. "I think it is impossible to have a successful World Cup without Wayne," was his immediate response to reports that the Manchester United man could be absent for all or part of the summer spectacular. Some claimed his words were merely defeatist; Gerrard would contend that he was simply being brutally realistic.
Yet it was perhaps typical of the player that his instinctive reaction to Rooney's misfortune was to consider the effect on England's team, and specifically his fellow Merseysider, rather than the potential benefit it could bring himself.
Because the more you think about Sven Goran Eriksson's dilemma, if he has to plan for a World Cup without the talismanic 20-year-old, the more it opens the fascinating prospect of the midfielder Gerrard being thrust forward into the role of second striker. As the former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson observed: "His flexibility means he could play up front off a more forward player, leaving a midfield behind him of, say, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and David Beckham."
Whether a man of Eriksson's conservative nature would contemplate such a deployment for Gerrard is another matter, of course, though it would certainly be a solution to the perennial dilemma of how to accommodate him in the same midfield as Lampard. It is a conundrum that at times has left this inspirational player restricted to a holding role when many believe that his attacking instincts should be given full rein.
"That's exactly the way I feel," he says. "That's the way I play for Liverpool. But I've got to be unselfish, if you like, and think of the team before myself."
However, Gerrard adds pointedly: "I was thinking about it the other day. I've got 40 caps and I've only played in my strongest position [attacking central midfield] for England for 45 minutes. I know I can translate my form for Liverpool on to the inter-national stage. But people might have to be a little patient." Not with him, you suggest, but with the England coach. One can comprehend the player's frustration. "Well, I wouldn't say frustrating is the right word. Certain people have criticised me at inter-national level, saying I haven't reproduced my Liverpool form for England, but the reason I'm playing so well for my club is because I'm playing in my favourite [attacking] role, week in, week out. I can find my confidence in that position. I have this belief: if he's playing in his strongest position, Steven Ger-rard will play his best football."
He adds: "Obviously, Frank's doing a fantastic job for England in that position. But that's meant that, with England, my position's been changed about virtually every time I've played. But against Uruguay [when Frank Lampard was out, injured] I got 45 minutes in my favourite position, how I play for Liverpool, and I enjoyed it.
"But that's not to say I can't do a job in other positions in midfield. Even Rafa [Benitez, Liverpool's manager] has tended to use me on the right during the majority of this season, and I've enjoyed it. I'm not the type of player who will sulk if I'm asked to play a different role. I'll just get on with it, and give it my best shot. I don't think at this level you can afford to be selfish, and just think about yourself, or you'll get found out."
Following his enforced absence from the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Gerrard is just gratified, barring last-minute injury to himself, to be preparing for next month's renewal. It is also why he can empathise with Rooney's plight.
Four years ago, Gerrard was the World Cup's forgotten man as his team-mates' prowess was examined, and ultimately found wanting by Brazil. "That's definitely one of the lowest points of my career," says Gerrard. "To sit at home and watch the boys go to a World Cup and have such fun. It's something I've always dreamt of. That's why, though I'm trying to keep the World Cup at the back of my mind, it just keeps springing to the front. I think we've got a squad full of talent. I believe we can go there and do well if things go our way, we have little bits of luck and keep everyone fit..."
He could not have foreseen that events at Stamford Bridge the following day, with Rooney departing the game on a stretcher and in anguish, would abruptly throw Eriksson's ambitions awry. Neither could any of us have imagined how the imbroglio surrounding the installation of a new international coach would resolve itself. The day we met, Luiz Felipe Scolari seemingly had been handcuffed by Brian Barwick. A week later, and the features, more familiar to Gerrard, of the England No 2, Steve McClaren, had been ushered in as future successor to Eriksson.
"The most important thing for the players is that we get the right man, who can continue to take the team to the next level, who can improve you individually, and who you can learn things from," says Gerrard.
Whether McClaren is that man will become evident after 1 August, when he begins his stewardship, and during the next two months in the build-up to, and duration of, England's World Cup campaign. Before that, however, Gerrard must contemplate the not-insignificant matters of an FA Cup final against West Ham, preceded by today's final League game, at home to Ports-mouth, which could yet secure Liverpool automatic Champions' League qualification.
"We haven't given up on second place," he says. "There's still pressure on United. But this club's about winning trophies, and the FA Cup is a special trophy. We want to deliver it for the supporters this season. We know the job's not done yet. We've done fantastically well to knock Chelsea out; it would be unfor-givable if we don't go all the way now. We've been happy with our progression in the League this season, too. If we can lift the Cup it turns the season from a good one to a very good one."
Notwithstanding his hoisting of the Champions' League trophy in Istanbul last season, you suggest that next Saturday could conceivably herald the best year of his career, with an FA Cup, World Cup and possibly even a Premiership title in the offing.
In domestic terms, claiming a championship is vital to a man who last summer spurned Chelsea's overtures and whose club emphasised, more recently, that Real Madrid could scribble out Gerrard's name from their shopping list.
"Desperate," is how he sums up his desire for a championship winner's medal, though Gerrard stresses that Liverpool, in terms of new personnel, must more than keep pace with their principal rivals. "I think each season, no matter how well you do, you need to keep freshening things up, adding players, hungry players, who want to do well," he says. "If you keep the same squad, they can go a little bit stale and confidence can drop a little."
But such title aspirations will mean overcoming the daunting obstacle of Chelsea, reinforced by the probable addition of Michael Ballack. Is that conceivable? "Yes, I think so," Gerrard insists. "Chelsea are a fantastic team. I'm not one of those people who say they've only won successive titles because they've got loads of money. I don't think that's fair. Yeah, it helps, but Chelsea have done fantastically well. Don't forget they've done it with the likes of Frank Lampard and John Terry, who were already at the club [when Jose Mourinho arrived]. Chelsea deserve their success. But a team can only pick 11 players, and I believe that Chelsea are maybe at their peak now. I don't think they can get that much better."
He adds: "Yes, they may be able to improve in certain positions, and become a bit stronger. But I feel we're not too far away from Chelsea at the moment. With two or three more signings to our squad, I feel as though we can match them. It's just the Premiership missing from my medal collection. I'm desperate to add it."
One hesitates to broach the fact that a World Cup winner's medallion is missing too. Rooney's probable absence has suddenly caused those expectations to recede. But while Eriksson still has men of Gerrard's devotion to the cause, prepared to carry the standard into battle, who would deny England's chance?
LIFE & TIMES
NAME: Steven George Gerrard.
BORN: 30 May 1980, Whiston, Liverpool.
VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 5lb.
CLUB CAREER: Liverpool 1998-present; 334 games, 62 goals.
INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Scored on England U-21 debut against Luxembourg, August 1999. Debut for senior side in 2-0 win against Ukraine, May 2000; 40 caps, 6 goals.
HONOURS: League Cup 2001, '03; FA Cup 2001; Uefa Cup 2001; European Super Cup 2001, '05; Uefa Champions' League 2005; PFA Young Player of the Year 2001; Uefa Champions' League Most Valuable Player 2005; PFA Player of the Year 2006 (left).