Steven Gerrard: The one man Sven simply cannot afford to be without

England's key player is the perfect blend of strength and technique - and not a fashion haircut in sight. Steve Tongue speaks to him
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The Independent Online

A parlour game (even for those who no longer have parlours) to while away the endless hours until England's opening match of Euro 2004 against France finally begins a week today: which of Sven Goran Eriksson's 23 chosen ones is the most indispensable? Who is the strongest link?

A parlour game (even for those who no longer have parlours) to while away the endless hours until England's opening match of Euro 2004 against France finally begins a week today: which of Sven Goran Eriksson's 23 chosen ones is the most indispensable? Who is the strongest link?

Anyone who answers "Paul Scholes" has been listening too closely to Eriksson, and not watching the player carefully enough; "David Beckham" invites accusations of superficiality and ignorance of form; a case might more reasonably be made for Sol Campbell or John Terry, on the basis that their department has already been seriously weakened and cannot afford any further loss of quality; but once anyone mentions Steven Gerrard, the game is over.

Not until the gentle friendly in Sweden this year had England even lost a game he had taken part in (it was his 22nd), but more important than the Liverpool captain's presence as some sort of regimental mascot are his qualities as a thoroughly modern midfielder: the combination of strength and technique, tackling and passing, running and finishing that bring together elements of the two players he has modelled himself on, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.

That pair are not a bad combination for an aspiring world-class midfield player. So he would have found Sir Alex Ferguson's recent description of him as the new Keane, "the most influential player in England, bar none", a genuine compliment rather than mischievous transfer talk. "I've got nothing but respect for Roy Keane," Gerrard insists in a Merseyside brogue confirming that taking the boy out of Huyton does not take Huyton out of the boy. "I'm a massive admirer of his, he's been the best midfielder for the last decade. If I can achieve half of what he's achieved, I'll be very happy."

Like his role models, there is a feisty side to the Gerrard character, which sometimes leads him into trouble but has also helped overcome the occasional setback in a career otherwise marked by relentlessly upward progression. That was the case two years ago, after he reluctantly missed the World Cup in favour of surgery on a recurring groin problem.

Although happy to have it out of the way, he lost form early the next season, and when Liverpool's dismal defeat in Basle meant elimination from the Champions' League, he was criticised in the press by Gérard Houllier, along the lines of believing too much of his publicity. Characteristically taking that put-down in the right spirit, Gerrard was soon back to something like his best.

By this spring, made club captain in succession to Sami Hyypia, he was the one shouting the odds, warning team-mates that fifth place in the Premiership would not be good enough and that anyone who did not want to shape up could ship out. The exodus has now begun, though Gerrard was not expecting it to include the manager: "It's hard on Gérard, because he's had to take all the blame and it's not just down to him that the team haven't been successful," he says. "It's partly the players, but unfortunately, in football, it's not the players who get the blame but the managers, and that's the sad thing."

The current debate about exactly where to play him is nothing new. One early game for Liverpool, the club he idolised from his "Red house" on a Huyton council estate, was in central defence, and England saw him as a possible right-back; his international debut, although delayed by niggling injuries, still came the day after his 20th birthday, only 16 months after he had first appeared in club football. Even then he missed out on the critical Euro 2000 game against Romania because of injury, and later that year was sent by Houllier to a French osteopath for some "very painful" treatment altering the shape of his back.

Like Beckham, he admits to preferring a role at the heart of the action, but accepts a wider position - just as he has at Liverpool - for the greater good: "Everyone knows that I would prefer to play in the central midfield role, particularly in a big tournament like this, but I've got to think of the team. I don't think it would be fair on the squad or the team if I started thinking about myself and saying that I definitely wanted to play in the middle.

"So if the manager asks me to play on the left, I'll go out and give it my best shot, but I feel you would get the best out of me in the middle. The main thing for me is to do well in training and make sure I'm in the starting XI. If I start against France, I'll be happy. I'll think about it when he names it and give it my best shot."

Presented with the English Player of the Year award before last Tuesday's friendly match against Japan, he again enthralled Eriksson, who found him "incredible going forward in the first half" and does not agree that his effectiveness is limited by being confined (theoretically) to one flank. The Swede's estimate of him is: "Wherever I put him, he'll be a very important player to this team, because he has everything: strong, confident with good technique, whether defending or attacking."

An intuitive understanding with the team's principal goalscorer might be added to that list. Tuesday's goal, badly needed as it turned out, came about from a typical driving Gerrard run, followed by a goalkeeping howler that allowed his club-mate Michael Owen to pounce. The embrace that followed signified a warmth going back a long way, even further than the 1992 FA Cup final, when they sat together at Wembley as 12-year-olds watching their Liverpool idols beat Sunderland.

"I've played with Michael since we were both kids and we've got a great understanding," Gerrard says. "But Michael's so easy to play with, I know his runs inside out and we get on really well on and off the pitch. I'm sure that goes on to the pitch and that's why it's been working so well for so many years. As a midfielder, I seem to work well with forwards who are on my wavelength and make great runs. It just makes my job so much easier when I know what other people are going to do, and both Michael and Wayne [Rooney] are world-class forwards."

Eriksson regularly speaks of Gerrard having come on as a player and a man, and Houllier would concur, having conferred the honour of the Liverpool captaincy knowing just how much it would mean to a local lad and former Koppite. "It gave me a really big boost, confidence-wise, putting that armband on every day," Gerrard says. "I enjoy putting it on every time. I feel I was playing well before that but feel as if I've had a consistent season from start to finish. In the last two seasons, I've played 50 games, and two or three years ago, I would have snapped someone's hand off if you had told me I could have achieved that. So fingers crossed, I hope I can keep producing 50 games, season in and season out. Touch wood, I have had no problems with those old injuries, I'm 100 per cent fit, body is good, confidence is high."

At the World Cup he was missing and missed, above all when England needed someone to get among the Brazilians and win the ball back. With the suspended Rio Ferdinand the only notable absentee this time, optimism is higher among the squad: "There's a real good feeling of togetherness in the side. Since that Turkey game, when we had to go to Istanbul, backs against the wall, and pull a result out... from that day, I think the players and the staff started to realise that we had a really good chance of winning this tournament. I just knew out there on the pitch that we weren't going to get beat.

"The Rio thing helped in a strange way, it pulled everyone together and no one wanted to get beat that night. It was as if there was a feeling out there that we were unbreakable. Obviously we are going to miss Rio this tournament because he's a massive player - look at Manchester United's results since he hasn't been there. But we've got great centre-halves here as well and hopefully, they'll do a good job for us. Of course we want to win it for Rio. I think every player also wants to win it for himself, for his family, the fans and everyone associated with the country.

"We haven't won a major tournament for many, many years and every player here wants to be a part of something that matters, especially after what the rugby lads did as well. I think since watching that, that's given the football lads a little bit of a boost and a little bit of jealousy as well. We want some of that."

When the England party fly to Lisbon tomorrow, fingers crossed and touching wood, a whole kit-basket should be filled with cotton wool and marked "S Gerrard, for wrapping in". His country needs him. Badly.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 30 May 1980 in Whiston.

Height: 6ft 2in. Weight: 13st.

Club career: Liverpool (from 1 August 1988). 240 appearances, 28 goals. Debut v Blackburn, 29 November 1998.

International career: England midfielder (24 caps, 3 goals). Debut v Ukraine, 31 May 2000.

Honours include: European SuperCup, Uefa Cup, FA Cup, League Cup (all 2001), 2003 League Cup.

Also: Liverpool contract expires 2007. Reportedly earns £60,000 a week.

Highs and lows: scored in the 5-1 defeat of Germany; missed the 2002 World Cup through injury; banned after horrific tackle on Gary Naysmith in 2003; played first 21 internationals without defeat.

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