Football: Gerrard the foil for the future

Alex Hayes studies the rise and rise of a Liverpool talent
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The Independent Online
GERARD HOULLIER may be ruthless, but he is not stupid. While it did not take him long to realise that the team he had inherited from Roy Evans was past its sell-by date and needed Continental input, the Liverpool manager also knew he had some excellent young British players at his disposal.

When Dietmar Hamann picked up an injury on his debut for the club, Houllier had no hesitation in turning to one of the latest talents to emerge from the Anfield production line. Steven Gerrard has made just a dozen first- team appearances, yet many are already comparing him to Paul Ince in his prime. Viewed by his manager as "one of the outstanding players of his generation", the 19-year-old has slotted into the midfield anchor role with notable ease.

The teenager's encouraging start to the new Premiership campaign prompted Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director and Under- 21 coach, to call him up to the national squad for England's qualifier against Luxembourg last Friday.

As a former Under-18 captain, Gerrard was well known for his skill and determination to Wilkinson, who had no qualms in handing him his first cap at this level. "He's probably spent half of his working life at Liverpool out injured, and seems to have kept going," said the England supremo after the game. "When you think about that, it shows his resilience."

Since joining the youth academy at 14, Gerrard has coped with a catalogue of injuries. First shin-splints, then a long-running hamstring problem, then a stress fracture in his back. You name it, he's had it.

Both Houllier and Wilkinson see a fully fit Gerrard as the perfect foil for an attacking midfielder. His ability to combine strong ball-winning skills with comfortable retention and accurate distribution, means the likes of Jamie Redknapp at Liverpool and Frank Lampard with England, can make penetrative runs without exposing their defence.

Nothing Gerrard does is particularly fancy or elaborate but, much like Didier Deschamps, the World Cup-winning captain, he rarely wastes a pass or misses a tackle. "Yeah, you know, I thought I did all right," he said in his softly spoken Liverpool lilt after England's 5-0 win at the Madejski Stadium, Reading. "I wasn't too nervous. The boss just told me to go out and enjoy it, and I think I did."

Just as he appears to take his international success in his stride, Gerrard is equally level-headed about his impressive club form. "Didi Hamann got injured and me old manager told me there was my chance," he continued. "I think I've been doing all right. Now I'm looking forward to playing Manchester United on Saturday."

On Friday, Gerrard marked his debut win the man of the match award and a goal (with his weaker left foot). Should his rich vein continue, it is difficult to see how he could relinquish his starting place in the red of Liverpool or fail to break into the senior national squad before long. "He will play for England in the future," Houllier said recently. Only a fool would ignore the Frenchman.