Gerrard revels in landing role as full-time leader
Each time the Liverpool captain has led his country out before it has been in a stand-in capacity – now, as Roy Hodgson's choice, he is more than ready for the full responsibility
It is 25 years, give or take, since he tore through Huyton's Bluebell estate in his Gazza England shirt and "stuck the ball between two dustbins", as he once remembered it, but here, at long last, was the moment that Steven Gerrard says he had recently given up on. "I'm sitting here as England captain," he said, in an Oslo press conference last night as if he needed to try on the title for size.
He has carried that small piece of black cloth 12 times since March 2004, when he deputised for an injured David Beckham in Gothenburg, and only 13 Englishmen have taken it more often, though he has been the caretaker so often that when Stuart Pearce, as caretaker manager, called him to say that Scott Parker was his man in February, it cut Gerrard more deeply than many knew.
"He said I wasn't going to be captain; I said, 'OK.' And I was disappointed," Gerrard related and it was to the suggestion that the courtesy of a phone call might have helped that the magnitude of Pearce's decision became clear. "It's not easy for me when you're told," Gerrard said. "He just said he wanted to go with someone else, Scott Parker." Did he think that was that for his chances to be permanent national captain? "Exactly."
Gerrard's indignation was not unreasonable, because it's not as if he had just been minding the shop. He took over, with Rio Ferdinand injured, in the aftermath of a first demotion which John Terry never came to terms with. He led the side through the South Africa World Cup amid the chaos created by Terry, who for some reason believed the captaincy was his entitlement when Ferdinand's pre-World Cup knee injury had taken him home. He stood up and answered for England's failings after the defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein. And, when back at the helm again in Basle, in September 2010, he marshalled an England who had arrived under the unyielding glare of tabloid speculation surrounding Wayne Rooney.
When it was memorably put to Gerrard on that occasion in Switzerland that he had cleaned out a fair few stables for England, he offered a smile and countered: "This is the last time you'll see me here. Enjoy it while I'm here." There seemed to be a hint of loss in the Liverpudlian's voice that night and only last night did we learn how much he wanted this. "Fabio Capello always had belief in me as a player but it was clear he didn't have total belief for me to be the official captain," said Gerrard, who was passed over after the Italian initially tried out him, Terry and Ferdinand. "It feels like the first time I've been official captain. All the other times, I've known the armband was going to go back, either after the tournament or individual games."
He did not seem like Future England Captain stock on his first call-up in 2000 – which left him so nervous that he nearly turned around the Honda his dad had loaned him for the occasion and, having finally made it down the M1, had to call Jamie Redknapp from his room to ask for company on his anxious first walk into the dining room at the Burnham Beeches Hotel.
But as James Milner put it in a discussion of Gerrard's captaincy a few years ago: "Not everyone has to be a shouter." And though Ferdinand certainly is the more conventional captain – the Tony Adams to Gerrard's Bobby Moore – we all know the respective successes of those two at the international tournaments.
Gerrard is the one who can most empathise with and understand those among the new generation in this squad who now nurse anxieties because he knows what England struggles feel like. His ejection by the Football Association's Lilleshall academy is one instance, though he also tells of how he "battered" a Lilleshall XI which played the Liverpool academy seven months after he was overlooked. "I smashed Lilleshall's midfield to pieces, absolutely shredded them," Gerrard said years later. "Into every tackle I poured all my frustration at being ignored." A story, you feel, for behind closed doors at the Grove Hotel, the modern equivalent of Burnham Beeches, when Roy Hodgson's squad is reassembled there next Tuesday morning.
You feel he has the emotional range to deal with the effect on the squad of that unmistakable sense – after South Africa, Capello's abrupt departure and the general flux – that this England side is not up to much. "Maybe there is a bit of doubt about at the moment, a bit of a lack of belief in this group of players," he said. "I've heard whispers about people saying this is the weakest group we've had a for long time with England. But we have a chance to prove this is a good team, and to get a bit of belief and confidence into the public."
This was a significant statement. And it is also Gerrard to whom we most often turn in order to understand Rooney, to whom he is as an older brother; the minder, if you like.
All will be to the benefit of Hodgson, though the new manager will know that, since the depth of their own mutual relationship and understanding is also becoming clear.
Hodgson's name is anathema with most Liverpool fans but Gerrard offered a candid appraisal of how supporters do not always view things objectively. "He was unpopular with Liverpool fans, but he's not unpopular with me," Gerrard said. "You have to understand the situation at Liverpool. When the job became available, the majority of Liverpool fans wanted their hero, a legend, in charge. And when you then get off to a slow start... He just took the job at the wrong time. My opinion on that hasn't changed."
For a man whose 16th game as England captain will tonight deliver "something I've always dreamed of", Gerrard was markedly withdrawn and quiet last night, even by his own standards of modesty. Behind that deeply furrowed brow, perhaps he knows that permanency about the captaincy arrives with doubts.
He has been beset with injury problems, for instance, which restricted him to 34 minutes of international football in the last 19 months. He is also too introspective an individual to wonder whether England really can confound those "whispers".
The match against France in Donetsk on 11 June will take him back in his mind to 13 June 2004 and the same opposition in Lisbon's Stadium of Light as England kicked off what was to be their last European Championship campaign. Gerrard has always remembered the moment the France team-sheet was pinned up on the wall in the England dressing room and how, as he and Michael Owen looked at it, he was briefly overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. Then he looked around him. Rooney was there, cracking a ball against the dressing-room wall, again and again and again. David Beckham loomed into view, Gary Neville, Sol Campbell. "I said out loud: 'I'm not fucking having this. Let's show everyone what we can do'," Gerrard has recalled. "We had Michael [Owen]. We had Wayne. Wayne! I looked across at him. Not a care in the world."
Reading back that story of Gerrard's, it has been hard not to be struck by how different things feel now. There is initially no Rooney, and no Jack Wilshere, another of those few players who can afford to face the French with utter fearlessness. Eight of the starting XI from Bloemfontein are back again, supplemented by some untested youth.
The sense of a monumental challenge ahead of him is not new, though. How could it be for a player who lifted the Champions League trophy on a memorable night in Istanbul on 25 May 2005? "[This is] exactly the same," he said. "It goes to show in these tournaments, when you know you're not the favourites and there are other top sides about, you need to battle hard and go where it hurts to get the prizes. I don't think I've ever won a big trophy and it's all been pretty and nice."
Yes. He is the man for this position. He wears his title well.
Arsenal strengthened their grip on a top-four finish with a straightforward 3-0 win over Hull City.
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