Steven Gerrard first encountered Wayne Rooney in that infamous Merseyside derby in December 2002 when the Liverpool captain somehow managed to escape a red card for a two-footed lunge on Gary Naysmith. But like most of Merseyside, Gerrard had heard whispers of the Everton protégé long before then.
On that day Rooney was, unsurprisingly, one of the first on the scene to confront Gerrard in the aftermath of the Naysmith tackle. He was just 17 and Gerrard, five years older, was a well-established England international but that did not matter to Rooney. Yet for two players who got off on the wrong foot, they have forged a remarkably strong bond ever since.
Gerrard knows a kindred spirit when he sees one which was why yesterday a smile passed over his face when he was asked to offer a captain's insight into England's most celebrated footballer. "I know what Wayne is about, I know his upbringing, his background," Gerrard said. "I think I can certainly help Wayne be one of the best players in the tournament."
It is these two lads from Liverpool who are most likely to shape the destiny of England's World Cup (not forgetting a little help from their friends Jamie Carragher and Stephen Warnock) and it is to Gerrard whom we most often turn in order to understand Rooney. He is a footballer of some stature himself but he also acts as the older brother to Rooney, the minder, another fiery Scouser who has the benefit of experience.
"The stage is set for Wayne," Gerrard said. "He is a fantastic age, he is in great shape and he is coming off the back of an unbelievable season, probably his best. He is in the category of top players. I'm just delighted he is English and he is going to be leading us out there and we will be behind him. Hopefully he can be our main goalscorer and score the goals that spur us on to victory.
"People talk about the yellow card he got the other day. That's Wayne Rooney. He is always on the edge, he has got that fire in his belly. I think if Wayne channels his frustrations in the right way he can be one of the players of this tournament."
Channelling it the right way. It is the big question confronting Rooney as he tries to steer a course between the aggression that makes him such a dominant figure in the game and the recklessness that lies just a fraction further up the scale. As The Independent reported yesterday the Brazilian referee for tomorrow's game against the United States, Carlos Simon, is brushing up on his English swear-words and it is difficult to imagine there will be much leeway for anyone.
Gerrard has been down that route before, himself. In fact, that Naysmith tackle was one example when the atmosphere – and it can be pretty malevolent at the modern Merseyside derby – got to him. Yesterday he had a pretty straightforward, common-sense approach to the problem of keeping on the right side of referee Simon.
"If that's the case [that Simon is cracking down on bad language], you just don't swear at him, do you?" he said. "That's the answer to that. In this day and age it's very important that you show the referee respect. You don't use any [offensive] language towards them. You'll be booked if you swear at them, then the team suffers. Everyone has to be on their guard and not slip into that trap."
But this tournament is not just about one famous Liverpudlian; it is about Gerrard too. He began the season as Capello's third-choice man for the role and tomorrow he will lead his team out as only the ninth Englishman to captain his nation at a World Cup finals.
It was no surprise that Gerrard was asked whether he regarded the captaincy that has been thrust upon him by Rio Ferdinand's injury as a "burden". Life can seem to weigh heavy on this particular footballer of the careworn expression and furrowed brow. There are few England stars that you might regard as a reluctant captain but it is possible to imagine Gerrard that way.
Not so says the man himself. Gerrard says that he is relishing the job. "It is a great honour, a superb honour and I respect that," he said. "To get that England captaincy, to lead this country and hear the support at home that we are getting, you know how big this tournament is to people. To be the leader of the pack is an unbelievable feeling.
"I am not saying I am going to change as a leader to the way I do at Liverpool. I go out and try to lead by example on the pitch. I am not a loudmouth off the pitch but if any of the players wants to lean on me or talk to me about anything; if they want me to go to the manager and speak about anything, I am not shy.
"I think we all recognise this is the stage, everyone wants to prove that they can go to a World Cup and shine and be a top player. But I think the important thing is that we do it as a group, we don't want players being too individual and thinking about themselves. The only way we are going to deliver at this tournament is if we are together and strong as a group.
"I have shown signs that I can do it at this level by scoring goals and putting in decent performances but for me the challenge is, 'Can I lead a group of players all the way to the final and can I perform consistently in every game at a major tournament?' And that is what I will be aiming to do."
The British Armed Forces in Afghanistan have sent a DVD with their own good luck messages for the players which Gerrard described as "very moving and touching". He has also been psyching himself up by watching DVDs of the British and Irish Lions rugby union tours although it is hoped that England's campaign is rather more successful. "I think you only have to look around the dressing room to see how excited the boys are getting and how close it is now," he said. "That inspires me; that excites me, knowing that we are ready to go."Reuse content