It is typical of Steven Gerrard that he attributes his current happiness – the most content he has ever felt, he says – to the fact that he is less "selfish" than he used to be. This is, after all, the most fretful of footballers. A man who, rightly regarded as the most talented player of his generation, thinks just that little bit too much. Can be too introspective. Maybe too self-absorbed. Who can talk himself into difficulties and, on occasions, almost out of the England team. That worry line on his forehead can be startlingly pronounced at times.
But not now. Yesterday, talking with a new assurance in the function room at the England team hotel in Hertfordshire adjoining the one where, five months ago, he spoke candidly about whether or not he deserved to be playing for his country and concluded that maybe he should be dropped, Gerrard is transformed. The factors, he says, are simple: "Throughout my career, I've never been happier than I am at the moment. Because I'm playing in a top team [Liverpool], I'm playing with world-class players and I believe in the manager [Rafael Benitez], that, going forward, we can be successful."
Sitting just one point behind Manchester United in the Premier League and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, having humiliated Real Madrid, undoubtedly breeds confidence. "Things at the club are really good," Gerrard said. "For years and years, I've moaned about not being involved in a title race and being far away from the other teams. But, at the moment, I'm playing in a team that is capable of beating anyone in the league."
Aged 28, and with two years left on his current deal at Anfield, it is hardly revelatory to hear Gerrard add that he wants to end his career at the club where he has always been: "It's important. I do want to be successful. If there was a chance to extend that [his contract], I'm sure I'd do it."
Gerrard has admitted in the past that his relationship with Benitez, not always the most forthcoming of managers, has been tricky. Now it is rock-solid and built on a new-found understanding of the Spaniard's clinical methods. "It's got stronger and stronger," Gerrard said. "Maybe when I was younger I was a bit selfish. Thinking of myself a bit too much when he was playing me out of position. I should have maybe taken a deep breath and realised it is for the team. But, at the moment, he's playing me in my favourite position. I'm captain and we're winning."
As ever with Gerrard, who was once told by Benitez that he plays too much with the heart and not enough with his head, there are two constant themes – beyond his craving for victories. One is where is he is played, the other is how often. Indeed, and startlingly given his previous complaints, he has even warmed to the idea of rotation, something that was anathema to him. "The manager changes it around at the right times and rests players at the right times," he said. "You see Rafa doing that all the time. If we're comfortable in a game, he'll take players off. He rotates at the right time. That's why the Liverpool squad is looking so fresh and powerful."
As for his role, not so long ago Gerrard was, by his own admission, moaning about playing on the right for his club. Even yesterday he said he had "sacrificed" himself to play there. He craved the centre. A free role. Now he is a second striker, released to cause havoc behind Fernando Torres and, with it, finding the form that means he is vying with Barcelona's Lionel Messi for the right to be regarded as European football's most in-form player. "I feel that's when you get the best out of me," he said. "When I'm free to run at defenders and cause danger. That's down to Rafael Benitez. He's helped me a lot. He's certainly helping me to improve in this position."
England, for sure, will not be constructed around Gerrard, however. On his appointment as manager Fabio Capello considered Gerrard for the captaincy and he wore the armband for the Italian's first game in charge, against Switzerland in February last year. However, Capello soon became exasperated by the midfielder's deference, for his world-weariness. Gerrard, for example, had a habit of looking at the ground rather than making eye contact with the manager which, for Capello, was not what he wanted. He was also too quiet and the captaincy was soon not really something he was in contention for. He even worried about the number he wore.
And so where to play him? In Minsk last October in England's World Cup qualifier away to Belarus, soon after he gave that honest assessment that he was worried about being dropped, Gerrard played on the left. But he was given licence to roam and scored a superb goal, firing home from Wayne Rooney's clever lay-off. Can, therefore, Rooney reprise the Torres role? "Wayne Rooney can do anything. I'd love nothing more than to be given the chance to play in that role [second striker] for England and try and find that form," he said.
Gerrard stated he has a good relationship with Capello, who understands that the midfielder is one of the few special players at his disposal. Indeed, such is Capello's confidence that he believes that, with Gerrard and Rooney in the side, England could beat Spain, even though they were summarily dismissed by the European champions in last month's friendly in Seville.
"We've had a dialogue about how to get the best out of myself," Gerrard, who has missed the last two games but is set to start in the friendly on Saturday at home to Slovakia explained. "I'm sure we can have a good relationship and get my form for my country as it is for my club. Since he came in my form for England has improved. We need players playing at this level like they do for their clubs. The talent's there. If we pull together in the right direction, we can go into a tournament and be successful. Winning trophies is what it is all about. I'm sure this country would be an unbelievable place to be if we were to achieve something."
Ups and downs Snapshot of Gerrard in an England shirt
THREE OF THE BEST
*Germany v England, 1-5, World Cup qualifier, Sept 2001. Scored second in famous win, playing alongside Scholes.
*England v Sweden, 2-2, World Cup group match, June 2006. Came on for Rooney after 69 minutes and scored the second to restore parity.
*Andorra v England, 0-3, Euro 2008 qualifier, March 2007. Scored twice to spare England's blushes almost single-handedly.
THREE OF THE WORST
*Denmark v England, 4-1, friendly, August 2005. Starts with Frank Lampard but is subbed after 84 min.
*Northern Ireland v England, 1-0, World Cup qualifier, Sept 2005. Lampard and Gerrard again. Gerrard subbed after 76min, four minutes before Lampard, too, is hauled off.
*England v France, 1-2, European Championship, June 2004. Back-pass is intercepted by Thierry Henry, who is brought down by David James. Zinedine Zidane scores winner from spot.
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