Steven Gerrard: 'Don't call me a hero or legend'
A century of caps, skipper for club and country, universally admired, but he remains his own harshest critic
When Steven Gerrard was called up to his first England squad in February 2000, he borrowed his dad's Honda to drive from Liverpool to Burnham Beeches. While there Martin Keown took pity on the lonely teenager and took him shopping. On the occasion of his first cap, three months later, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman trashed his hotel room to the extent that Gerrard had to make a discreet trip to the kit room to get some dry clothes.
It is all a far cry from the elder statesman of the English game now, 99 caps down the road, captain and, tonight in Stockholm, about to become only the sixth England centurion in 149 years of the history of the Football Association. He is, by any measure, a major figure in modern English football, and whatever the conflicting views on his career, his place in history is assured.
In the crucible of the contemporary game – its riches, its pitfalls, the scrutiny and the unending expectation –Gerrard has survived and thrived. He has not won everything in the club game, but he is not alone there. He has not won a trophy with England. Few do. But at 32, and for all the fame and adulation, he remains true to his 19-year-old self driving south in a borrowed car, in love with the game and desperately eager to do well.
At the team hotel in Manchester this week, he discussed his England career with the usual disarming frankness. How about this when asked about joining Sir Bobby Charlton and the late Bobby Moore, the only centurions to have won a World Cup? "They will always be heroes of mine and heroes of the English public," Gerrard said. "In football, the hero and legend status is given out far too easily for me. As far as playing for England goes, there are 11 heroes [in 1966], the rest haven't really delivered, for me."
That is the thing about Gerrard. Think of the most severe criticism you could muster about the England team or their current captain and Gerrard has already confronted it, often with the kind of bluntness few could manage. Asked what rating he would give out of 10 for his own England career, he shot back "six, maybe seven".
He launched his international career on a warm May night against Ukraine at the old Wembley 12 years ago. Since 2001 he has, when fit, been an automatic first choice. He has been part of England teams eliminated from tournaments on penalties on three occasions – 2004, 2006 and this summer – and he knows what it is to miss from the spot.
A member of the so-called "golden generation", albeit a man who never fails to say how much he dislikes the label, Gerrard is the best-placed to articulate the condition of the modern England footballer. He says that even as captain of Liverpool, and with all that club's longing for a new dawn, playing for England is still the biggest thing he does.
"Pressure-wise, yeah it is," he said. "Also because when you are at your club you are there every day. Your team-mates become super close. You are working on tactics every single day. The routine of how your team plays gets drilled into you all the time. Your fans see you every week so they know what you're about. You have a bad game, you have the next game to put it right.
"With England, you play seven or eight games a year and you are coming into a group you are not used to playing with. There is a lot more coverage and a lot more people watching and with all due respect to you guys [the press] it's a hard crowd.
"Playing for England's a tough gig. If you've not got a good result then playing for your club helps you put it to the back of your mind but ideally you would go and play for England again. You want to straighten your performance out for England. Maybe you have to wait a couple of months which is not ideal."
On taking penalties in shoot-outs for England, Gerrard, who missed against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup finals, was unequivocal. He says it is like nothing else.
"Taking a penalty for England in a tournament is a million times more difficult than a penalty in a normal game, in a normal situation. That's how I would describe it, the nerves and how your body feels when you're about to take a penalty in a tournament. There's a lot more pressure than a normal penalty which is a very pressurised situation as well.
"The new players haven't experienced the disappointment that I have. It's three times for me and I don't think any other international player would have experienced that."
But for all the memories of the near misses and what might have been, tonight, and the friendly against Brazil at Wembley in February, will be a time to celebrate Gerrard's international career. Before we urge the last few members of his generation into retirement it would be worth remembering that here is a player with a global reputation. How many of the next generation will be able to say the same at the end of their careers?
"There is a lot more coverage than when I started," Gerrard said. "The social media, a lot more cameras, a lot more opinions, a lot more TV channels covering the game. It's even bigger than when I came in. It's a lot more difficult for the young lads. Some of them won't be able to cope. That's fact. Not everyone who plays at this level will go on to be top international players. That's just the way it is. Some will find it too hard, some won't be good enough. Some won't work hard enough for it."
He came from a different generation where there were no lucrative professional deals for unproven teenagers. Just the usual hard-knocks, including a rejection, aged 15, from the FA's elite football programme at Lilleshall that, amusingly, he still stews over. When Gerrard made his England debut, Tony Adams was still in the habit of going round the dressing room shouting "Are you f***ing up for this?" into the faces of his team-mates. Times have changed.
"To be here on the eve of 100 caps is an unbelievable achievement for myself and my family," Gerrard said. "It's difficult to put into words because when I speak about it the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Some of the players I've played with have not got to that milestone. There's been great players before me and ones I've played with who haven't done it. It's a very flattering achievement."
* The FA and Vauxhall have announced a new annual awards dinner with player of the year awards for all 24 teams including the senior men and women, all youth levels and disability. The first will be held at St George's Park on 3 February.
Gerrard for England
5-1 v Germany in Munich, Sept 2001. "I think so because of who it was against and because of how emphatic the result was in their backyard and it being a World Cup qualifier. It's difficult to beat that."
Best three goals for England
Germany (Munich, September 2001); Macedonia (Southampton, October 2002); Hungary (Wembley, August 2010)
England team-mate he rates the highest
Paul Scholes. "His game is very similar to mine and I appreciate what he has got. I like him as a person and what he's done at United as well."
International opponent he considers the best
Zinedine Zidane. "Magical feet. Feet like hands. Special."
Greece, October 2001. "That was a disappointing individual performance. That game was on the back of me being out a bit late past bedtime so that's a bad memory."
Would you like to manage England?
"Of course. Before you go into management you get your badges and you have your own belief in your knowledge of the game. But it doesn't automatically mean that you will be able to manage."
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