Steven Gerrard retires: Captain calls time on England career of frustrated ambition

A player with Gerrard’s gifts could have expected more of England
  • @ianherbs

For Steven Gerrard, being the kind of person he is, there will always be a sense of regret when thoughts stray back to his games for England.

The man who yesterday announced his international retirement – which leaves no obvious successor and two flawed prime candidates – has been one of the nation’s great football servants: 114 caps and more captaincies than any other Englishman bar Bobby Moore, Billy Wright, Bryan Robson and David Beckham.

However, the accomplishments of a 14-year international career came in the teeth of all the obstacles that England seemed to put before him. Certainly, the sunset of those years brought recognition at last and the captaincy from Roy Hodgson – a manager for whom Gerrard has a genuinely deep respect. But every step of the way seemed to be a battle.

Video: Steven Gerrard retires

Gerrard was never given the attacking midfield role for England which he had reason to believe was his inheritance when Paul Scholes walked away in 2004, and was twice overlooked as captain by Fabio Capello. There were no histrionics from him, because Steve Heighway and Hugh McAuley, the men who brought Gerrard through the Liverpool youth ranks, always instilled humility. But a player with Gerrard’s gifts could have expected more of England – who must now look to Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart, whose own inconsistencies make them less than stand-out candidates to be captain.

That Gerrard humility was always there with England. He was a long way from Future England Captain stock on his first call-up in 2000, which left him so nervous that he nearly turned around the Honda his father had loaned him for the occasion. Having finally made it down the M1, he had to call Jamie Redknapp from his room to ask for company on his anxious first walk into the team dining room.

Some of the insecurity had its roots in the way he was overlooked for a place at the Football Association’s Lilleshall academy – it devastated him that fellow Liverpool players Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher were granted that honour while he was rejected – and he always believed his progress through the ranks was stymied by Les Reed, FA technical director between 2002 and 2004.

In fact Gerrard felt that the response of Reed and fellow coach Derek Fazackerley to the homesickness he felt during the 2000 European Championships in the Netherlands and Belgium was reprehensible. “They didn’t seem to understand that not everyone can board a plane, settle in a strange hotel far from the family they love and find it easy,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He put all that behind him with a contribution on a chilly night in Munich on 1 September 2001, which suggested that he had the world of international football at his feet. It was on his sixth appearance for England that he scored their second goal – the 30-yard drive which beat Oliver Kahn – and set up Michael Owen for his hat-trick. His passing was second to none in that 5-1 qualifying win over Germany. 

Injury deprived him of a place at the following year’s World Cup but his contribution at Euro 2004 was also acclaimed and he scored more goals at the 2006 World Cup than any other Englishman. However, Frank Lampard was the road block to him becoming the kind of marauding player we saw at Anfield, while Capello was deeply unwilling to make him captain, awarding Rio Ferdinand the armband when John Terry was ousted.

Perhaps it was the size of his achievements for Liverpool which led to the flawed judgement from some quarters yesterday that Gerrard had not done all he might for England. Phil Neal, Terry McDermott, Ray Kennedy and Ray Clemence also got that kind of criticism down the years.

If he had carried on to Euro 2016, Gerrard would almost certainly have become England’s most-capped player, but instead his last meaningful game brought the mistake that let Uruguay’s Luis Suarez through on goal in Sao Paulo. Not a pristine display, certainly, but a better one than he was credited for.

For a sense of what Gerrard always brought, consider his story from the summer of 2004, before England’s European Championship game with France in Lisbon. The France team-sheet was pinned up on the wall in the England dressing room and there was a momentary sense of foreboding before Gerrard took a look around the room and saw the ranks of Rooney, Beckham, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell. “I said out loud: ‘I’m not fucking having this. Let’s show everyone what we can do’,” Gerrard recalled. “We had Michael [Owen]. We had Wayne. Wayne! I looked across at him. Not a care in the world.” England’s bright start that night did not find fulfilment: a metaphor for Gerrard’s international journey.