The dream arrives for the ultimate force that is Stevie G
Liverpool's marathon man insists his stamina will not fail him as he rises to the demands
Sunday 04 June 2006
Blessed with those exquisite footballing features seemingly cut from solid English oak, Steven Gerrard has been part of the England furniture for so long that it is difficult to believe that his World Cup recollections do not extend back far beyond Italia 90. But that's all he was then; an exhilarated 10-year-old.
"Yeah, my first World Cup I can remember watching properly was the 1990, when Gazza was the main man," recalls the Liverpool captain and England midfielder. "Gazza was on fire. He was such an exciting player to watch. Great memories, obviously." Until a cauldron of Paul Gascoigne's potion of enrichment turned into a recept-acle for his anguished tears, you refrain from pointing out, lest it destroys the image for him.
Nevertheless, those scenes from the prelude to that evening in Turin, of Gascoigne and Lin-eker and Co en route to the semi-finals, provided fertile inspiration in a child's imagination. "I loved playing football when I was a kid, and I wanted to be like those players, I dreamed of being like them," he says. "If someone had said, 'You're going to play in a World Cup when you're that age', I wouldn't have believed them. But I've worked really hard to get where I am, so now I want to make the most of it."
That opportunity has been a long time coming. Contributing just 19 minutes as a substitute in Euro 2000 as a 20-year-old, a groin injury made him an enforced absentee from the last World Cup. Euro 2004 finally offered a stage for his talents, although Gerrard's most telling contribution was an erroneous back-pass which gifted France victory in added time.
In Germany, he should be at the zenith of his powers, despite a season which has seen him travel from the Brecon Beacons, and the Welsh team TNS, to, potentially, Berlin and a World Cup final on 9 July. If he reaches that destination, he would have spent four days shy of a year on the road, with only a rare interruption, including a week off after the birth of his daughter Lexy early last month.
Gerrard laughs at my slight exaggeration of his season's record, that he is approaching his century of games. It isonly 61, after all. He insists that his stamina will not fail him, or England. "I feel exactly as I did before the first game of the season," he maintains. "I feel happy, I feel excited. I'm looking forward to my next game. It's as simple as that. It's everybody else talking about fatigue. I still feel fresh. I'm not worried about burning out or being tired."
Unlike some, Gerrard appears actually to thrive on the demands made of him. What no one can say is precisely where he carries out those duties to his optimum. Right, left, central, advanced, very advanced, in a holding role? The truth is that you can position him anywhere in the house that Sven Goran Eriksson still has under construction. Nowhere does Gerrard appear incongruous with the surround-ing decorations. On Tuesday, against Hungary, he was given a rare deployment: second striker, behind his former Anfield team-mate Michael Owen. He scored, but didn't look entirely comfortable.
"I am not going to master the role in one game," he stressed. "I need more time in there to improve. Although I am no Wayne Rooney there I still think I can be effective. I tried my best and I enjoyed it. I was demanding the ball even though their number six was following me everywhere. Once we got the breakthrough I thought I opened up more and got more tackles in. I have played the role on numer-ous occasions for Liverpool and I love playing further up."
He adds: "Of course, I know what my best position is. It's where Frank [Lampard] plays. He's one of the best in the world at doing it and he's done really well for England there in the last couple of years, so I have no complaints. Sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself for the team and play where the manager wants you to play. You can't afford to have an ego playing for England."
If he wasn't involved you could imagine Gerrard as a St George flag-waving patriot, convinced of England's right to that elusive trophy. As a player who has faced the world's finest performers, he is endowed with a vein of cold, hard rationale which convinces him that dangers will materialise from many directions, not merely from Brazil.
"There's so much expectation, and people tend to get carried away and think you just go there with the best players, you win four or five games and you win the World Cup," he said. "It's not like that. You've got 32 teams, every single one is desperate to win it, and 70 to 80 per cent of teams going there are full of world-class players and are very difficult to play against.
"The obvious names, on paper, are Brazil and Argentina. But I just think that the most dangerous teams are the hosts, Germany, and Spain, who have so much talent. And, of course, there's always one or two surprises in tournaments that I've experienced that don't even get a mention at the start, and then they're there round the semis and finals, like Greece.
"If you are being realistic, yes, we have got a good chance of winning it. On our day, we're as strong as anyone that's going. But to win a tournament over that period of time, you need everything to go your way."
As his earliest World Cup memories, those of 1990, will always serve to remind him.
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