Steven Gerrard has come a very long way since the first England call-up which left him so nervous that he nearly turned around the Honda his dad had loaned him for the occasion and, having finally made it down the M1, had to call Jamie Redknapp from his room to ask for company on his anxious first walk into the England dining room at the Burnham Beeches hotel.
The Gerrard who held court at the Basle Hilton last Monday was the same understated soul but his performance as he handled the flak of the Wayne Rooney affair screamed out how much the last 10 years have changed him. There was no triumphalism for Rooney. "He's his own man," Gerrard said, which seemed a better weighted judgement on the player and the dubious example he has set a young generation of devotees than Rio Ferdinand's partisan Tweet when Rooney scored against Switzerland 24 hours later: " I told u my boy would get a goal." Yet the story Gerrard chose for this moment, of the night he played so disastrously for Gérard Houllier's Liverpool against Basle when his parents' marriage was collapsing, was an absorbing blend of conviction and self-deprecation.
It was a captain's performance for sure, contributing to the impression that if Gerrard must now pass up the armband to Ferdinand, who was not involved at Everton yesterday, then he shall be remembered as England's most consummate off-field captain of modern times.
Gerrard has certainly cleaned out a few stables, as someone memorably put it to him this week. He became captain, with Ferdinand injured, in the aftermath of the demotion which John Terry has never come to terms with, and was captain in South Africa when asked to navigate a path through the chaos Terry created (for some unfathomable reason, the Chelsea player believed the captaincy was his entitlement after Ferdinand's pre-tournament knee injury took him home). Gerrard was Fabio Capello's prime apologist after England's woeful World Cup exit and now there is the Rooney mess.
Capello doesn't set too much store by captaincy, but he may reasonably conclude that Gerrard is the one he needs around for the most substantial hurdle he must clear before emptying his desk in two years. That obstacle is that inordinate level of hype and national expectation which will accompany England's inevitable arrival at the 2012 European Championships. It calls for a good man in a crisis.
Gerrard is as much that man from the players' perspective as from the manager's. Another of the virtues of his leadership is that he knows what anxiety and failure at international level actually feel like. His ejection by the FA's Lilleshall academy is but one instance, though Gerrard tells a fine story of how he "battered" a Lilleshall XI which played the Liverpool Academy seven months after he was overlooked. "I smashed Lilleshall's midfield to pieces, absolutely shredded them," Gerrard said years later. "Into every tackle I poured all my frustration at being ignored." A story, you feel, for behind closed doors at The Grove Hotel, the modern equivalent of Burnham Beeches, if some of the next generation of players on whom England's 2014 hopes depend find themselves faltering.
The narratives of his early struggle, such profound homesickness having been called up for Kevin Keegan's Euro 2000 squad that he initially resolved to pack up his bags and fly home, and his struggle to live up to international expectations for years, are why Gerrard is a captain for this era of rebuilding when the noisiest leader is not necessarily the best. As James Milner put it when discussing Gerrard this week: "Not everyone has to be a shouter."
All of which is to neglect the vast footballing merits of Gerrard's captaincy, including the certainty that he will be picked and also perform, now freed of what he always detested as "the graveyard shift" on the left wing. Ferdinand's future fitness – he played only 19 competitive club games last season – is less certain.
Ferdinand certainly is the more conventional captain – the Tony Adams to Gerrard's Bobby Moore perhaps. "I'm normally one of the loudest in the changing room – not only talking about football but in general terms, and I won't be changing, that's the way I am," he said earlier this year. And a Gerrard accession would also be characterised as Ferdinand being stripped of the role.
More "crisis" headlines. But Ferdinand has barely held the title, captaining England for just 135 minutes since learning via a TV news bulletin that he was to succeed Terry.
The odds on another change of guard are remote but Gerrard is in the driving seat now and this car, just like the Honda 10 years ago, is one he should not have to turn around.Reuse content