The look in Steven Gerrard’s eyes told the story. There was a sense of cold desolation behind them. Gerrard, a deeply thoughtful individual, always talks of not being left with regrets when the battle has been waged and yet here he was, flooded by them.
He talked the talk, as he has learned to do in the two years as permanent England captain which have brought out some of the personality in him. “Big learning curve... analyse the game... a cruel level...” A conversation which began with English chroniclers grew into a scrum, as the foreign legion piled in, lifting their microphones over the top. They did not notice that this man was operating on autopilot.
The notion of what feelings he might have awoken to this morning have certainly been on that reflexive mind of his. After the defeat to Italy, he took some of the younger England players aside to tell them exactly how it feels on the morning after your World Cup hopes have been crushed. “I have been there,” he said this week. “I know what that feeling is about. That is the feeling that I don’t want to come on Friday morning...”
But his sense of loss runs deeper than it did after Bloemfontein or Gelsenkirchen. It was a mere 70 days ago – and somehow a lifetime – that Gerrard gathered the Liverpool players together on the Anfield turf, in the emotional aftermath of the 3-2 win over Manchester City and, with a title in sight, told them that their next journey to Norwich City was as significant as Istanbul, 2005. “This does not slip.” What has unfolded since reveals how football can lift you to the most incredible heights, knock you to the floor and then kick you while you’re down there. As if the fateful slip against Chelsea two weeks later were not punishment enough – allowing Demba Ba to score and cleave Liverpool’s title hopes – it was the hairline brush of a ball across Gerrard’s head which set Luis Suarez onside to score Uruguay’s winner in Arena da Sao Paulo. Gerrard beat Edinson Cavani to the header they both leapt for but first is not enough when the contact is not emphatic.
Some of the abuse Gerrard received on social media as Thursday’s fate unravelled revealed much about the tribalism we see when England play. He did not manage to assert himself on the midfield. He did not play well. Gerrard has been England’s most consistent player across these past two years but football being football there are never guarantees. The abuse allowed no appreciation of that, and certainly no space for tactical nuance.
What we have actually witnessed here in the course of the past few weeks is a recognition by England’s opponents of what a dangerous creator Gerrard can be in the new regista role which Roy Hodgson first designated for him at the 2012 European Championships. Against the Italians, Marco Verratti was billeted to press Gerrard, preventing him from moving the ball quickly and setting off the transitions which would allow England to move from defence to attack. Against the Uruguayans, Cavani played that same role. When the Uruguayan fawning over Oscar Tabarez had finished in the press conference late on Thursday – El Maestro, the journalists call him – the coach got down to talking about the key tactical component of his nation’s win. It was the job Cavani had done, quashing Gerrard’s passes. “In England, we have been talking all about [Andrea] Pirlo and Luis Suarez. It seems that in Italy and Uruguay they were talking all about Gerrard,” said Rafael Benitez, who predicted in these pages that the Uruguay game would hinge on them not letting Gerrard play.
“Small details” as Benitez likes to say, have revealed Gerrard’s role as a subtly effective motivator here: a role which he has had to grow into for England. It was James Milner who said in a discussion of Gerrard’s captaincy a few years ago that “not everyone has to be a shouter” and he has required some of the legendary fight he learned on Huyton’s Bluebell estate to muscle his way to the leadership role. Fabio Capello and Hodgson have both seemed more mesmerised with John Terry. When the squad processed out on to the London Colney training pitches in March 2010 for Gerrard’s first session as interim leader, the Liverpudlian was only at the front by a short head. The deposed Terry was right on his shoulder. If Terry’s is the Tony Adams school of captaincy – he openly confronted Capello in Rustenburg four years ago – Gerrard’s is in the Bobby Moore mould, and no one needs reminding where he took the English nation.
It was in response to the question of whether he gives banter back to Suarez that Gerrard said a few days ago he is “more of a listener”.
But his leadership has worked in subtle ways these past few weeks: the quiet word in Wayne Rooney’s ear in the Sao Paulo tunnel, and an arm wrapped around him, before they walked out on Thursday. The team huddle he instigated before the match in Manaus. “It was just a few reminders,” he said of the huddle. “In these international games the moment you leave the dressing room to the moment you kick off there is quite a bit of faffing about, handshakes and pictures and it is quite a big chunk of time so it was just to give some reminders. If you look at the result it maybe didn’t work but at least I have left no stone unturned.”
The tragedy of these past 70 days has been that neither of the teams Gerrard attempted to lead to accomplishments was strong enough to take the final step. It was Liverpool’s defence across the course of a season, rather than Gerrard’s slip, which put paid to a first title in 24 years. And it is the same story for England. In consecutive games, they were aware of the opposition danger man, talked and prepared for him but lacked the defensive class to deal with him.
Gerrard feels time’s breath on his shoulder now. “When you get to this age you want to try to appreciate and savour every moment, achieve everything that is in your grasp,” he said this week. “It is my last World Cup that’s for sure – 100 per cent – and my time is running out as an England player. So I want to try and grasp as many good memories as I can.” He told the young players this week that it would be a long and frustrating summer if they went home early and that getting over it “can take an awful long time”. England awoke to a sense of loss yesterday but Gerrard was dealing with a tragedy.