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News & Comment

Gerrard's battle to breathe in claustrophobic city

The high-profile leader of a Liverpool side seeking to end their title drought does not have it easy off the pitch, writes Sam Wallace

When he sat in his police cell in Southport yesterday, Steven Gerrard will have had plenty of time to reflect on what the previous 24 hours had served up for him and, beyond all the usual worries about the welfare of his wife, children and friends, there will doubtless have been another looming concern. The title race. Because in Liverpool nothing can be allowed to shake the team's sense of purpose.

Top at the halfway point, Liverpool are only just starting to believe that this could be their year after 17 seasons of waiting. Two goals from Gerrard in the 5-1 thrashing of Newcastle, Chelsea drawing at Fulham – no wonder Gerrard felt like celebrating on Sunday night. Let's not get carried away: one altercation in Southport does not undo all that. But it lays that seed of doubt that when everything should be going smoothly – when at last the momentum is building – something like this comes along to make you wonder whether Liverpool are ever going to get a break.

Gerrard has not yet been charged and there is no suggestion that he has done anything wrong. The bare facts are that he, and five others, were arrested in the Lounge Inn restaurant, bar and nightclub on Bold Street in Southport on Merseyside at 2.30am on Monday morning. The DJ at the club was taken to hospital and as of last night Gerrard was in police custody in Southport.

Whatever the fallout, it is an unwelcome wrinkle in what had been a fabulous Christmas for Liverpool and Gerrard. After draws against Hull and Arsenal, Liverpool scored eight goals, dispatching Bolton and Newcastle in the two games after Christmas Day. They anticipate the return of Fernando Torres from injury after the FA Cup third round next weekend. But, of course, the one man they cannot afford to be without, the one man whose head must be right if Liverpool are to be champions is Gerrard.

The reason he was in Southport, a posh satellite town north of Liverpool, is because it is safer for Liverpool's players, especially their most famous player, to do their socialising outside the city centre. Robbie Fowler famously complained that, as a footballer walking into the average Liverpool bar or pub, he reckoned half the clientele wanted to shake his hand and the other half wanted to fight him. Gerrard was doing himself a favour by sticking to Southport, home of the likes of Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish, who settle there for the privacy and the golf courses.

Given that Gerrard is unlikely to figure against Preston North End in the FA Cup on Saturday, it must have seemed like a safe bet to go out in Southport, although there is no such thing as a safe bet when you are as famous as Gerrard in a city that can feel as claustrophobic as Liverpool. As a son of Liverpool from the Bluebell estate in Huyton – four of the others arrested were from Huyton too – Gerrard has known the tough side of his hometown.

In April, Gerrard's father Paul testified in court to the character of John Kinsella, who was later found guilty of robbery at Liverpool crown court but then absconded. Kinsella, Paul Gerrard said in a letter to the court, had helped sort out a problem for his son. The problem was a man called George Bromley Jnr, known locally as "The Psycho", who had threatened to shoot Gerrard in the legs.

As well as having to dodge "The Psycho", who chased him home from training on one occasion, Gerrard also has to deal with the antipathy of the blue half of the city. Not all Everton fans are guilty of it, far from it, but there are many who sing a certain song about Gerrard that is one of the most unpleasant still heard in football grounds. Unfortunately it is catching on – it could be heard at the Emirates this month – and it is not a taunt that anyone should have to put up with.

In his autobiography, Jamie Carragher, Gerrard's team-mate and a former diehard Evertonian, described the song in question as "personal, vindictive and disgusting". "It goes beyond the kind of banter that is acceptable in any form of life, not only football." There is no suggestion this song played a part in the events of Monday morning but it is an indicator of what Gerrard has to endure.

Given his profile in Liverpool, Gerrard has done well to avoid the kind of incident that occurred in Southport. In October 2001 he had to apologise to the then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson for drinking late in another bar in Southport the day before the England team met up for the famous World Cup qualifier against Greece at Old Trafford. Gerrard's reaction to the incident in his own autobiography was "So fucking what?" He said that he had been in bed by 12.30am and, as a single man, had been "trying to pull a few birds, not get drunk". He suspected the culprit who tipped off the Daily Mail was a "cocky Everton lad" he had encountered in the bar.

Liverpool players tend to start their Christmas parties at Aldo's, the pub owned by former player John Aldridge in the city centre, and this year was fairly low-key. As the control-freak that he is, Rafael Benitez will be probably be more worried about Gerrard drinking than anything else but even he has had to accept that his superhuman captain needs to let off steam sometimes.

If Gerrard is seeking a reassuring precedent, he need look no further than when Sir Alex Ferguson had to collect a hungover Roy Keane from Bootle Street police station in Manchester four days before the 1999 FA Cup final. United still won and went on to win the Champions League, albeit without Keane. A night or two in the cells is no disaster – it is what happens afterwards that counts.

Steven Gerrard: This season's stats

*Premier League: 18 appearances (1 as substitute), 8 goals, 5 assists, 1,505 minutes on pitch

*Champions League: 7 appearances (1 as substitute), 5 goals, 1 assist, 534 minutes on pitch

*International 3 appearances, 1 goal, 237 minutes on pitch