James Lawton: Gerrard deserves place among the Liverpool legends

Jamie Carragher was no doubt awash with adrenalin and relief when he claimed his team-mate Steven Gerrard was the best player ever to pull on the red shirt of Liverpool. He had, after all, just watched Gerrard destroy Napoli with such single-handed authority and power he might have been a combination of Batman and Roy of the Rovers.

But is Gerrard better than Dalglish, Souness, Smith, Keegan, Rush, Callaghan, Hansen, Barnes, St John, Hunt and, for a few electric seasons, Michael Owen? It is a formidable roll call of extraordinary ability, and achievement, even when you exclude the man many Merseysiders will go to their graves believing was the best of them all: the legendary Billy Liddell.

For those of us who didn't see the Scotsman there is certainly no lack of glowing testament to his consistent brilliance along the wing. There are also two nuggets of evidence suggesting he indeed belonged in the very highest echelon. On the only two occasions a Great Britain team was selected, in 1947 and 1955, Liddell was included – at the expense of the great Sir Tom Finney. Sir Stanley Matthews played on the right in a 6-1 victory and a 1-4 defeat against the Rest of Europe, and in the first game some witnesses claimed they had never seen such wingers.

If Finney ever needed any reassurance after those rejections it would come, generously enough, many years later at the place where Liddell was so revered. Bill Shankly was asked how he would compare an up-and-coming star of the day, Tony Currie of Sheffield United and England, with his former Preston North End team-mate and idol. "Very favourably," Shankly said with due solemnity, "but remember Tommy is in his sixties now. However, I would still play him even in his overcoat."

No doubt Shankly would have loved Gerrard, and especially adored his ability to break open a game with his extraordinary eruptions of power and virtuosity, but then he also put a huge value on craft and guile and a mean fighting instinct. This, surely, would have carried Graeme Souness high on his list. For sheer accomplishment in what they did, Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Ian Rush and Ian St John would have received plenty of recognition in any assessment made in the shadow of Gerrard's current impact. He said of St John: "If he had been a boxer, as he could have been, St John would have been a middleweight. I love that weight. It has both power and speed."

Any inclination, though, to accuse Carragher of excessive partiality towards a friend and a team-mate, is impressively cautioned by a man who has either seen or played alongside all the contenders for the prize handed to Gerrard last week. Ian Callaghan, who would himself be on the long list of most sound judges, played 857 times for Liverpool, which makes him particularly well placed to bring down the stones from the top of the mountain.

He agrees with Carragher, after drawing up his own short list of Liddell, Dalglish and Gerrard. Still, a hundred questions rise up. Would Gerrard, if uprooted from Anfield, make the kind of impact in Italy that Souness did when he moved there after his superb contribution to Liverpool's achievements in Europe? Would he look quite so outstanding in a team surrounded by the quality that accompanied those such as Dalglish and Rush and Hansen on their journey along the peaks of the game?

Really, who can make such arbitrary judgements? Certainly, though, there is no hardship allowing Carragher his prejudice – and agreeing that he enjoys the company of one of the great Liverpool players.

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