The story of how Luis Suarez openly accused his manager Brendan Rodgers of reneging on a promise and refused to train properly, yet ended up delivering arguably the greatest individual contributions in Liverpool’s Premier League history, has been an unsettling mystery, until now.
Liverpool’s principal owner, John W Henry, certainly talked a good game at the height of the player’s insurrection when he vowed to restore an old baseball concept about the importance of “loyalty to the uniform”, and Rodgers issued some pretty words about the importance of humility and forgiveness in management. But it is in the fine detail of Steven Gerrard’s new autobiography that we begin to see that it was because players listen to other players that Suarez did not join Arsenal and prospered at Anfield in that final year.
Such books are, by definition, self-serving. It would be unrealistic to expect Gerrard to provide fine detail on the causes of the ruck at Southport’s upmarket Lounge Inn in December 2008, after which he wound up behind bars for 23 hours charged with assault and affray – other than to say it was not about a Phil Collins record. “It amused people to think I’d go over and thump a DJ because he wouldn’t play my song. That wasn’t the case. The guy was a normal punter and we all got heated over nothing really,” he says.
But the Suarez story does provide insight, beginning as it does with an uneaten meal of salmon, pasta and salad served up by Alex Gerrard, the captain’s wife, at their Formby home in early August 2013. It was when her husband had pushed the food away, depressed by the prospect of Suarez forcing a move from Liverpool to Arsenal, that he began texting his Uruguayan team-mate.
“Luis, what’s going on here? We need to straighten this out” extracted several immediate replies, with the promise that the two would meet at the training ground the next day. And having convinced Suarez to end his rebellion by arguing – correctly, as events played out – that Liverpool would be “a better club than Arsenal” the following season, Gerrard brokered a meeting between Suarez and Rodgers – with both requesting the captain be present. Initial awkwardness on “the little leather couches” in Rodgers’ office preceded a breakthrough, and within hours Suarez was flying into training like a man possessed – as “Brendan and I kept shooting meaningful looks at each other,” says Gerrard.
Going by this version of history, Gerrard’s contribution makes it even more astonishing that Liverpool failed to agree a new contract for him, and that they could only manage a 15-minute meeting between his agent, Struan Marshall, and the club’s chief executive, Ian Ayre, the brevity of which stunned Gerrard. The Independent on Sunday’s Simon Hughes revealed at the weekend that the start of that meeting was delayed because Ayre was late and it was brief because those there to see Marshall had another appointment.
Gerrard’s use of his text- messaging facility goes well beyond quelling training ground rebellion. It has also clearly been at the heart of the club’s transfer market work for years. The process goes along the lines of: “We fancy ‘x’, Stevie. Please will you text him for us.” Gerrard was embarrassed when Rodgers asked him to “take a crack” at Toni Kroos this way – “He didn’t make me feel like I was a total idiot,” Gerrard reflects of his conversation with the German. Gerrard got the impression that Alexis Sanchez would like to play in the same team as him two summers ago, before the Chilean’s text “pointed out, politely, that he appreciated my career was coming towards the end and he felt he needed to be careful”.
The captain’s role in these stormy past few years for Liverpool has also included talking to prospective owners, from Dubai International Capital, to those Wild West boys George Gillett and Tom Hicks, and Fenway Sports Group. The contribution feels so pivotal, in fact, and Gerrard’s intuition so honed that it is hard to imagine the manager not feeling a chill of insecurity. Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, two of Rodgers’ early signings had, says Gerrard, “the bodies of little boys and I thought ‘Jesus, how are you going to cope?’” Right on both counts.
Gerrard has also questioned Rodgers’ tactics, such as the team’s open approach in the Champions League defeat at Basel last autumn – “I made a point in the press conference which was a message to Brendan. He picked up on it and made the same point at our team meeting.”
Unknown until now is Gerrard’s belief that Rodgers was also too gung-ho in the fateful 2-0 defeat at home to Chelsea in April 2014, when Gerrard slipped and Liverpool effectively lost the title. “I’ve never been able to say this in public before but I was seriously concerned that we thought we could blow Chelsea away,” he says. “I sensed an overconfidence in Brendan’s team talks. We played into Chelsea’s hands. I feared it then and I know it now.”
It is unclear whether he told Rodgers this, though the grief he felt over his error– which led him to seek any private sanctuary he could in the immediate aftermath, eventually flying to Monaco on a private jet Michael Owen put at his disposal – suggests that he places most blame at his own door. He also feels that his famous Anfield “We go again” pitch huddle after the win over Manchester City may have been a mistake: “Such intensity can often have the reverse effect – especially on the younger players.”
The book’s structure is clunky in parts, drawing many of Gerrard’s formative experiences into a narrative built around Liverpool’s 2013-14 campaign, but the mind of Gerrard has always been a source of fascination. He clearly took previous Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez’s cool approach to relationships more personally than Jamie Carragher did. He essentially disliked the Spaniard and views his decision to replace his popular assistant Pako Ayestaran with the uncharismatic Paco de Miguel – which many have seen as significant – as a sign of a controlling personality.
Yet he considered Benitez’s tactical grasp far better than Rodgers’ and later yearned for the glories of the Benitez era. The Spanish manager also appears to have excelled on the night – chronicled in excellent detail by Gerrard and Donald McRae – when Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise clashed at Monty’s karaoke bar in the Portuguese Vale do Lobo resort on a team-bonding trip before the successful 2007 Champions League tie at the Nou Camp. Bellamy later attacked Riise with an eight-iron but “Rafa handled it with a surprisingly light touch”, Gerrard says.
Rodgers’ coaching qualities seem to have saved Gerrard when he was struggling for form at the start of last season and asked the manager for a diagnosis. Rodgers studied videos and concluded that his captain’s problem was a reduced level of head movement – often a problem when midfielders are getting caught on the ball or struggling to make passes. Gerrard considers him a man-manager without equal.
But the inevitable tensions are never far below the surface. Text messages clearly being such an inherent part of the Liverpool communication system, last March Gerrard received a late-night missive from Rodgers, after he had already turned in, which led him to believe he would start against Manchester United a few days later. (“You’ve trained so well in the last couple of days. Can you come to my office in the morning before training?”) When Gerrard turned up to hear that he was not in Rodgers’ XI, he momentarily thought of letting him have it. “A sudden lump formed in my throat. I had a split-second decision to make. Do I have a go at him?”
That’s Gerrard for you: heart on his sleeve, emotion at the core of his being. It is the factor which has made every interview with him worth its weight. His contribution should have had Liverpool and their manager pleading with him to stay, learning about coaching and remaining at Anfield’s core. Who will be texting their transfer targets next summer? Jordan Henderson? Kolo Touré? It won’t quite have the same effect.
‘Steven Gerrard, My Story’ is published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, £20
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