The Saturday Interview
Experience matters: football is ageist, says Steven Gerrard
Liverpool legend tells Ian Herbert you need old heads to play alongside young pups and that it hurts for his team to be so far behind United ahead of tomorrow's match at Old Trafford
Football is no country for old men. Jamie Carragher once said that players are dispensable commodities when it all boils down and as Steven Gerrard surveys the landscape on a foggy morning at Melwood it certainly looks that way. Frank Lampard is being ushered to the exit at Chelsea, while at Liverpool it seems as if the ones being shown in need not have applied if they are over 23. Thursday's Liverpool Echo had Brendan Rodgers proclaiming "We need to find new Scouse talent" plastered across its front page. Somehow, it's all about the joy of the new.
Liverpool's aversion to older players – 24-year-old Oussama Assaidi is the elder statesman of the five purchased by Rodgers – has been forged by the bitter experience of spending on Stewart Downing and Joe Cole, rather than observing Robin van Persie, a 29-year-old, who can do them some damage this weekend.
With the greatest respect, Gerrard believes his own club's policy is wrong. "I disagree with it, to be honest," he says. "I've seen many signings throughout the world who have gone to clubs at the age of 28, 29 or even older and done fantastic jobs. If Chelsea don't keep Frank Lampard and another big club comes and gets him and he produces top attacking midfield performances for the next two years, they'll regret it. What is he, 34? I can understand the policy that everyone wants young, bright, British players. I can understand it. But I don't agree with it 100 per cent, that it should be the only way. I think you've got to add experience to young gifted players. At this level you need experience as well."
The administrators of football clubs talk about "sell-on value" in their zeal for the young, but football people will tell you that's one of the most over-used concepts in the transfer market. As a senior member of the coaching staff of a top-four club told me this week: "Sell-on value is for squad purchases you might want to sell. But why would you ever want to plan for the sale of your big signings?"
And that doesn't account for the influence a more experienced player will bring. Gerrard will tell you all about Gary McAllister, 35 when Gérard Houllier signed him for Liverpool from Coventry City in 2000. Gerrard, a 20-year-old at the time, remarked to his team-mates when Houllier was out of earshot that McAllister was surely "over the hill". When his agent, Struan Marshall, told him that he should listen and learn from a player who would be brilliant for Liverpool, Gerrard replied: "Fuck off, Stru. McAllister can fucking well learn off me." How wrong he was. Gerrard has never forgotten the way McAllister – an Anfield legend now – helped him to develop his selection of passing with quiet asides during games. The young Gerrard would even time his run to the bus for away games so he could sit next to him. He'll tell you that every journey was a lesson.
"Bucketloads," is 32-year-old Gerrard's assessment now of how much he learned from McAllister. "I look at Aston Villa now and the majority of them are going to be fantastic players in time but in my opinion that team at the moment needs two or three old heads in to guide them."
Gerrard's faculty to guide Liverpool has not always been there in a difficult first five months under Rodgers. There have been five goals in 32 games and he has sometimes looked so lost in Rodgers's reshaped three-man midfield that some of Liverpool's most intelligent chroniclers from outside the mainstream media have questioned whether a starting place is his divine right.
The Gerrard of old has been restored in the past month, though adapting to the Rodgers way has been difficult. The manager said in late November that the captain's role had not changed and that "maybe something subconscious" was affecting him. But Gerrard relates how he and Rodgers specifically discussed him curbing some of his attacking instinct to compensate for Liverpool's attacking wing-backs. "He said when he plays two holding midfielders and one in front, he wants them to play as 'controllers' – his words – so 'you're playing a deeper role'. I'm fine with that; I play a similar role for England at the moment."
You sense that the public judgment of Gerrard – which reached a low after November's goalless draw at Swansea – has been a source of frustration, even though he isn't saying as much. "I just think when you've got a new team and there are young players in there, that when you've been around for a long time and maybe you're not scoring goals or setting them up maybe you don't get judged the same," he said.
Liverpool's season has been just as infuriating – Rodgers on the outskirts of a crisis in one Friday press conference and talking top four the next. You really needed to have seen the look on Gerrard's face to feel the full force of his discussion about his club sitting a full 21 points behind United this morning – and even two behind Swansea. "Not good enough," he says. "To be eighth and see United flying high again – of course it hurts. But what can you do? You have to carry on, keep fighting and playing and try and catch them."
Stability, or its lack of it, has set the two clubs on their radically divergent courses in the Premier League era. Only yesterday did former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett reach a legal settlement with Liverpool over how the ownership of the club was finally prised away from them.
Carragher will tell you that Sir Alex Ferguson was wrong in his famous assertion that United knocked the club off their "fucking perch" because Liverpool simply fell off it. "Every wound Liverpool has suffered has been self-inflicted," Carragher wrote in his autobiography. Meanwhile the United commercial juggernaut has powered on and on.
"As a player I don't like speaking of where United are off the pitch commercially," Gerrard reflects. "All I can worry about is what's on the pitch and how far away we are. Everyone knows we're behind them at the moment. What we can do to get up to their level is bring in better players, too. But of course it hurts."
So the landmarks which 2012 delivered Gerrard – a 100th international cap, becoming the 10th player to chalk up 600 Liverpool appearances – are as nothing compared with the vaulting highs and lows which United games still deliver. From kissing that camera after the 4-1 Old Trafford demolition job of 2009 to the sending off in the FA Cup tie there two years ago this week which marked the beginning of Kenny Dalglish's ill-fated second coming.
"Yes [it's the best place to win and lose]," says Gerrard. "There and Goodison – although I never lose at Goodison! I've been fortunate to have some great victories there, and the difference between victories there and defeats is massive. You want to go out and celebrate and want the feeling to last a long time because you're usually winning against the champions and beating the champions on their own pitch. A fantastic feeling. But I have also come off after some bad defeats and it hurts a lot longer than other defeats."
That Gerrard will have the physical capability to give everything tomorrow is testament to Rodgers's sports science team – Ryland Morgans, Chris Davies and Glenn Driscoll – who have analysed his physical data like none of his previous Liverpool managers. "They've looked at all my figures from all the managers I've worked with before they've come in and my training programme is adapted around that. I get two days' recovery after every game. That doesn't mean total shutdown. It means doing the right things for a couple of days after a game. The day before a game I don't do any high-intensity work that could make me tired going into the game. Getting pulled back, if you like."
There has been no discussion of an extension to a contract which has 15 months left to run, despite Rodgers's determination to remove any doubt. "Nothing has been mentioned," Gerrard says. "I think I can play another three or four years. I'm not saying I want a contract for that length; nothing of the sort. But nothing has been spoken of yet."
That he might actually be pulling on the jersey at 36, in the manner of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, suggests that Liverpool may after all still share United's appreciation of age. Gerrard is not generally disposed to acknowledge the wisdom of Ferguson but on this point he is ready to make an exception. "Once your [John] Terrys and your Lampards are long gone I think they'll be appreciated even more," he says. "That's the way football is. It's a bit similar at United when Scholes and Giggs eventually move on. That's the reason why Alex Ferguson is holding on to them. If someone of his calibre – someone who's done what he's done in the game and with his knowledge – knows how important it is to keep hold of those players it tells you how important experience and top professionals are."
Super-annuated Reds: Liverpool signings over the age of 24
Gary McAllister, signed from Coventry, aged 35 Unlikely Bosman arrival from Coventry in 2000, the midfielder helped the club to five trophies in 2001.
Jerzy Dudek, from Feyenoord, aged 28 Unheralded keeper joined in 2001 and played 184 times, part of 2005 Champions League triumph.
Kenny Dalglish, signed from Celtic, aged 26 Scot joined in 1977 and went on to become a Liverpool legend, before two spells as manager.
Graeme Souness, from Middlesbrough, 25 Won five league titles and three European Cups with Reds after 1978 arrival. Returned as manager.
Sami Hyypia, from Willem II, aged 25 Finnish centre-back became cult hero at Anfield after arriving in 1999. Played over 300 games.
Luis Suarez, signed from Ajax, aged 24 Controversial Uruguayan moved to Anfield in 2011 and has scored 40 goals in 80 appearances.
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