Gerrard looks back: 'When it came to the crunch, I couldn't let go'

The Liverpool captain lifted the European Cup after the most dramatic final in history - and then came close to leaving Anfield. Andy Hunter continues our series of interviews with key sporting figures of 2005
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The Independent Online

The decision was laden with consequence, but ultimately the desire to showcase his gift on a grander stage consumed Steven Gerrard to the extent that he left Liverpool this year. And you thought you knew how the story ended.

Gerrard did take his leave of Liverpool in this, the most remarkable season of his exceptional career, Liverpool 23 to be precise, and relocated his young family five miles further north of Blundellsands on the north Merseyside coast to Formby, home to pine woods, three members-only golf courses, footballers of varying vintage, one of the few remaining red squirrel colonies in Britain and now a Red with a more certain future. In keeping with all that 2005 will be remembered for at Anfield, it was a move with inextricable links to one unforgettable night in Istanbul. The night of 25 May brought Liverpool their finest moment for 21 years and the greatest of their captain's 25.

The European Cup final that Gerrard ranks on a par with the birth of his daughter Lilly-Ella requires no repetition as every goal, miss and penalty kick is already etched into football's psyche, as is the inspiration provided by Liverpool's home-grown, talismanic leader.

Having seized a game that was heading towards humiliation at half-time, the midfielder eventually sank his teeth into a winners' medal of such magnitude that he felt compelled to buy a new house. Allow him to explain. "I've just moved into a new house, and, to be honest, there was a bit of friction with my girlfriend over what to do with certain rooms. One of the ideas behind the move was to have a special room to record everything I have done so far. I managed to get the whole top floor, to turn it into a memorabilia room so you can imagine where that medal is, right in the middle, hanging on a mannequin. It is pride of place.

"When I go into the house that is my favourite room because all of my football memories are in there, shirts of the top players I've played against, all my medals and individual awards. In that respect the last year has been very special; it has helped top the room off. It's partly a games room too so when the boys come round that's where I like to spend my time. It's quite big, but not the biggest room in the house; I don't have that much sway over Alex."

Self-deprecating humour is a constant Gerrard trait and, along with intense loyalty to family and friends, indicates that the image of the fierce competitor is not always what it seems. Photographs of the man from Huyton hoisting the European Cup aloft are also on viewchez Gerrard, although the turmoil the Liverpool captain endured in Turkey is captured in the moment a dancing Jerzy Dudek foils Andrei Shevchenko for the final time at the Ataturk Stadium.

Euphoria engulfs Liverpool's outfield players at the cusp of victory - Jamie Carragher's jaw plummets towards his rolled-down socks - with the exception of a stony-faced Gerrard, who was due to take the final, decisive penalty only five weeks after vowing to never take one again following a failed attempt against Tottenham. "I was last to react because I had to grasp the fact that I didn't have to take the penalty," he admits. "I had prepared myself so much for that penalty - I knew exactly where it was going, so it was just relief."

Gerrard would have to write a book to record his memories of Istanbul, and one day soon he will, though it is the unscripted final's fitting denouement that is both the most vivid and liable to animate the midfielder more than any other recollection. "As Shevchenko walked up to take the pen, Carra shouted across, 'It's all going to be down to you, son!' I thought, 'I know that, cheers'," he reflects. "I knew I was going to have to step forward and take the last penalty, because Shevchenko is not going to miss from 12 yards, it's impossible. But I don't think he was fully focused.

"He was still thinking back to the chance when he could have won it for them in extra time and Jerzy pulled off a world-class save. For the best striker in the world, on current form the best finisher in the world, to miss from six yards and then from 12 yards, well, it's your night. Simple as that. If he was to get those two chances now he would take them 10 times out of 10, but that night he missed both. That's why we play the beautiful game! A penalty shoot-out is a horrible way to lose a final and I am just glad it was our night because I don't know how it would have affected us this season. It would still be on my mind now."

Shevchenko spared Gerrard the unimaginable pressure of that concluding spot-kick, and it is telling that the Liverpool captain's emotions from that night are tied to a sense of release. Before Olympiakos arrived at Anfield for the defining group game, Gerrard announced that he could not wait for the game's ultimate prizes and, with Liverpool only four minutes from exiting the competition, delivered the goal that carried them through. Similarly, there was "a weight of history on us" in the final, and having vowed to continue the chain of Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson and Graeme Souness by lifting the European Cup, he responded to self-imposed demands again.

"It was do or die. It meant everything," he says. "I was watching the fans gathered in the main square on television, taking in the build-up in the papers, the manager's team talks: everything was different. Being a player at this football club is all about winning trophies. You hear ex-players going on about winning all those European Cups, everyone goes on about the successful sides of the past and if you are a player here and not winning things it seems like you are failing. So to get an opportunity to play AC Milan in a European Cup final, all I could think about in the days before was that it is impossible to come away as a loser. It can be a burden as a Liverpool player. Pressure builds up as the years go by. We won the treble in 2001 but the big trophies are the Premier League and the European Cup and now there is definitely a weight off my shoulders. I wouldn't say the burden is too heavy - there is a responsibility on every player, and especially on the captain - but I love it. It is what I have dreamt of and when the pressure is on and things aren't going well I like that challenge."

Gerrard, of course, embraced more traumas in 2005 than the captain of the European champions ever should. If this was the year he pledged his next four seasons to Liverpool then it was also the year where he came closest to saying goodbye. On the day Liverpool arrived back from Istanbul their No 8 was prepared for two parades, one on an open-top bus through the city's streets and the other in front of the media, having signed a new contract. Only the former took place.

Holidays and weddings interrupted negotiations that should have been a formality, and with several team-mates sealing new deals before his talks had even commenced, doubt soon replaced elation in the mind of the midfielder. On 5 July, dismayed by the lack of a firm contract offer from Liverpool, Gerrard submitted the first transfer request of his career. On 6 July, he withdrew it and signed the most lucrative deal in the club's history, though he denies that only at the point of separation did he truly appreciate what he had at Anfield. Gerrard insists: "I always knew what I had and what I would be leaving behind if the move did go through. When it came to the crunch though, I couldn't let go. Sometimes in football you can take what you've got for granted until you are put in a situation like I was put in.

"I didn't realise how hard I have worked to get to where I am. And it took some of my family to remind me of that, make me realise how proud I am to be here. Everything went through my mind at the time.

"I looked at players who had moved on and been successful and players who had stayed at the one club and been successful. I was thinking about my future non-stop through Euro 2004 and then it happened again the following summer. But it wasn't a case of thinking that I had to move on to be successful. I always knew that, if I was to stay, I could be successful here... It was down to miscommunication."

For the sake of genuine competition Gerrard mercifully stepped back from a £32m move to Chelsea only for a vociferous minority to challenge his reasons for staying at Liverpool. They are suspicions, it must be said, that have evaporated as Rafael Benitez's team have begun to challenge the Premiership's recent hegemony.

"I know what happened," he states as bluntly as that sentence reads. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion but no one on the planet knows what was going through my mind and no one knows what I was put through. I respect everyone's opinion but what I want to do with my life is up to me. It has moved on now, but I never had anything to prove anyway. When I decided to stay I knew that. This football club got me for nothing. I have given 100 per cent from day one and I will continue to do that.

"It wasn't as though the club had paid £15m or £20m for me and then I wanted to leave after a few seasons. I knew there was a small percentage of fans who were not happy when I stayed but I never felt as though I owed them anything. I just had to get back to giving everything for the shirt again."

Gerrard's brutal honesty is captivating, and he flatly rejects the suggestion that the past year has brought the ultimate lows as well as the best moment of his career. "Istanbul was the highlight but throughout that competition we dealt with so many challenges - Olympiakos, Juventus and Chelsea. People say we were lucky to win it, but we beat the champions of Italy and England. Obviously, what went on off the pitch wasn't good but I don't even think about that now."

One of the lesser known awards Gerrard received this year is "The Premiership Star You Would Most Like to Have a Pint With", as voted for by readers of a weekly lads' magazine. To those who associate the midfielder with the downbeat, occasionally surly character who appears on television in the aftermath of another pivotal performance, that may seem an odd choice, but in the flesh the accolade is entirely justified. Despite realising the childhood fantasy of many a male, that of the dynamic captain who conquers Europe with his home-town club, there is an air of normality around Gerrard that people easily identify with. He may have retreated to Formby, where he will soon welcome a second child, but returns to his childhood haunt of Huyton every week to visit family or to collect his friends for a night of snooker and The Office, his favourite programme.

An unlucky defeat in the Club World Championship final brought a deflating end to this calendar year for Gerrard and yet this season contains enough incentive for him to look ahead with renewed vigour. Domestically, Liverpool are developing in accordance with the philosophy that brought Benitez two Spanish titles with Valencia.

"People might look at this Liverpool team and say we have delivered but what I've noticed in the dressing-room is that winning the European Cup has made the lads even hungrier," he reveals. "It has made us all want to improve. We believe we have the squad to challenge for the Premier League now. Most of the lads in this squad have won every trophy except the Premier League so that is the aim this year. If not, improve again and do it next year, but we feel a title challenge is around the corner."

Then there is the small matter of Gerrard's first appearance at a World Cup in the summer. Injury deprived the England international of a place in Japan and, though he has struggled to impose his authority as consistently on Sven Goran Eriksson's team as he does at club level, his performance against Argentina has elevated confidence.

"When you beat Argentina like that and play so well you start to think you can beat anyone," he admits. "It is probably the most exciting team there has been at that level for a while. I think it will be such a waste if we go there and fail. It all depends on what England side turns up. We've got world-class players in Lampard, Rooney and Owen. We've got so many top centre-halves, the best left-back in the world, the experience of Gary Neville. The 2010 World Cup will be really difficult in South Africa but this one in Germany will really suit us. We've got to make the most of it."

Only two Englishmen, Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, have won both the European Cup and World Cup before and the thought of joining that select band fills Gerrard with awe. He leans back in his chair at Liverpool's Melwood training ground for the first time since the interview began as he digests the possibility of ultimate success in Germany, or is it the galling realisation that, once armed with a World Cup winners' medal, he will have to go house-hunting once again?

"No, I wouldn't need another room for that," he reveals. "I've left space."

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