Gerrard's loyalty avoids 'catastrophe' at Anfield

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The Independent Football

If Steven Gerrard wants to know what he has gained by spurning Chelsea and remaining at the club he supported as a boy, he should buy a Newcastle United video, slip it into his recorder, and watch the reaction to an Alan Shearer goal.

There is no sound in English football quite like the reception Shearer receives at St James' Park; it is a mixture of belief, awe and gratitude. Following another penalty shoot-out defeat in another European Championship eight years ago, Shearer was the most marketable commodity in the English game.

Had he signed for Manchester United, as many, including Alex Ferguson believed he would, he could have added five more championships to go with the one he took at Blackburn, two FA Cups and a European Cup.

At Newcastle he has famously won nothing, but the depth of the affection he earned by coming back to Tyneside is something Old Trafford could never have given him.

These days, the centre of a footballer's being is supposedly his wallet, rather than his heart, but yesterday's press conference in an Anfield trophy room that is not as well stocked as it was when Gerrard was growing up in nearby Huyton was one for the romantics.

Michael Owen, whose own contract at Liverpool dangerously has a year to run, said Gerrard's departure would have been "a catastrophe". Indeed, it was the fear that both these glittering products of their youth academy would leave Anfield that brought about the end of Gérard Houllier's regime, although Liverpool had requalified for the Champions' League.

Gerrard has much to thank Houllier for. His manager fast-tracked him into the senior squad, made him captain and constantly encouraged his development as a player and as a man. The two people to whom Gerrard habitually pays tribute are Liverpool's academy director, Steve Heighway and Houllier. "He made me a better player and a better person."

And yet it was Gerrard's insistence that Liverpool must show significant signs of improvement or he would leave - almost certainly to Chelsea in a deal that would have broken the British transfer record of £30m and made him the country's highest-paid footballer - that triggered the move for Rafael Benitez.

As someone who joined the club in 1988, the year Liverpool stormed to the championship and Chelsea were relegated, the old Anfield saying of "first is first and second is nowhere" would have struck a chord in the young man. In Liverpool terms, fourth is nothing. When he signed his latest four-year contract in November, Gerrard supposedly wrung a gentleman's agreement from Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, that he could leave if the club did not begin to move forward. Gerrard confessed yesterday to having had four serious meetings with Parry. Many inside and outside Anfield thought this "gentleman's agreement" would be invoked.

"We had a few heart-to-heart discussions in recent weeks and there was a lot of soul-searching," Parry admitted yesterday. "He is fiercely ambitious and we respect that completely.

"We always hoped fervently we could persuade Steven to stay but in the end not a lot of persuasion was needed. This was his decision, a decision from the heart. This is a club he has loved since he was a boy; he couldn't leave."

A few weeks ago, it seemed Gerrard could, very easily. When Benitez was introduced as Houllier's successor earlier this month, he was asked how he would go about making Gerrard stay. He said he would fly to Lisbon and speak not just to Gerrard but to Owen, although he was not given much chance of success. To have secured Gerrard's services without having to increase his salary can be counted a major triumph against the odds.

On the final day of the season, the one in which Houllier came into the boardroom and was stunned by the coldness of his reception, it seemed the European Championship would provide the perfect platform for a midfielder counted among the very best in the world. According to the former Liverpool player, Alan Kennedy, Gerrard had been the difference between "fourth and nowhere". Instead, the tournament passed him by.

Nevertheless, the rebuff to Chelsea, whose money has failed to tempt Deco back into Jose Mourinho's arms, will be welcomed across Stanley Park. If Gerrard can say no to Roman Abramovich, what price Wayne Rooney?

STEVEN GERRARD LIFE AND TIMES

1980: Born 30 May in Huyton.

1998: Signs professional terms.

1999: August: Scores against Luxembourg on England U-21 debut. September: One of three sent off in Merseyside derby.

2000: May: Included in Euro 2000 squad and makes England debut in 2-0 friendly win against Ukraine. June: Substitute in England's win against Germany but injured for final group game.November: Misses England friendly in Italy, having missed World Cup ties with Germany and Finland with back injury.

2001: March: Misses World Cup qualifier in Albania with back trouble. August: Signs an extension to his contract which will keep him at Anfield until 2005. September: Scores with terrific long-range shot in 5-1 win against Germany. October: Spotted drinking 11 hours before he is due to join squad for World Cup tie against Greece. Apology to Sven Goran Eriksson accepted, and the matter is closed

2002: May: Ruled out of World Cup finals with groin injury.

2003: September: Gerrard appointed Liverpool captain as Sami Hyypia struggles with form.

November: Signs new contract to keep him at Anfield until 2007. Pulls out of England squad to face Denmark in a friendly at Old Trafford with back injury.

2004: March: Named England captain for friendly in Sweden in absence of David Beckham and Michael Owen.Plays in each of England's four matches in Euro 2004 when they are knocked out in the quarter-finals by the hosts, Portugal.

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