Liverpool in dire need of a fit and firing Gerrard
Dalglish knows he is lacking his talisman's goals and creativity – while captain must make a push for the Euros
It should have been the fulfillment of a long coveted wish when Steven Gerrard learned that Kenny Dalglish had been summoned from his cabin on a cruise ship in the Gulf to accept the Liverpool job in the depths of last winter. The Liverpool captain was growing up on Huyton's Bluebell estate when his father climbed the stairs to his room, handed over the vast image of a player and told him: "He's the man. The best player who ever turned out for Liverpool. Get him up on your wall." The picture of Dalglish stayed up there for years.
The experience of playing for the man on the wall has been more complicated, though. Gerrard was 32 minutes into his first game of the Glaswegian's new managerial era when he was dismissed for a challenge on Michael Carrick at Old Trafford in January, and he has featured in only 11 matches for the club since. Surgery to the groin which had plagued him for several years, compounded by an unrelated ankle infection, have contributed to the most miserable 12 months of the 31-year-old's career. Never across the course of a calendar year, since he first broke through in the 1999-2000 season, has Gerrard appeared fewer than 30 times for Liverpool in Premier League competition. This year's tally is a mere 12.
Behind the scenes, in those tense sections of his exchanges with television crews generally consigned to the cutting room floor, Dalglish has been relentlessly dampening down expectations. Only last week, he was privately bemoaning the way that talk of Gerrard's positive training sessions can translate into a "setback" TV story when Gerrard is not subsequently on the teamsheet. Few topics irritate this irascible manager more.
The reason is because Liverpool need Gerrard more than they dare admit. He was the player who plonked himself down next to John W Henry at lunch when the new Americans shipped up at Anfield last year, and who provided the owner's wife, Linda Pizzuti, with her most exhilarating moment as a Liverpool supporter – a front-row directors' box seat for his 14-minute hat-trick against Napoli. But he has not matched that night since and has been absent at a time when the goals he provides have been painfully hard to come by. Even Luis Suarez has been less prolific than Dalglish would like, with 12 goals in his first year at Anfield comparing unfavourably with Emile Heskey's 21, albeit in fewer starts. Of course, the absence for the remainder of this season of the injured Lucas Leiva also quickens the need for a restored Gerrard.
He seems unlikely to be back to the starting line-up before the visit to Manchester City next Tuesday, though to judge from Dalglish's demeanour this week there is uncertainty as to whether he may be relied on as exhaustively as in years past. The West Ham manager, Sam Allardyce, talks of how football for most players over the age of 30 is a process of managing pain and, after the injuries Gerrard has had to overcome, Liverpool will be looking anxiously for evidence that his old faculties can be restored. Though the groin surgery was something he had accepted was necessary, the unrelated ankle infection was a source of devastation and bewilderment.
Gerrard simply did not understand how an innocuous cut on the ankle, sustained during training in October, rapidly deteriorated in the 24 hours before the League trip to West Bromwich Albion, which Liverpool won 2-0.
The efforts to ensure full rehabilitation have been painstaking. Gerrard has spent a week in Abu Dhabi at the same facilities of Al Jazira FC where Everton's highly rated Ross Barkley undertook conditioning work in the pre-season, following his desperately bad leg break while playing for England's Under-19s last October. "We will just take it as diligently as we always do. We won't go stupidly throwing him in if he's not ready to last," Dalglish insisted. "We would rather have him until the end of the season than just for one game."
That desire to see him involved throughout the campaign will make Liverpool as anxious as they were in the autumn that they are the player's priority ahead of England, though Gerrard's sense of responsibility to Anfield will be accompanied by a need to get back into Fabio Capello's thoughts. Scott Parker's emergence as the national side's most improved player this year and Jack Wilshere's imminent own return to light training point to a fight ahead for a meaningful role at next summer's European Championships.
Gerrard can be an introspective soul at the best of times and these conflicting responsibilities will be playing on his mind as he seeks to get back to football for good, though sometimes it can be best to strip away the mental dimensions and simply play.
Dalglish's relentless attempts to throw cold water on the Gerrard factor led him to a rhetorical question on Wednesday. "How do we know how different it would have been if Steven had been playing?" he said. "I think Russell Grant is your man."
But the answer was on the pitch, not in the stars. Gerrard had been on the field for 10 seconds of his 20-minute return against Blackburn on Boxing Day before delivering the arcing free-kick which Maxi Rodriguez ought to have converted with the goal at his mercy. For captain, as well as team-mates, it may be a case of getting back into the habit.
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