It is a measure of the season Steven Gerrard has had that he almost didn't take the telephone call yesterday, informing him that he had been named Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association (FWA). The number on his mobile dial told him it was Liverpool's communications director Ian Cotton. "I was debating whether or not to take it because I thought I might have been in the papers for the wrong reason," Gerrard said.
The worst bulletins of the past nine months are well chronicled and the summer will reveal the outcome of the affray case which still hangs over Gerrard and which has cast an undoubted cloud on a spectacular season. But there have also been the medical bulletins which saw him miss two England World Cup qualifiers in September, the friendly against Germany in November and which have seen him sit out intermittent league games all season. "It was a nightmare pre-season," Gerrard said in the players' tunnel at Marseilles after his first return from injury, having contributed to the significant win which set his side on their way in the Champions League group stage.
Gerrard's contribution is the more remarkable for this. The injuries have limited his starts to 40 this season, so he has just had to pack the goals in that much faster. There have been 23 of them so far, ahead of Liverpool's visit to West Bromwich on Sunday – a figure equalling his previous best three season ago, in which he played 53 times. They have come at critical times, too. To go with the two in Real Madrid's brutal defeat at Anfield and the hat-trick against Aston Villa in late March, there was the afternoon of 14 March when he ripped past Manchester United's Patrice Evra to win a penalty, planted a smacker on a television camera after converting it and briefly ripped up the Premier League script.
Sometimes, the requisite powers needed at a club still painfully reliant on him and Fernando Torres have been beyond him. Thoughts spring to mind of the dropped points in the Premier League Anfield derby in January, the Liverpool captain blowing steam into the night sky, his face in a grimace 10 yards in front of his own box, as he tried to get Liverpool moving. His contribution went well beyond his goal that night, which is why the FWA vote has been a decisive one, with Gerrard beating six United players – Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well Chelsea's Frank Lampard – to become the first Anfield recipient of the writers' award since John Barnes, in 1990.
Symbolically, the Barnes award marked Liverpool's last league title and Gerrard's presence at Anfield at a time when the club finally looks capable of challenging United's hegemony is recompense for his decision to go with his heart and not leave Merseyside for Chelsea in the summer of 2005. There have been days in the four years since when he must have wondered about that decision, with the pressure which comes with being one of two Liverpudlians attempting to restore the club's pride more than perhaps any Premier League player must face. As he has put it: "I'm captain of one of the biggest clubs in the world, where you're expected to win every single game. Sometimes after a defeat, sitting on that bus, you feel as if you've got the world on your shoulders. Phone calls are coming in left, right and centre. It can get on top of you."
All the harder for an introspective soul like him and not a weight of responsibility which Liverpool's other recipients of the FWA award have faced. Steve Nicol, Kenny Dalglish and Terry McDermott were outsiders, playing in triumphant Liverpool sides, not Liverpudlians bearing the weight of responsibility. "They were heroes to my dad and so many other Liverpool fans," Gerrard said yesterday.
Though their relationship has taken some time to evolve, it is the understanding between Gerrard and Rafael Benitez which has been such a big part of him beating Giggs to the prize, by 10 votes. This has been the first full season in which the Spaniard has deployed Gerrard regularly in an advanced role behind Fernando Torres, free of the "graveyard shift" on the left wing, as he had come to know and loathe it. The partnership with Torres has been integral to Liverpool taking a major step closer to former glories. The side have lost none of the 12 games he and Torres have started together in the Premier League, won nine and netted 24 times in the process. "It's down to Rafa, he's helped me a lot," Gerrard said recently. "He's certainly helping me to improve in this position and I've been playing it quite a lot for Liverpool now, getting my head around it and really enjoying the freedom of playing in there. I've got two holding midfielders behind me at Liverpool doing an awful lot of running for me and freeing it up for me. That's when you get the best out of me, when I'm free to run at defenders and cause danger in the attacking third."
The events of this summer will dictate whether Gerrard is to continue in this role. Asked how Gerrard might fit in if Liverpool do sign Valencia's David Silva or another big-name attacking midfielder, Benitez recently suggested he might be ready to change the system. "Stevie can also play as a midfielder," he said.
Gerrard can now look forward to a 29 May awards ceremony which crowns a season in which he has scored his 100th goal for Liverpool, marked a decade at the club, been Premier League player of the month once and been awarded a new five-year contract. "I was a little bit surprised but when I did take the call and got the news, it was a great feeling for me," Gerrard said.
Gee Whizz: Four games where Gerrard ran the show
Newcastle 1 Liverpool 5 (28 December 2008, Premier League)
The captain inspires a Yuletide rout at St James' to deepen the Magpies' relegation fears and open up a three-point gap over Chelsea to top the Premier League going into 2009. Gerrard scored the first before adding a fourth after a fine solo run.
Liverpool 4 Real Madrid 0 (10 March 2009, Champions League)
Orchestrates humbling of La Liga side as the Reds stroll to a 5-0 aggregate victory. Goals from Gerrard either side of half-time lay the foundations for a historic victory.
Manchester United 1 Liverpool 4 (14 March, Premier League)
Gerrard again leads the way as the Reds storm to victory to close the gap on United to four points. His penalty gives Reds the half-time lead before late goals from Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena condemn United to heaviest home loss in 17 years.
Liverpool 5 Aston Villa 0 (22 March, Premier League)
The midfielder hits his first league treble as Liverpool coast to a win that worsens Villa's slide and move the Reds to within a point of United at the top.
Steve Gerrard has scored 23 times in 42 games this season, equalling his best tally for a single campaign.
Number of games Gerrard has played for Liverpool. He made his debut as a late substitute for Vegard Heggem, against Blackburn in November 1998.