The Anfield legend prepares to face the club he came close to joining for the last time in the Premier League on Sunday, after a chequered history with Jose Mourinho’s side
COMMENT By Rich Jolly Follow on Twitter
Forget the good, the bad and the ugly, this has been the ecstasy, the agony and the ignominy. Steven Gerrard’s relationship with Chelsea is long, complicated and often unhappy. They are the enemies who could have been allies, the opposites who could have formed a compelling combination.
The Gerrard farewell tour reaches Stamford Bridge on Sunday, a rival stronghold that could have become his home. The Liverpool captain will have to give the new champions a guard of honour. Others have never been in a position to afford him the same accolade.
While Cesc Fabregas, the midfield dynamo who had captained another of the contenders, ended his long wait to win the Premier League by joining Chelsea, Gerrard took the alternative approach. He said no. Directly and indirectly, Chelsea are the reason why he has never won the medal he wanted most.
Had he accepted Jose Mourinho’s overtures in 2004 or 2005, he would be a multiple winner now. But for the cruel moment when Gerrard’s touch and then his balance deserted him last April and Demba Ba raced away to score at Anfield, Liverpool would surely have been the most improbable champions of the Premier League era.
Far from providing a crowning glory to a career, the last 13 months have brought an undignified decline. Yet what it has showed is that the Liverpool public will forgive a slip or a stamp. Joining Chelsea, as Fernando Torres can testify, brings rather less understanding at Anfield.
Weeks after the miracle of Istanbul, after Gerrard had delivered one of the greatest individual performances in the history of Champions League finals, Mourinho nearly got his man. The Scouser submitted a transfer request. Merseyside was aghast.
“When I saw fans burning an old Gerrard 17 shirt by the Shankly Gates, it did my head in,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “Could I really put on a Chelsea shirt and face Liverpool in front of the Kop?”
He couldn’t. He didn’t. He preserved his legend in Liverpool and denied Chelsea their dream signing. It is one of the great unanswered questions of Gerrard’s career if he and Frank Lampard, England’s odd couple, could have dovetailed perfectly and profitably for Chelsea with Claude Makelele behind them to do their dirty work. The chances are that Mourinho would have found a way to make it work.
In one respect, Chelsea haven’t suffered. When they have met Liverpool, Gerrard has scored as many goals for his current employers as he has for his former suitors: one apiece. He even had an inadvertent assist that had huge consequences.
Even that sole strike, in 2005, counted for little. It came in a 4-1 defeat. Earlier that year, Liverpool were on course to win the League Cup final until Gerrard headed Paulo Ferreira’s free-kick into his own net. Chelsea went on to secure their first trophy under Mourinho. He also helped supply them a second piece of silverware with a horribly misplaced back-pass that Didier Drogba intercepted in the penultimate game of the 2009-10 title race.
His return of one goal in 39 games against Chelsea is extraordinary, especially as Gerrard averages one every 3.6 matches against everyone else over his 17 years in a Liverpool shirt. There have been times when he has been blisteringly brilliant against Everton and Manchester United – not to mention Real Madrid and AC Milan – but rarely Chelsea.
Yet while frustration has been familiar, with two cup final defeats and a semi-final setback as recently as January, there were twin triumphs. Liverpool’s two Champions League semi-finals against Chelsea, in 2005 and 2007, were defined by Jamie Carragher’s red-faced defiance, rather than Gerrard’s blockbusting qualities, but the first took them to Istanbul, and he was involved in the build-up to Luis Garcia’s ghost goal.
And Gerrard was hugely influential in the second. His well-worked free-kick led to Daniel Agger’s goal at Anfield. He held his nerve in the penalty shootout. Chelsea have since denied him a Premier League title. Perhaps, however, Mourinho would have claimed the Champions League as Chelsea manager if it were not for Gerrard.
Football has its own sliding-doors moments. But for a burned shirt, a panic attack, frantic conversations with his Liverpool-supporting father, his agent, even David Moores, perhaps he would be preparing to say goodbye to Chelsea after a decade of stalwart service.
His name will ring around Stamford Bridge on Sunday, simply because it seems to at virtually every ground, whether or not he plays, as the moment he presented the ball to Ba is remembered in mocking chants. It could have been chorused in celebration instead, and not just by the minority of visitors in the away end.
Instead, he remained the personification of Liverpool, the loyalist local who has been a common denominator in unlikely successes and galling defeats alike. He would never have attained quite such prominence at Chelsea and they have rarely seen the best of him. Not, as they hoped, in Blue, and too infrequently in Red. Gerrard’s greatness was proved against other clubs, rather than Chelsea.
But if Chelsea figure in the regrets of a brooding, introspective character when he goes, not joining them is unlikely to be one.
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