In the buIld-up to the World Cup, ITV laid on a dinner for our clients – the advertisers, advertising agencies and media buyers we do business with. Roy Hodgson was kind enough to come along for me to interview in front of our exuberantly enthusiastic guests. He was happy to take some questions from the floor, one of which went: “I don’t expect a straight answer to this, but who is the one player who can win the World Cup for England?”
“I’ll give you a straight answer to that,” said Roy. He paused very briefly, just long enough for the room to fall even more silent, before saying, “Steven Gerrard. Steven Gerrard can win us the World Cup.” Enough said.
I first met Steven before the European Championships in 2012. It was at a golf day the Football Association had laid on for the players, some sponsors and some ladies and gentlemen of the press. I was playing in a fourball with Roy Hodgson; Steven’s fourball was two holes ahead of us. So I kept catching sight of him on adjacent fairways. On each occasion I was so mesmerised at the sight of him, so close, that I fluffed my next shot. That’s my excuse anyway.
Later, I caught his eye in the bar. My legs went all wobbly, but he came racing over, shook my hand and said, “Look after my mate in Warsaw, won’t you?” I was about to work with his best friend, Jamie Carragher, at the Euros. We had a nice little chat. Phew.
Jamie has known Steven right from the start, when he was an apprentice at Liverpool. I don’t think there can be anybody who knows Steven better as a man, and as a player, so I called him about this piece.
“You could always see he was going to be good,” says Jamie. “You knew he’d go on to be in the first team. But you wouldn’t necessarily have known he’d be one of the world’s best. You couldn’t know that about anyone.”
I spoke to Roy Keane, too. He’s a notoriously harsh judge of players; sparing with his compliments and rarely lavish in his praise.
But here’s what he had to say: “Gerrard has to go down as one of the greatest players to have played for England and in the Premier League. I’d put him on a level with Bryan Robson. I played against him when he first came on the scene and thought, ‘He’s not bad, this kid.’ He’s gone on to be a fantastic player. And it hurts me to say that about a Liverpool player.”
Given that a good word from Roy Keane is worth several of anyone else’s, that’s high praise indeed. Jamie, with a laugh, contrasts his team-mate’s leadership style with Roy’s: “As a captain Steven leads more by example than by shouting and screaming. He’s always more about giving advice than handing out rollickings.”
And this is the point about Steven; it ought to be impossible to play with his energy and courage and never-say-die attitude yet at the same time be so damned wholesome. Even his haircut is wholesome. He must have had precisely the same haircut since he was four years old. He’s probably using the same barber. No frills, no showing off, no bling, just cracking on with it.
It all adds up to a rare kind of player. Few fans of other clubs have a bad word to say about him, even as he’s tearing their teams apart. I’ve watched Steven be a key part of several efficient demolitions of my team, West Brom. Trust me, I hate seeing that. But I couldn’t help being full of admiration, even while watching him take us to pieces.
Look at the outpouring of sympathy he got after slipping to let Chelsea in to score in that crucial match at Anfield in April. I’d wager even Chelsea fans, while not quite wishing it hadn’t happened, would rather it had happened to anyone else in a red shirt.
I was so excited about working with him at the Champions League final in May that it was embarrassing. We were all looking forward to it. Roy Keane didn’t show it, but I’d bet even he was, slightly.
Steven turned up in his shorts, T-shirt and trainers. We all pretended to be nonchalant. We weren’t. On the pitch, he always looks gigantic; but in the flesh he’s somewhat slighter, and quieter. Every inch the reluctant celebrity.
“The really, really top players don’t go in for that celebrity stuff and all the bling and everything,” says Jamie. “It’s
the next level down who go for all that stuff.” Nicely put, I thought, as I looked at Roy and Steven sitting next to each other in our studio. But then we saw Ronaldo getting off Real Madrid’s team bus sporting a rucksack with so much jewellery on it that it may well have cost more than the bus. Perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule.
The big question for Steven now is what he can do for, and with, England this summer. He’s not the only Premier League star who seems to have burnt less brightly for the Three Lions. It’s something Jamie says will only spur his friend on: “He feels he hasn’t done quite enough with England. He just wants to get past that quarter-final barrier. He’s as sick as the rest of us of England going out on penalties. He’s got this burning desire to get to the semis, at least.”
Nice to know. And Jamie makes a fascinating point: “In the past with England, there were a lot of big egos there, mentioning no names. But now Steven’s the main man, certainly in Roy Hodgson’s eyes. And it really seems to suit him. He’s gone up another level now with England.”
Encouraging words. And he’s right about Roy Hodgson’s view of Steven. At the press conference before the Peru friendly in May it was fascinating to see the head coach twice defer to his captain beside him. In response to one question: “I don’t know how Steven feels – I’d be interested to hear his opinion.” And after making another point: “Again, I’m sure Steven will back me up.” I appreciate this says as much about Roy as Steven (imagine Fabio Capello being interested in anyone else’s opinion), but the respect was clear.
On another encouraging note, Jamie says that, psychologically, Steven might be in a better place than in previous World Cups, even after Liverpool’s calamitous last few games.
“He doesn’t hold on to things, dwell on them. But sometimes he does look as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, especially when he plays for England. It all means a lot to him. Maybe too much. I think [psychiatrist] Dr Steve Peters might be able to help.”
It wouldn’t take a shrink to diagnose a bad case of man-love in me for the England captain, but allow me one more story that I think speaks volumes. A couple of years ago a friend’s young nephew bumped into Steven on Merseyside. He asked for a picture and Steven obliged, but the lad’s phone was dead. The vague connection with me must have been mentioned because Steven said, “Tell you what, my mate Jamie works with Adrian, so I’ll take the picture on my phone and send it to Jamie, who’ll send it to Adrian, who’ll get it to you.”
How many photos do you think Steven’s been asked for in his time? And yet he went to that trouble. The lad got his photo. Steven’s plan came together. Let’s hope the same will be said of his summer in Brazil.
Adrian Chiles hosts ITV's World Cup coverage