He stands, legs askew and head declined, staring bitterly at the cold wet ground. The mud splatter decorates his jersey like blood from a violent battle. Our warrior is tired. He is beginning to feel his age.
The frustration is evident on his increasingly careworn face as he trudges desolately toward his post in the semi-circle.The ball had run past his outstretched leg and out for a throw-in. It's late in the game and we are winning. The rest of the team is in high spirits. No-one notices the desolation on our icon's face—the grim acceptance of a long feared eventuality that alights in his eyes. He is beginning to feel his age.
The ball ran past his outstretched leg. A seemingly innocuous incident that, in a micro-chasm sums up the problem our hero is facing that we all want to ignore. The ball never used to run past his leg. He used to have trouble not outrunning the ball. He used to be captain fantastic. He used to rescue us from the pits of deepest desperation and hopelessness when all seemed lost. He was our very own knight in shining red armor. Now his armor is mud splattered and—like him—looks worn out. He is beginning to feel his age.
Liverpool Football Club has—to use a thoroughly worn out cliche—been on a rollercoaster ride over the last few seasons. From Champions of Europe to second in the League to practically bankrupt and now to a new dawn and rebuilding for a future we once feared was lost, we have pretty much tasted all the peaks and troughs that football has to offer.
Only one thing through all that time has remained unwavering and true. The greatest single claim to relevance Liverpool has had for the last few years has been our possession of a prized, envied and adored central midfielder. Our Captain. The great Steven Gerrard.
He has been the envy of teams throughout the globe for his dynamism, his dedication, his willingness to put in the spade work, his vision and incisive runs, and his uncanny ability to pull something special out of his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks.
We all remember the volley against Olympiakos, the wonder goal against West Ham in the F.A cup final, the free kick against Villa and the header in the Champions league final that spurred the most unlikely comeback recorded in the annals of that great competition. For years and years at Liverpool he has been worth his weight in gold.
But he is beginning to feel his age.
I honestly do not remember what game it was where the incident discussed above occurred. At the time it barely even registered with me. It was just another minor inconvenience in yet another bi-polar season for Liverpool FC. And yet it stuck somewhere in the back of my mind like a parasite unwilling to let go. It was as if it had some hidden significance that my subconscious had figured out but my brain had failed to register. Until finally, one morning last week, it dawned on me like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.
Steven Gerrard is 30 years of age. He has been injured consistently this season. There have been no serious injuries—just a sequence of small niggles that seem to be cropping up now with worrying frequency. He is a player who has always given 110 percent physically throughout his career. It was only a matter of time before all the gut-bursting runs and last ditch tackles and all-action heroics caught up with him. He is after all only human.
Remember Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko. Remember Roy Keane. Players who for long times define the teams that they play with and embolden that team with the sort of unparalleled physical commitment that Gerrard has given to Liverpool always end up, at the same rough stage in their careers, getting this series of injuries that saps their legs and reveals their true age.
We all want to close our eyes and ignore the truth. We all want to put our fingers in our ears and hum loudly. "He's only 30" we say,'he has a few more years in him yet.' I understand the denial. I understand the fear and doubt that pervades when a true Liverpool fan thinks—even for a second—about the loss of our icon.
But it is time to face the facts.
He is 31 in May. He is constantly sidelined. He has slowed down and is not scoring the same amount of goals that he used to. He does not dictate the play like he once did. He is, more and more, a peripheral figure in games.
Now I am not saying we should drop him or sell him. No way. I'm not even saying that he is completely finished. It could well be that there is more gas in his tank. But we have to be real here and face the fact that, even if this is not the end for Stevie G, his finish line is coming into sight.
In January we lost one of our two star players and reacted by panicking and overspending vastly on Andy Carroll, in a late and expensive attempt to slam the gate shut after the £50 million horse had bolted for pastures bluer.
Our second superstar will soon need replacing too. And hopefully we will do that before—as is the case in Manchester—it becomes painfully obvious that the jig is up. But we as fans must now accept that—while we may have made a decent effort at replacing the teams killer instinct—we must now face into trying to replace its heart and soul.
And that may mean there is a bigger storm on the horizon than any we have come through to this point.