Bob Lethaby pays tribute to a surprising international captain marvel.
Up until last week, I had long since given up on watching England play, or attempt to play football. The pathetic “Wally with the Brolly” surrender to Croatia in a 2007 qualifier, followed by our national team being the largest stain on an awful 2010 World Cup in South Africa, had me and many others, retreating to watching domestic football or indeed no football at all.
England were a disjointed team featuring detestable characters such as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand who basked in their narrow minded and elevated status at club level and felt themselves beyond criticism. It got worse still, with allegations of racism and extra-marital affairs leaving a squad full of factions and players who saw playing for England as an ordeal rather than the realisation of a childhood fantasy becoming reality.
The FA didn’t help, putting the players in gated communities during tournaments and putting up wives and girlfriends who shocked host nations with their arrogant and crass behaviour as they strutted around designer shops and restaurants. Needlessly grandiose elevation of the 2006 “Golden Generation” made team England a national side that had our European neighbours laughing at rather than fearing. It was really depressing.
This was a self-fulfilling prophecy as fans began to detest the players and the players themselves retreated back to the safety net of guaranteed adulation at clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea who were dominating the over-hyped crazy world of the Premier League, a league of crash bang entertainment but without the technical know how to teach players to do anything other than ‘play the channels’.
There aren’t many survivors from the chaos of the mid to late noughties but Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the much maligned midfield pairing of the golden generation, remain in place, Gerrard as the captain, Lampard as a willing starter or substitute who has, in is latter years, been willing to play whatever role suits the cause, knowing that the next game may be his last.
The way Lampard has conducted himself hasn’t surprised me. He is a well-educated man who has learnt from a family of footballers how to conduct himself and how hours and hours of training can get you to a level that can be maintained and adapted with the passing of the years. I watched him play in an out of sorts Chelsea side at Reading last year and it was incredibly apparent that he was a player who had experienced thousands of situations on the football field and learnt from all of them. Without the need of pace he controlled all those around him and dictated the flow of the game through knowledge alone.
What I didn’t see coming was the maturity of Gerrard. Earlier in his career, he was beset by injuries, WAG culture, alleged links, threats and counter threats with the Liverpool underworld and an unsavoury, unsettling approach from Chelsea and their “If I want it, I get it” Russian Oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich.
When Gerrard was focused on football, he was peerless, a marauding, attacking midfielder of power, strength and a ferocious will to win that drove an average Liverpool team to an unprecedented European Cup victory and a ‘Roy of the Rovers’ wonder goal in the last minute of time to break West Ham hearts in the FA Cup Final a year later. Alex Ferguson tried tempt Gerrard but knew, because of the bitter history between the clubs, he had no chance. Chelsea thought they had him but at the last minute they were thwarted and Gerrard stayed put, turning down a guaranteed plethora of titles and medals as he did so.
Playing for England still didn’t suit him though and as his twinning with Lampard continued to fail, the national resentment towards him grew. Even at Reading, a club that only carries a middle classed passion for football, Gerrard copped stick. I can clearly remember the Madjeski Stadium, often a place with a library atmosphere, reverberating to “Where were you on Tuesday night” after yet another mediocre English performance in some Eastern European outpost. Gerrard was hated everywhere and the Liverpool supporters loyal to him, retaliated across the stadiums of England by singing “We’re not English we are Scouse.”
How easy would have it been for Gerrard to just pack in playing for England? Very easy I would say.
I first saw the rise of Gerrard in an awful 2010 performance when England were battered by a young and vibrant German side that were coasting to the latter stages as usual. Amongst the chaos, Gerrard kept fighting, and kept believing, knowing that as brilliant as Germany were, they were also inexperienced and one goal may just send them into panic. Long after everyone else had given up, Gerrard was still driving forward, desperately foraging for a consolation goal that might just spark a biblical revival like the one he inspired against AC Milan in the European Cup Final.
Roy Hodgson has seized upon that and made Gerrard captain and whilst England are way off competing at the top table of World football, at least there is a spirit and desire back within the team. The younger players respond to his dedication and his ability to drive players on with his enthusiasm. His after match interviews are concise and honest, there is none of that “We’re going to win this thing” attitude that had fans of Scotland and beyond salivating at the prospect of England’s spectacular and predictable demise. All the glitz and glamour has gone out of England and that is a great thing.
As Gerrard bludgeoned and battled his way to scoring the goal which sealed a frenetic and nervous win against the Poles, I couldn’t help but feel pleased for him. With the leadership coming from the maturity and experience of him, Hodgson, Frank Lampard and dare I say it, wayne Rooney, it will be England’s intention to go to the World Cup in 2014 with moderate expectations but the desire to give it a right good go and see where it takes them.
Whether the press in this country will allow them that honour, is, sadly, another matter entirely.
Check out more of Bob’s writing here – http://www.boblethaby.co.uk/