EPL TALK: Tormented Gerrard has chance to finally dispel his demons

·5-min read
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Molly Darlington)

STEVEN Gerrard is a liar, in the way that all English Premier League managers are liars. He must emphasise the head over the heart and insist that Aston Villa and three points are all that matter on the final day of the season.

But this must be a lie. His true feelings were shared five years ago. “It still haunts me … it still hurts,” he said. “I’m the type of person that setbacks drive me on. I won’t give up trying to make up for that as long as I live.”

The setback was that slip. The slip. There’s only one slip because there’s only one Gerrard. The two are interchangeable and they really shouldn’t be.

Anyone with a passing interest in football, sport, karma or just the right thing happening to the right people should not want Gerrard and The Slip ever mentioned in the same sentence again.

Sport is cruel. Life is cruel. Naturally. But The Slip appeared to tip the scales too far the other way. Players make mistakes, but not the kind that are so stomach-churningly awful, they are branded on one’s wounded soul forever.

Or perhaps not. It’s not quite as certain as it once was.

On Sunday, Gerrard can honour his pledge from five years ago. He can reverse The Slip. He can fulfil the expectations of 2014 and finally help Liverpool win the title, by denying Manchester City. His Villains can be the heroes of the piece.

(Gerrard) can reverse The Slip. He can fulfil the expectations of 2014 and finally help Liverpool win the title, by denying Manchester City. His Villains can be the heroes of the piece.

Of course, he will never say that. He’s been the most sincere, earnest manager ever since he stopped being the most sincere, earnest player. He’s the same, straight guy with the same, straight haircut. He’s everyman, which only made his personal torment so heartrending.

Had Luis Suarez slipped against Chelsea in 2014, the sympathetic outpouring might have been diluted. Suarez polarised opinion. He gets bundled into the basket of mavericks with Paul Gascoigne and Jack Grealish, among others, those who see risks as a way of life, to take the road less travelled.

Gerrard was none of those things. He came to us through the portal of a 1950s comic book, with that sensible haircut still intact: straight-laced and fuss-free. He would never rush an easy trap and layoff in a critical game against Chelsea.

But he did. In his eagerness to build from the back, he rushed. The ball slipped beneath turf and studs. Gerrard soon followed. Demba Ba scored and other key details were soon forgotten.

It was soon forgotten that Ba’s scuffed shot went through the legs of Simon Mignolet, who might have closed them. It was also forgotten that Liverpool really lost the title at Crystal Palace days later, squandering a three-goal lead in the final 11 minutes.

Only The Slip endures. It haunts all except Liverpool’s most committed haters. Why? Because it happened to Gerrard, the boy next door, the impeccable pro. He was the Mary Poppins of Merseyside, practically perfect in every way.

Except at that moment. He stopped being Gerrard. He became you and me. He looked vulnerable. Human. He had that recurring dream, the one about being out in public with no clothes on, only his nightmare was real. He was naked and exposed before the world.

It’s why The Slip will never be forgotten. Unless something similarly surreal happens on Sunday.

Aston Villa can’t hold Manchester City. Rational calculations, logic and our own eyes dictate a comfortable home victory at Etihad Stadium. All stats favour the champions. Since 2016, City and Villa have met eight times and Villa picked up nothing. Eight games between them, eight wins for City, with Pep Guardiola’s men scoring 25 times and conceding just four.

Ordinarily, City win this game as often as Gerrard collects that ball and moves it forward, which is at all times. Every time. A done deal. It’s instinctive and obvious, the natural order of things.

Until it doesn’t happen, just once, when an unnatural event occurs instead, like Gerrard’s slip.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard looks dejected during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on April 27, 2014.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard looks dejected during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on April 27, 2014. (PHOTO: Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images)

If it happens on Sunday, one unnatural event could finally overtake another. A draw will be enough, as long as Liverpool win against Wolves, but will it be enough for the tortured Gerrard? Probably not. He’s just not wired that way, but it’ll help. And, honestly, it’s not entirely about him. It’s about us, too.

Almost a decade on, The Slip still rankles for its wretched sense of injustice. There were – and are – others who might have warranted such a vicious twist of fate (take your pick), but not Gerrard. Never Gerrard. And yet, ridiculously, he was punished again.

Just a few months later, a mistimed header for England allowed Uruguay to score a late winner at the 2014 World Cup. Who scored the winner? Suarez. Who was writing Gerrard’s script? Satan?

Witnessing that incident, inside a stunned Sao Paulo stadium, felt like an act of nasty voyeurism, watching the systematic dismantling of a decent human being, particularly when it was that very quality that had made Gerrard so appealing.

He was not only the local kid made good, but the sensible, endearing one. And yet, inexplicably, in the twilight of his career, he was being torn to shreds for karmic crimes he had never committed, without the time left to make amends.

Until now.

Ever the practical professional, Gerrard must continue to tell white lies in the coming days, emphasising his duty to Aston Villa. But the same practical professional also recognises the unexpected gift. He can play a key role in winning the title for Liverpool. Two birds. One stone.

It’s a long shot. Manchester City are overwhelming favourites against opponents drifting towards mediocrity, but the romanticism is undeniably compelling.

On the final day, Gerrard has a chance to lose the asterisk that his career never deserved.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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