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The Unrequited Love of Steven Gerrard

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Steven Gerrard always seemed to love playing for his country more than his country loved that he would play for them. Despite that, he never stopped trying to win them over. And though they would never be swayed, they never did pass on an opportunity to exploit the feelings they knew he had.

On Wednesday, on an evening that saw that loyalty exploited yet again, Gerrard was forced to leave the pitch with a strained hamstring thirty minutes into a meaningless friendly. The match meant nothing, and it came three days after he had played 120 minutes in a draining cup final for his club.

And because of that, on Saturday when Liverpool face Arsenal in the league, desperate to narrow the gap and make a push towards the top four, his club are set once again to suffer for a decade of loyalty to a cause that seems confused as to how to use him at best and dismissive of his talents at worst.

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Calling upon Gerrard to play against the Netherlands on Wednesday was a show of extreme selfishness by Stuart Pearce and the English FA, an act blatant in the way it valued their own well being ahead that of Liverpool's captain and England's loyal servant. They knew he'd played 120 minutes against Cardiff three days earlier in a match that had snapped Liverpool's six-year silverware drought. And they well knew that the club that pays his wages had a match against Arsenal three days later that, if it went badly, could end their push for fourth before it had had a chance to truly begin.

They knew Gerrard had only recently returned from a series of extended injuries that had kept him from playing regularly for more than a year. They knew his body was beginning to show its age and that after returning to action mid-season he likely wasn't at full fitness. And they knew that even a younger, fully fit player without his injury record would struggle to play three games in seven days, including a cup final that went to penalties.

But that didn't matter, just as it didn't matter that England's game meant nothing of consequence. Winning in February wouldn't provide an edge at the summer's European Championships. It wasn't needed to quality for any future tournament. It was at best a chance for Sky advertisers to get their commercials seen by a slightly larger audience than would normally be tuned in on a Wednesday evening; a chance to open up Wembley for one more "prestige" friendly.

And it was also a potential showcase for Stuart Pearce to argue he deserved a shot at managing England through the summer.

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Which isn't to say that Pearce and the English FA represent some hideous and inhuman villain as seen from the aftermath. Yes, they exploited a man's national loyalties to their own gain, but Gerrard too deserves some portion of the blame for allowing those loyalties and a stubborn refusal to accept the reality of the player he's become rule the day when a more sensible man at this stage of his career would have begged off given the timing of Wednesday's meaningless friendly.

Pearce and the FA are easy targets, but their priorities are to themselves and not to Liverpool, and Steven Gerrard knows his own injury record. He's talked before of the fear he faced in the spring of last year when for a time he believed he might never play football again. He knows that if he shows up saying he's ready to go that a man desperate to remove the temporary from his job title and a football federation desperate for any kind of positive result are unlikely to send him away.

And Liverpool Football Club know all of this, too. Together the League Cup and Saturday's match against Arsenal offer the promise of making Liverpool's often uneven season a wholly successful one—or at least giving it a genuine chance of becoming that. The club's doctors would have known the risks of letting Steven Gerrard—this Steven Gerrard; today's Steven Gerrard—anywhere near Stuart Pearce's England for a Wednesday match against the Netherlands. Whether out of respect for their captain's desire to play for his country or out of fear for the possibility of further enraging the English FA, they raised no complaint when he left for London.

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Through the years he's been a special player for Liverpool. The club's centrepiece; its talisman. Yet Gerrard has always seemed a spare part with England, a player they don't know quite where to shoehorn in as manager after manager and pundit after pundit asks if he should be played on the left, if he should be played in a holding role, and if there's any way to get the best out of Steven Gerrard without disrupting Frank Lampard.

Through all those years he's given his all for club and country while a largely pre-historic punditry bray about how England's players need to show more heart and courage in order to find success. And with every passing season, and despite that he seems an awkward spare part nobody quite knows what to do with, he returns and exerts greater effort still at the national level, attempting to will his country over the top only to fall short time and time again on the pitch and in the eyes of those who would judge his international legacy.

England don't quite know what to do with him. Many in the press will always find his effort just that bit lacking. Yet he always returns. A little less effective and a little less often, his appearances growing scarcer as years of service take their toll, but loyal to the end. Loyal even when an interim manager whose track record wouldn't get him a job at any Premier League club from one side of his mouth passed the captaincy to the flavour of the month while out of the other asking Gerrard to help him secure the job more permanently.

And so just as has been the case countless times before, an international break ends and Gerrard will miss at least one match that matters with his club after picking up an injury for his country in a game that never mattered.

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Perhaps he can't help that he has never quite been able to give up on his England dreams. It is, after all, a loyalty felt by the vast majority of footballers; a loyalty that is quite nearly impossible to condemn. It also can't be easy for a player who grew into the legendary figure he has become through a driving set of physical skills unmatched in his generation to accept a changing reality. It can't be easy for a player like that to accept he can no longer do it all. That he can't play 120 minutes in a cup final, storm around Wembley three days later, and then singlehandedly drag Liverpool past Arsenal on the weekend and back into the Champions League by season's end.

It can't be easy to come to grips with that new reality, as easy as it might be from the outside to see that it is in fact the new reality. Which leaves the FA and Stuart Pearce to blame for doing what most any would do in their situations, and Gerrard to blame for not being able to come to grips with the fact he's only human, and his club to blame for bowing to their captain's will.

And mostly it makes for a sad day of realisation, with Liverpool's road back to the top four seeming far more difficult than it was twenty-four hours earlier and a cold new reality to come to grips with in which it has never been more clear that Steven Gerrard's time as one of the greatest players in the world is drawing to a close. Or perhaps it already has been for a few years now. Perhaps it has only been that Liverpool fans have held onto the past the same way Gerrard himself has stubbornly refused to let go of the idea that in the end he might just convince the unconvincible or drag a national team that doesn't know what to do with him to glory.