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Time To Say Goodbye

As we near the final Anfield appearance of Steven Gerrard, it is almost impossible to imagine the club in his absence. Not since Kenny Dalglish has Liverpool had an icon like the Huyton superhero.

"C'mon wee man, I'll buy you a pint in the departures lounge."
"C'mon wee man, I'll buy you a pint in the departures lounge."
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There will be very few players in the history of the game whose departure from a club will spark the kind of unrestrained outpouring of gratitude and affection that Steven Gerrard will receive at Anfield on Saturday evening. The sentimentality will probably border on the mawkish, as a generation of fans say farewell to the man that has been their everything.

Players like Francesco Totti and Iker Casillas have been loyal, heroic and successful totems for the denizens of Rome and Madrid, but in Gerrard Liverpool fans have the nonpareil -- a warrior champion who has embodied their own passion for the club, leading them through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows with the same tiny furrowed brow and impish grin.

On many occasions the Huyton man has played the role of superhero, certainly, but like the best ones, he has always carried with him a vulnerability and fragility that fans can relate to. So many times, Liverpool's number 8 has attained footballing perfection, and yet he is not perfect. His anxieties and insecurities may be difficult for mere mortals to fathom but the fact that they have plagued him throughout his career has an endearingly humanising effect -- the type of thing that really does convince supporters that he is one of us, that he cares.

This scribbler will be lucky enough to be part of the emotional morass in Anfield in a couple of days -- a serendipitous by-product of a far less pleasant duty in Mancunia a little earlier. Unlike previous campaigns, my attendance at matches has been massively curtailed this season by what we shall euphemistically term, life. As it happens, this enforced absence has been no great burden, given the tremendously disappointing nature of what has unfolded for Liverpool since late August.

Ironically, owing to that under-performance, the atmosphere around me on the Kop is likely to be the most fervid of the season, as an entire stadium tries to grasp the fact that they will be watching Steven Gerrard in red for the last time. One fancies the reaction will be intense.

As for Gerrard himself, he has openly admitted that his own pride is the driving factor for his exit. From his earliest days in the jersey, he has been a starter, a leader and, ultimately, a captain. The concept of no longer having that role in the team has proven too much for this proud man and with zero recriminations, he's cited the manager's frank appraisal of his future squad role as the catalyst for his decision to move on.

Graeme Souness, a man who, to the detriment of the team, shipped out many great stalwarts during his ill-starred reign, has had the gall to question the wisdom of Liverpool allowing their icon to leave, but Gerrard himself is convinced his decision is the right one. He says it's not "selfish" but it is a little. Understandably, he simply does not want to be less than he has always been.

"I think the signs this year were that I'm going to become a squad player, play less," he told reporters. "I'm going to come on as a sub and the buzz changes. It's not a selfish thing; coming on as a sub is just not the same buzz so things have changed this year. When a manager gets you into the office and says that's going to change and it's going to become more limited -- that's when you make your decision.

"For me, I go to work on a Monday morning and I look forward to Saturday, to prepare to go to battle with some wonderful people -- with good mates -- and that's my buzz. Hopefully the owners will dig deep so the squad can be strengthened with the quality needed to bring more good times in the future."

The tone of Gerrard's words is admirably magnanimous and he has grown into quite the club statesman in recent years. Although never relinquishing that edgy wit and personal pride that saw him fail to take the bait offered by Sky in the wake of Chelsea fans' supposed 'ovation,' the captain has spoken of the club with increasing dignity and gravitas as he has matured. He just gets it.

His deep-rooted family connections to the city and its people, allied to his lifetime spent donning the club crest have left Gerrard in a powerful position. Were he to show any flair or inclination to coach or manage in the future, his unique status in the football club would mean he would surely be offered the chance to try his hand at Anfield. Not since Kenny Dalglish has one figure wielded such clout and Gerrard seems to understand what needs to be said as he makes his difficult exit.

"The supporters are the most important people but the players have got a responsibility to do the work on the pitch, try and win trophies and create a history," insisted the former England captain recently. "It's been my job for the last 17 years and now it's coming to an end for me, but you move it on to the next generation, the young lads and the other lads I'm going to leave behind. That's what it's all about, the club. You come in and do your best, give everything you've got every single day and then it's someone else's responsibility."

"I've said on record over the past four or five months that it's been an absolute privilege to represent the club," he went on. "I grew up as a young boy on a council estate with a dream of playing for the club and I did everything I could, practiced as much as I could, to make my debut and get as close as I could to that first team. I've been part of it for 17 years now and I've enjoyed the majority of it. I've had some lows in there but I've had some incredible highs as well and I'm really proud of what I've achieved."

On Saturday evening, in Anfield, a stadium full of us will have the opportunity to roar and sing our appreciation for what Steven Gerrard has meant to us. The presence of Crystal Palace will be an irrelevance. His will not be the only exit of the summer, as the club will undergo another round of personnel upheaval, but his will matter the most. Others may have superseded him on the pitch, of late, but for so many fans this man IS Liverpool -- the reason they began to support, the reason they began to care, the reason they continued to love.

Only the most dourly stoical of individuals would baulk at giving this modern hero a cacophonous send-off. How often does one say goodbye to a figure of such eminence, such unquestioned significance? Let us hope Gerrard finds his "buzz" again in the MLS before returning to represent Liverpool once again in the future. After all, that's where he belongs.

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