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Total Recall

We all know that Steven Gerrard has been a hero at Anfield but it is truly revealing to read the tribute paid by the famously fussy Rafa Benitez, a man whose methods drew the very best from Liverpool's number 8.

"Stevie! Stevie! C'mere...wait till you hear what Mou Mou is saying NOW...."
"Stevie! Stevie! C'mere...wait till you hear what Mou Mou is saying NOW...."
Phil Cole/Getty Images

Memory... is the diary that we all carry about with us.

Oscar Wilde

You simply cannot trust your memory. Only recently, a friend and I recalled a particularly traumatic shared childhood experience in two significantly different ways. Essentially, it was a survival tale in which we had attracted the unwanted attention of some very agitated, unpleasant and chemically-altered criminal types. In his version, he was the hero. In mine, it was me. After exhaustive research, it emerged that the veracity of both impressions of the past was highly dubious.

The subjective nature of personal recollection means that, more often than not, the actuality of events is filtered through a kind of bespoke mesh that has the uncanny ability to remove any aspects of the truth that we find unpalatable. Basically, most folk are like Hollywood script doctors, poking at the rudiments of their own narrative until the wow factor pops from the pages of their lives. They are the heroes of their own biopics.

Remarkably, this revisionism can happen on a grand scale too. The transcience of time can have the effect of dulling mass recollection. In this way, for example, Roy Hodgson could enter Anfield on Saturday and only a faint mumble of disapproval will be evident where, justifiably, the Great Tactician of Halmstads could expect a howling chorus of censure and derision.

Similarly, when assessing the many highlights of Steven Gerrard's Anfield career, a group can easily become lost in a euphoric mist and forget to engage their critical faculties. At times like these, one needs the type of person who maintains the same phlegmatic temperament in both times of calm and stress, the kind of individual who can be relied on to have an almost computer-like detachment, as they obsess over the details. Step forward, Rafael Benitez.

As the football media world has begun to embrace the full melodrama inherent in the ending of Steven Gerrard's Liverpool career, fawning tributes have been plentiful, and rightly so. This most remarkable of talents deserves to be celebrated and lionised. He is, after all, the Hero of Istanbul, the eponymous victor in The Gerrard Final and the man who, according to received wisdom, carried the team single-handedly for years. Of course, there's always been more to the Huyton man's story than just that, and who better to give his verdict than Benitez, the man who oversaw Gerrard's best years in red, including that glorious Turkish night.

"Steven has always led by example," averred the Spaniard. "Thanks to him the other good players that we had were always better. He talks with players and pushes his team-mates on. That night in Istanbul they knew he could make the difference and they were following him. Sometimes there is a moment when something happens to change the dynamic. Steven’s goal had such a galvanising effect. Everyone was lifted by his reaction to the goal. He started the feeling that the team could come back to win. I felt the momentum change and the reaction of our fans gave us energy."

"With Steven you get commitment, passion, a leader and a player with power, talent and excellent technique when it comes to passing, heading and shooting. He’s a very complete player. That’s why he’s been able to play in a number of different positions. That night he started in midfield before we moved him up to play as a second striker. With Luis Garcia and Steven playing with freedom between the lines, Milan didn’t know how to stop them. Then in extra-time after Serginho came on Stevie played almost as a full-back."

Even that early in his time with the Huyton man, Benitez could recognise and exploit the full breadth of Gerrard's talents. It is here that we see the Spanish coach show the kind of stubborn insistence that has made him a serial trophy winner. Benitez is markedly qualified in his praise of the Liverpool captain's tactical savvy. He knew that Gerrard was a slave to his own ability, driven to be all things at once, because he could, and forsaking positional rigour. The current Napoli boss' solution was to move him to the flank and, later, to an attacking role as a deep-lying forward behind Fernando Torres. The tactic, although deeply distasteful to the skipper, was incredibly effective.

"He is one of the best I’ve ever worked with," Benitez continues. "He was a box to box midfielder, but he learned how to play in different positions. We played him on the right, which he didn’t like, but he had freedom to go inside and he scored more than 20 goals from this position. I remember he played even on the left with the England team under Fabio Capello. His best position for us was behind Torres. His first touch and precise passing allowed Torres to score a lot of goals. With Mascherano, Alonso or Lucas behind we had balance, power, talent and pace."

As has often been the case, Benitez has a way of presenting the reality in a way that is ruthlessly honest but still positive. Steven Gerrard, when he gets a little distance from his playing days will no doubt appreciate the impact that this diminutive portly gent had on his career. Over the coming weeks, tributes will flow from the usual suspects. Some will be the earnest appraisals of former teammates, some will be the platitudinous guff beloved of stuffed-shirt television pundits. None will have the simple honesty of the man who guided Gerrard to his greatest moments, from lofting Ol' Big Ears above his head to terrifying the world in tandem with Fernando Torres. Those are memories nobody can dispute.

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