If last season played out as tragedy, Liverpool’s long-serving captain rediscovering his verve in a new and unlikely role and helping to drive his boyhood club towards their first title of the Premier League era only to, quite literally, slip just short of the finish line, Steven Gerrard’s final season at the club has been closer to farce. At least for Gerrard. For the club as a whole, it’s been something of a painful waste.
There was Gerrard, in the same role he delivered in last term, a constant liability as Liverpool stumbled to their worst start to a season since 1964. There was Gerrard, looking off the pace in Europe, firing the ball out of bounds or straight to opponents and directing opposition counter attacks towards Liverpool goal while he stood and watched, legs gone and unable to chase. There was Gerrard, exhausted and ineffective in extra time against Chelsea as his teammates looked to a saviour who was no longer there.
There have been brief moments of joy; of the Gerrard Liverpool fans once knew and of performances that might serve as fitting capstones to his legendary legacy. They have been few and far between, though, and so it’s with a sense of sadness the end of the season and Gerrard’s final game as a Liverpool player approaches, at least for most of those who have spent a quite significant portion of their lives watching Gerrard pick Liverpool up whenever they’ve needed him most and drive them forward.
"I’ve got mixed emotions right now," Gerrard admitted in an interview with the club's official magazine, as the captain looks towards a home game against Crystal Palace a week Saturday that will mark his final Anfield match as a Liverpool player. "It’s exciting to know I will be trying something different, playing in another league and getting to see a lot of a great country. At the same time I’m emotional, and I know these final few weeks will be tough. It’s going to be difficult to let go."
Liverpool have at times seemed in the process of a very difficult letting go of Gerrard all season long, and as sad as it may be to come to terms with, if Gerrard still has the desire to be a key player getting regular minutes, then his moving on this summer is something that almost certainly benefits all parties. At Liverpool, neither Gerrard nor the club have seemed quite able to let go of each other this season, and it’s been to the detriment of both Liverpool’s chances and Gerrard’s legacy.
Gerrard still has the desire, the need, to start and play every minute. And as has been proven this season, he no longer has the legs to carry Liverpool when he’s playing everything minute—while Liverpool simply don’t have the talent around him to carry him as he once regularly carried the club. So Gerrard moves on, and, as sad as it may be to see an era ending and an all-time great departing, it’s probably in everybody’s best interest. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be back in some capacity some day.
"My relationship with Liverpool doesn’t end," insisted the captain, though he doesn't know quite what his relationship with the club might end up being in two years or ten. "I’m hoping I’ll return to the club in some capacity some day, and if it’s not to be, then I’ll always come back as a supporter. I just don’t know what’s going to happen after my last game at Anfield against Crystal Palace. All I know is it will be a hugely emotional day for me when my Liverpool career comes to an end after so long.
"Since I got into the first-team nearly 17 years ago, I’ve lived my life for Liverpool Football Club. I wake up every day wanting success just as much as the fans, and I’ve been that way for an awfully long time and it’s been a privilege to be captain of our club. I’ve loved wearing the armband. At the same time, it will be nice to step away from that intensity and take a deep breath. I’ll be able to go and enjoy the remaining years of my career without that same level of pressure."
It’s not been the end to his career as a Liverpool player that everyone would have wanted. Perhaps, if there was to be a fitting end, it would have had to have come last season, and in retrospect, even falling just short of the title—even ending as something of a tragedy—might well have made for a more fitting final chapter. In a few years, though, this season of struggle and disappointment will be forgotten, and instead it will be the high points from those 16 years before that will be remembered.
It’s not the ending a legend deserves, but it’s rare in sport—or in life—that the greats are allowed to exit on their own terms and in a manner befitting their legendary status, and a season or two removed from the disappointing present, no Liverpool fan will recall his role in a League Cup semi-final against Chelsea. They won't remember that he didn't make it to Wembley for his birthday. It may not be not the ending he deserves, but it is an ending, and it’s time for that. For Gerrard and for the club and for the fans.
"I think it’s a fantastic opportunity," Gerrard added of his impending move to MLS. "I didn’t feel I’d enjoy it as much at Liverpool if I became a squad player or a bit-part player. I still have the same attitude and hunger I’ve always had. I want to play games from the start and win. I still want to challenge for honours. All of that combined means LA Galaxy is the ideal place for the next part of my career."