Most of us spend our lives insisting to friends, family, spouses or ourselves that we can change. Full of an evangelical ardour for personal furtherance and amelioration, we launch into complex plans for total metamorphosis. This time it'll be different. I promise! The most common pattern, however, is for those covenants to be broken as we trundle on in the fashion we always have and slowly but surely reoccupy the niche that had been so irksome in the first place, each time developing a a little more self-loathing and disappointment. Ain't human behaviour grand?
Thankfully, there are rare occasions on which the drive to reinvent oneself is successful and at Liverpool Football Club, the man most still see as the leader on the pitch, Steven Gerrard, is providing consummate example yet again. For years, as a younger man, Gerrard self-admittedly struggled with dark introspection and sepulchral moods. On occasion, his shoulders were notably slumped and his head dropped. There was no lack of effort, you understand, but the angst in his mind was clearly discernible on the field of play. The problem was not necessarily just that our number eight was having a bad day but rather that the captain has always been such a totem on the park that an off day for Gerrard invariably meant an off day for Liverpool - everybody looked to him.
The Huyton man is an exceptional footballer and a one-off. Your scribbler regularly snorts derisively at talk of Player X being the next Steven Gerrard. That simply won't be happening. There is really no player in world football like the Liverpool captain. Throughout an entire career he has provided moments of inspiration like no other. Such moments were often 30 yard screamers but they could equally have been lung-bursting tracking runs, slide tackles (he loves a sliding tackle, does Steven) or towering defensive headers. He could do everything.
These days, the 34 year old Gerrard is perhaps not as mobile or physically imposing as his youthful self once was but as last season progressed we saw the canny Scouser develop and evolve. He was finally humble or trusting enough to allow others to do the running and box-to-box work and he began to read the game imperiously from a deeper role. There is surely no coincidence that this new self-awareness about his body's limitations and his most effective position on the park came with Brendan Rodgers at the helm. The Carnlough man has proven himself to be something of a player whisperer and the admiration that Gerrard espouses for his manager speaks to the skills of the Irishman and the sympatico relationship the two men share.
Perhaps the area in which the evolution of Liverpool's captain has been most apparent is in the way in which he deports himself in the more ambassadorial part of his duties. Always a pleasant and humble character, Gerrard was never in danger of embarrassing the club but he always seemed a little pained and very wary of the media, glowering mistrustfully beneath a perma-furrowed brow. In that respect, he reminded many of Kenny Dalglish, whose famous truculence with the media was reaching almost comically awful proportions by the end of his second spell in charge. Lately, however, Gerrard is far more in the Rodgers mould of public speaking. He is calm and assured but retains his natural wit and spikiness. Want to try and make the new improved Liverpool talisman uncomfortable with your line of questioning nowadays? All the best.
None of this talk of his extra-curricular duties should detract from the wonderful form the skipper showed on the pitch as the club came agonisingly close to lifting the pot they covet most. His contribution to that fine campaign, particularly the pressurised latter half, was immense. True, he was not scoring long-range goals or gettining up and down the pitch in the inspirational manner he once had, but his eye for a pass, set piece delivery and reading of the game from a defensive perspective were almost unrivalled in the Premier League. Then, when it mattered, and there were crucial penalty kicks to be taken, the captain was a picture of serene sang froid.
Gerrard was in need of his newly pacific mind when he made that fateful slip against Chelsea. The moronic griping and rush to blame him in the wake of that massive setback was massively distasteful and would surely have destroyed the confidence of lesser men. Liverpool's skipper soldiered on and continued to lead by example to the end. That heartbreak was then followed by the Hodgsonian collapse of a Gerrard-captained England in the World Cup. It has been a massive test for the midfielder but he insists he understands how to cope with "the worst three months of [his] life" by leaning on family and friends and he is clearer than ever about the importance his example will have on a young and impressionable Liverpool squad.
"You get a support network around you of the people you are close to," he insisted. "That’s been the case since day one - people who have watched me since before I made my debut. They are always there for me. They always will be. I also have an unbelievable manager who is brilliant with me. They rally around you and try and pick you up. But when something like that happens, you have to try and face it up and be man enough to take it on the chin. You have to accept it happened, you can't change it. Of course it is tough to take at the time but you have to move on sharpish.
"Unfortunately, " Gerrard continued, "I have had that tough time at club level at the end of the season and then I have gone into a World Cup hoping that it was going to go really well to help me get over it. But it backfired. I have had two massive unbelievable lows in a short space of time, so it is a good test for me this season. Can I hit form after that? I believe that I can. We have to try to win the league and progress in the Champions League - there are massive games to look forward to. When you’re captain of the team and the group, you can’t afford to be down and feel sorry for yourself or mope around. Everyone in this group of players looks to me to see what sort of mood I’m in, to see how I am behaving around the place moving forward, so I have to shake it off pretty quick."
Last season made this scribbler reevaluate his perception of Steven Gerrard. Many of us, naturally cautious and chary individuals, had begun to mentally consign Gerrard to the background, especially in the wake of his earlier form, when he and Lucas Leiva struggled to form a cohesive partnership. It was the last thing we wanted to do but effectively we were preparing for life without his mercurial presence in the side. The man himself was having none of it and the inspirationally driven figure he cut on the pitch was delightfully reinvigorating. As it dawned on fans that Liverpool could actually win the league, their awestruck faith in the reality of that dream was embodied by the captain's almost maniacal focus. Steven Gerrard has changed, my friends. Change, they say, is good.