As a younger man, Steven Gerrard could often present a very dour and painfully earnest persona whilst carrying out the interminable media duties incumbent upon him in his role as Liverpool captain. Labouring under the weight of expectation and so very serious about wanting to say and do the right thing, the Huyton man often came across as almost sepulchral and humourless. That his on-pitch demeanour was often very introspective, solipsistic even, on the rare occasions when his form was poor, only added to the overall picture of a man struggling with the burden of greatness and the heavy yoke of being the leader.
In 2004, before one of the most defining moments of his career, Gerrard was asked about the difficulty of the task facing Liverpool as they needed to win their tie against Olympiakos in order to progress in the Champions League. The youthful Liverpudlian furrowed that miniscule brow of his and insisted that he didn't want to wake up in the UEFA Cup. That gruesome fate was avoided and a chapter in Liverpool's history was written when, as he so regularly did, Gerrard made the difference on the night and his stunning goal at the death is now part of football lore.
These days the captain of Liverpool and England is an altogether different customer. That once oppressively heavy cloak of responsibility is worn lightly, if with no less devotion. Gerrard is a man at peace with himself and the world. His comments in the wake of England's loss to Italy were measured, reasonable and quietly authoritative. They were men, he said. They would learn, dust themselves down and fight on, knowing that they were "big players."
Yesterday, in front of the world's assembled media and with England facing elimination should they lose to Luis Suarez's Uruguay later tonight, the Anfield legend was a picture of studied focus but there is always a cutting retort or a playful smile curling around the edge of his lips, nowadays. He's got this down, you see, this captain thing. Who can forget the inspiringly well timed sniffy disdain during Liverpool's run-in when he wished "all the best" to any team wanting to try and stop Daniel Sturridge and Suarez? How inspirational was it to see him rally his men on the pitch in the wake of the season's finest victory, over Manchester City at Anfield, when the impossible looked as if it might occur?
This is a man at the height of his powers as a figurehead and a motivator. Roy Hodgson, blind to much that is good about football, can at least see that, even if his current system fails to glean the maximum from his captain's abilities on the park. Indeed, such is the foolishness of the way the England manager has constructed his midfield, that if England are to progress, Gerrard may have to roll back the years and produce an old-school Liverpool performance of verve and vitality, something that may or may not still be in his armoury in the draining conditions in Brazil. Hodgson has been much lauded for the searing insight of playing the Premier League's form attacker in Raheem Sterling but his obdurate insistence on playing Gerrard in a midfield two, when the lessons of Liverpool's season show that to be folly, may yet prove to be his undoing.
For his part, Gerrard, with an interesting echo of his sentiments back in 2004, told of how he'd spoken to the squad about the horror of an early exit from such a massive tournament -- an experience he has had with England previously. He cautioned them that such desolation was not something they wanted to experience on waking up tomorrow but rather than scaremongering, the captain was positive about the group's mental resolve and fortitude, insisting they would be able to cope with the expectations.
"There is no hiding place for a player when you go out of a tournament," averred the combative playmaker. "You go home earlier than you expect. It can be tough as a player and it can take an awful long time to get over it. A lot of people know that in the dressing room, but for a few young lads it was important for them to realise what is at stake and how important this game is. We all need to leave everything on that pitch. If a defeat was to happen it is probably the most difficult place to be in as a footballer.
"I don't need reminding. Not at all. I have been there. I have had that feeling. So I know what that feeling is about and that is the feeling I don't want to come Friday morning. It wasn't a message to scare any of the lads, but a wake-up call to everyone in the room, staff and players. That is the reality of where we are and we need everyone focused and right on it to perform individually and collectively on Thursday, otherwise it will be a terribly long summer. We still have belief and confidence. It is normal for maybe a bit of panic to set in from the outside. People start thinking the worst, but for us players we have to be strong and cope with that."
Uruguay would be wise to have their wits about them if England are still in the contest as it edges towards its conclusion, for if there is one man in white who has a whiff of the ehtereal about him, who always has that uncanny knack of rising to the occasion in the most soul-stirringly emotive fashion, it is Steven Gerrard. There is an aura about the man that not even the stifling shackles of Hodgsonian stewardship can diminish. Ten years on, what price another crucial late winner from Liverpool's finest?