Letting The Monsters In

 

Gutted m8

Gutted m8

“This does not fucking slip now. This does not fucking slip now. Listen. Listen. This is gone. We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again. Come on!” – Steven Gerrard, April 13, 2014

Within weeks of this rousing team-talk, Liverpool’s unlikely Premier League title bid had collapsed with the sad majesty of a dynamited building. Their captain will feel the pain more than most, given his unfortunate contribution to the capitulation. While his ironic slip against Chelsea was seized upon in a frenzy of tweeted GIFs, perhaps the real moment the title went astray was when Gerrard gave that team talk in front of Sky’s television cameras.

It was not so much their victory against Manchester City as the reaction that proved the turning point, and provided the season with its biggest story, the definable moment upon which memories of ten months will hang. Prior to that victory anyone associated with the club kept the rubicon at arm’s length. The unthinkable could not be thought, lest fate be tempted. There was a notable silence to Liverpool’s implausible quest, a refusal to acknowledge the magnitude.

But then came the change, the moment when the doors were opened to the twin monsters of pressure and fear. With just four games left, Liverpool were officially challenging for the most improbable of league titles, and it was just too much, too late. Gerrard’s speech was too vast, rousing far too much rabble, finally granting permission to a straining support to believe at last. Liverpool fans draped a banner on the wall of the club’s Melwood training ground, exhorting the mantra: WE GO AGAIN. Opportunistic vendors flogged premature celebratory t-shirts proclaiming Liverpool league champions. Alan Hansen spoke with misguided certainty on Match of the Day of “when Steven Gerrard lifts the trophy”.

After that speech, they played with restraint, on edge and anxious. They made hard work of a routine win away at Norwich before Gerrard’s most literal and figurative of slips against Chelsea. Allowing Crystal Palace to fight back from a three-goal deficit was the ultimate shat bed, the warring concepts of living and dying by the sword bludgeoning each other beyond recognition. What was left was the bones of a dream, a sobbing Luis Suarez hiding his face away from a camera that his captain tried to palm away. The season should have ended there, cutting to black at the sight of Gerrard’s hollowed face, a haunted physiognomy in emotional stasis, like Tony Soprano looking up from the menu one last time, leaving us to wonder what might happen next.

Instead, we’ve witnessed Gerrard’s address confirming its place as the most stirring moment of football oration since Kevin Keegan declared that “I’d love it if we beat them”. Ultimately doomed, the Newcastle United manager’s cry to rally the troops was to be remodelled by history’s winking eye as a harbinger of failure yet to unravel. Just as Keegan’s on-air meltdown has become an unwelcome monument to his career, so too might Gerrard become synonymous with an outburst of passion that subsequent events failed to validate. Gerrard will surely be remembered for more than just the portentous grandstanding of his post-City speech, but then Keegan was named European Footballer of the Year twice – ask your kids what they know of him.

What does the future hold for Gerrard? Will a Vine of his Chelsea stumble play out on his iTombstone, in an endless, macabre loop? Perhaps, decades from now, he will emulate Keegan further by quitting the England management post in a Wembley toilet. For now, the only thing to do would be to realise that he’s cradled such magnitude before. The trio of cup final victories one honeyed season under Gerard Houllier. The ‘Gerrard final’ FA Cup win against West Ham. The Miracle of Istanbul. These are memories to keep him warm, as he wrestles with the implausibility of how he came so close to pulling one more rabbit from the hat before it scampered off, leaving him floundering in a puddle of tears and schadenfreude on the Anfield turf.

This coming season more will be expected of the late-career quarterback renaissance, but surely he cannot give more than he gave last term? An Indian summer was coaxed from him by the promise of untold bounties. The hope of an elusive league title to round off a fine playing career, still addled by the asterisk denoting the one glaring omission from the honours list. He has already expressed his belief that he has at least one more season playing at such a level, and has retired from international football to allow himself more recovery time between games. But this time around will be different. Chelsea are rebuilding, Manchester United are getting their act together with a manager that fits, Arsenal are tooling up big in the transfer market. Gerrard, among others, helped Liverpool fans dream, but it may yet take a while to seize a similar chance again, especially with Suarez now gone.

Gerrard’s speech will be remembered as another example of sport’s natural drama being augmented by the bombast of narrative. Sky Sports will see to it that it is hailed as another contribution to history, the latest victory for the pervasive influence of the television camera. The same as the one Gerrard once kissed in triumph, the same as the one he turned away with a rueful, protective hand. The camera used to love him, but sometimes love, like all things, can die. Somehow, the story of last season came from the story that did not happen.

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Theo Walcott and the issue of blame

It seems that, in English football, the greatest crime is unfulfilled potential, something that this nation has rich history in.

Two of the greatest midfielders of their respective generations, the Pauls Gascoigne and Scholes, ultimately failed to deliver what was expected due to the respective perils of personal demons and disenchantment through mismanagement. English football’s modern history is littered with talents blighted by a litany of ‘if only’s: if only he’d stayed focussed, if only he’d joined a bigger club, if only he’d worked harder.

England supporters, starved as they are of success, refuse to see it happen again.

Enter Theo Walcott. His current prescribed role seems to be that of perennial under-achiever, a forever disengaged black sheep who continues to fail to deliver on his vast promise. It is bizarre that someone such as ‘lil T’eo, nothing if not a milquetoast, is such a polarising figure, with pundits such as Alan Hansen and Chris Waddle condemning him for his lack of intelligence. Such suggestions, which he struggles manfully to mask with his pace and derring-do, stymie his progress, as well as the notion that he is an elite player, a game-changer.

In the pursuit of this open criticism by fans and pundits alike, it seems bizarre that no-one has been looking to blame anyone, especially when you consider that it can be excellent fun. It would be churlish, perhaps unpleasant to simply hold one person responsible for such a crime against football (the worst crime there is!), but it seems that one man has a lot to answer for, but continues to evade reprimand, like a fleet-footed cat-burglar. That man is one Sven-Goran Eriksson.

How odd that a man responsible for thrusting Walcott upon a ridiculously oversized pedestal would somehow escape censure, given that he has been treated with such ignominy by English football fans himself (Eriksson, of course, was once chided for his failure to take England beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, a level they have yet to reach since the Swede’s departure five years ago). English fans have perhaps wilted in their hostility against the man who failed to get the most out of England’s cloyingly-named golden generation, in the light of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello failing harder and faster than Eriksson ever really did. Perhaps it is this forced reassessment that has allowed him to escape scot-free for Crimes Against Walcott.

Picking Walcott was the last desperate throw of the dice for a condemned man. His left-field inclusion represented a courage and audacity that had been conspicuous by its absence throughout the rest of Eriksson’s tenure as England manager, a courage that was lacking when it was most required (such as in his compromising accommodation of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and in failing to make Paul Scholes the creative fulcrum, as opposed to David Beckham). Eriksson put all of his chips on Walcott’s head – itself only just old enough to legally gamble – and unwittingly broadened the parameters of his career expectations forevermore.

To hell with the consequences!”, Eriksson almost certainly would’ve said to himself, alone, into his bathroom mirror, before sheepishly questioning his sanity whilst flossing. He wouldn’t need to answer to the repercussions. He wouldn’t be expected to worry for Walcott’s future development. As it would transpire, an English public clamouring for the fresh impetus that Walcott’s inclusion promised, would remain wondering, as an out-of-his-depth Walcott didn’t play a minute of football in Germany.

If he hadn’t been picked, his career trajectory may well have followed a similar path to that of Gareth Bale. He, too, was signed by a top London club from Southampton as a seventeen-year-old, based on similar qualities, most notably skill, pace, but above all potential. Bale did not suffer from the same burden of expectation (which would have just as much to do with Bale being Welsh and not English, of course), and was allowed to develop whilst maintaining a safe distance from the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. When Bale endured a run of 24 Premier League games without winning for Tottenham, it was treated as a joke, an amusing curio and nothing more. By this time Bale was aged 20, and was struggling to displace Benoit Assou-Ekotto as left-back. We all know what happened next.

For Walcott, his fast-track to the full England side saddled him with the millstone of being the next Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, the precocious youth capable of sparking fresh life into the fading golden generation. Since then, he hasn’t been afforded the same patience that Bale was. I was recently reminded of Walcott’s first Arsenal goal, which came in the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Watching the highlights of the game, in the aftermath of that opening goal, the commentary damned him with faint praise, speaking of how he was “turning things around at last” and “finally delivering on his potential”. Then aged 18, it was only his 28th game in Arsenal colours. When did this become an age to prove one’s calibre?

Perhaps it’s the fault of his prodigial predecessors for raising the bar too high – Rooney, Owen, Scholes, Gascoigne. The expectations were too high because, when fans want success and get none, they try and manufacture their own trophies. They wanted a player to frighten the world. Walcott is still only running around with a bedsheet over his head, flailing wildly to remove it to show the bared teeth beneath.

It seems that Walcott has been around forever, but he is still only 22. His career thus far has hardly been a failure, and yet it seems as though it is, as if we’re nearing the point where backs are turned on him and we look to the next great white hope, which was Walcott’s first prescribed role when Eriksson gambled on his future in 2006.

Maybe Walcott’s greatest contribution to England’s cause will be to deflect attention from the next crop of youngsters, so that they can prosper in relative peace. In the meantime, he will continue to shout boo, hoping that one day it will be enough to make people flinch.