A couple of years ago, his own career at Liverpool long behind him, Steven Gerrard returned to Anfield as a spectator. It was the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, and Liverpool were 3-0 down to Barcelona from the first.
You may remember what happened next. Liverpool scored four goals to pull off one of the most startling comebacks in the history of modern football. Only, Gerrard wasn’t around to see it. As soon as his boyhood club went 4-0 up, he became haunted by visions: the utter certainty that somehow, something would go wrong. The spectre of victory being snatched away at the death began to consume him. And so, a few minutes before the final whistle, he got in his car and left.
For those who followed Gerrard closely during his playing days, this will come as little surprise. Over nearly two decades with Liverpool and England, Gerrard’s innately fatalistic nature drove him to some of his greatest triumphs and fuelled some of his most dramatic failures. Anxiety, fear, trauma real or anticipated: these were the defining themes of Gerrard’s career, as much as anything he ever did with a ball. Gerrard didn’t just dwell on defeat. He signed the deeds, bought the freehold and moved his entire family in.
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Now, as manager of Rangers, these same traits have followed him into coaching. “I wasn’t happy with our organisation,” Gerrard grumbled at the conclusion of the Old Firm derby on 2 January. “We couldn’t really get a foothold in the game. But you’ve got to credit Celtic. I thought they were really good.”
A fairly standard lamentation, you might think, from a beaten manager still stinging from defeat. But here’s the thing: Gerrard’s team had won 1-0. Not only that, in doing so they opened up an astonishing 19-point lead over their bitter rivals. After a decade of turbulence and turmoil, liquidation and disgrace, relegation and renaissance, Rangers are about to be champions again.
The irony is that for much of his tenure since taking over in 2018, Gerrard’s characteristic air of despondency has been entirely appropriate. He began by overseeing their worst start to a league season in 29 years. Last season saw a dramatic collapse in form that was curtailed only by a global pandemic. By the start of his third season, he was already the holder of a dubious record: the first Rangers manager since the 1950s to survive two full seasons without winning a trophy.
But slowly and by degrees, Gerrard was beginning to sweep away the culture of mediocrity that had been weighing Rangers down for a decade. The training ground and facilities were overhauled. Cut free from the grumbling, fidgety Ibrox crowd, an experienced, battle hardened squad could ignore the neuroses and expectation, and simply play. With 20 wins from 22 games, bookmakers and pundits agree that the Scottish Premiership is over as a meaningful contest. In fact, pretty much the only person in Scotland who doesn’t think so is Gerrard himself.
Why might this be? Go back seven years and a similar situation crops up from his playing career. With three games remaining of the 2013-14 season, Liverpool were five points clear, and seemingly destined for a first Premier League title since 1990. Then, in a crucial game against Chelsea at Anfield, Gerrard slipped while receiving a simple pass in his own half, allowing Demba Ba to score. A 2-0 defeat ultimately handed the title to Manchester City.
Liverpool’s near miss in 2014 was one of the most dramatic collapses in Premier League history. And yet in the years since, almost everyone involved found some form of redemption. Luis Suárez went to Barcelona and won the Champions League. Manager Brendan Rodgers went to Celtic and won consecutive “trebles”. Raheem Sterling went to Manchester City and became a multiple champion. As for those who stayed – captain Jordan Henderson, the backroom staff, the fans – their moment of jubilee finally came last summer, when Liverpool won the English league for the first time for 30 years.
Yes, in the end, everyone got their happy ending. Everyone but Gerrard. The man who had done more than anyone to haul Liverpool from their slough of underachievement retired soon afterwards without ever winning the Premier League. And so, as his former teammates conquered the footballing universe, Gerrard was forced to live out his days in the shadow of the one that got away: a cyclical nightmare in which he alone was trapped.
Perhaps, then, Rangers is his way of breaking free. The refrain you hear south of the border is that Gerrard’s sojourn in Glasgow is merely an auxiliary to his ultimate ambition of taking over as manager of Liverpool when Jürgen Klopp steps aside. But throughout his career, Gerrard has always been driven as much by his past as by his future. And for one who dwells so heavily on his failures, it is hard not to believe that, on some elemental level, Rangers is Gerrard’s own personal absolution – a means by which he can finally win the league title he was denied at Liverpool, the burning and unconsummated ambition that has tormented him since he was a child.
Perhaps this is why, even as it feels ever more certain, Gerrard can still barely bring himself to glimpse victory. He seems convinced that something will go wrong: that Celtic will win all their games in hand; that Rangers will collapse in the second half of the season once again; that coronavirus will force the entire season to be cancelled. After all, if football has taught Steven Gerrard anything, it is that the closer something looks, the less you can trust it.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war