Steven Gerrard’s latest interview whilst on England duty will no doubt lead to criticism of him from Liverpool supporters. One headline above one story containing his quotes claims: “Country more important than club, says midfielder.”
Gerrard had been asked by the assembled media at the England press conference if he thought club football, with the riches and glamour of the Champions League, had overtaken the International game. “I’d say no. When I join up for England, these games are bigger than the Champions League or Premier League games. You’re representing your country. If you go to a major tournament and achieve something as a team it’s going to be a lot bigger than doing it at your club.”
Those words will upset many Reds. Gerrard’s flirtation with Chelsea has in the main been forgiven, but it will never be forgotten. No fans doubt his talent, or the times he’s got the club through difficult games, but many are upset with his attitude at times – for example when asked to play on the right. His words will be twisted a little further by some and soon he’ll be misquoted as having said he doesn’t find Liverpool games are all that important. But that’s not what he said.
It was pointed out to him that the Reds fans won’t want to hear him say their games aren’t as important as internationals, but Gerrard replied: “Maybe that’s supporters being selfish. But as a player you want to play in the biggest games out there – and the biggest games out there are the Euros and World Cups.”
A lot of Reds who defend Gerrard say that one of his problems is that he’s nowhere near as good at communicating as he is at playing. Perhaps he’s honest, but sometimes a little more diplomacy would do him no harm. He continued: “When I join up with England these games are bigger than Champions League games or league games. You’re representing your country. If you go to a major tournament and play well or achieve something as a team it’s going to be a lot bigger than achieving something at your club.”
These words will cause trouble for Gerrard. Fans who had been waiting for an opportunity to have a dig at the midfielder now have their opportunity, fans who had been still unsure what to make of him are now likely to turn against him. But it’s important to think about what he’s really saying. And it’s also important to think for a moment how those words would sound if uttered by Xabi Alonso or Fernando Torres about winning things with Spain. If Steve Finnan had found himself with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck, who can say if he’d rank it above or below his Champions League winner’s medal?
Gerrard has never hidden his ambition – to win things. And winning the World Cup probably is the ultimate achievement for a player. With Gerrard it’s a case of wanting to win everything. He wants to play and win every game.
One difference between club and international football is that a country wins things based on the talent that country has. No amount of money can buy better talent, although of course money can help improve players with better training facilities and so on. Roman Abramovich came along with bucketfuls of money and tried to buy all the players he could to help him – effectively – buy the title. He didn’t quite manage to entice Gerrard, but certainly got most of his targets. And although Abramovich could help his international association to get the best coach to train their players, he can’t buy new players for his country. It’s quite ironic then that Abramovich’s country are the ones most likely to end England’s chances of getting to the Euro 2008 finals.
Gerrard also spoke out about the often dredged up issue of quotas on “foreign” players. This is something that Michel Platini would love to see as he continues his blinkered attempts at changing the European game, but Gerrard now says the lack of English players in the English league is going to hurt the country’s chances in the future: “I believe that if foreigners do take over completely it will make things even worse for the national team. I’m all for that (quotas). I support the Liverpool academy now and I am desperate for another young player to come through into the Liverpool team. I support that in the national team as well. There’s a big danger that we stop producing quality young kids because of the amount of foreigners in the game.”
It’s not something that’s likely to happen, nor is it something that would necessarily be fair. European laws would get in the way to a certain extent, and in Europe different rules apply to different countries to allow citizenship. As for academy rules, clubs already find way to bend those. One top club – not Liverpool – persuaded one youngster to join them by buying his family a big house, and that’s not necessarily the worst way they’ve oiled the wheels to get a player they wanted.
Big clubs in England now get hold of the best young players they can, from home and abroad. The chances of many of those making it are limited though, because every game is a big game these days and players generally have to go out on loan to get any experience. It’s not quotas that are needed, it’s better ways of allowing clubs to use their fringe players. Gerrard agrees: “You’ve got to understand the manager’s situation going into big games. Kids will only turn into good players if they are given the chance. I would not be sitting here without the chance that Gérard Houllier gave me.”
England’s players won’t hear a bad word said against coach Steve McLaren, and the number of foreign stars playing in the English league is one of the ways they defend the former Middlesbrough coach: “It’s no good having the best league in the world and a national team that’s suffering.” So if England go out, should McLaren stay? “You get judged on results. You can say it would be a brave decision; you can look at it like that. It’s important we don’t change managers every year; as a player you need to get used to a manager and sometimes it does take time. And, yes, I still do believe in him.”
Do Liverpool fans still believe in Gerrard? In the main yes, undoubtedly, but he’ll have some bridges to build when he gets back to club duties, just to explain what he really means about the differences between club and country. And if he is to spend next summer watching Euro 2008 from home, a couple of medals won with Liverpool might just make it a little easier.