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The right time for Steven Gerrard to leave Liverpool

Steven Gerrard plays his last game at Anfield on Saturday and football is providing its routine flood of tears. After 17 years, 708 games, 185 goals and 10 trophies for Liverpool, Gerrard heads for a new challenge in America while his sport bathes in sentimentality once again.

Stevie G! The finest character! The greatest player! Loyal to his club and kind, always faithful, always true: one of football's valiant pilgrims.

Why does sport -- and football more than most -- go in for such sentimentality on these occasions? Not such a hard question really: Sport is an uncompromising business, one based entirely on results and the show-us-yer-medals meritocracy. It's inevitable that whenever there's an opportunity we seek relief in an upsurge of self-indulgent emotions.

If you fail to go along with it all you are a party-pooper, not a real footballing person, out of step with the way sport likes to do such things and certain to incur the righteous wrath of those with a strong allegiance to the athlete being sentimentalised. And Liverpool fans don't have a reputation for dispassionate assessment of their own.

The fact is that Gerrard was a first-class player. First class of the second class, that is. As fine an example of the second-class footballer as you could hope to see, and as such, a player who'd improve every side bar the very best. Though Gerrard never really aspired to be among the very best.

Footballers of the first class include Alfredo di Stefano, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Gerrard has never been in such a category, nor did he claim to be.

STEVEN GERRARD HONOURS

Club: FA Cup (2): 2001, 2006; League Cup (3): 2001, 2003, 2012; Community Shield (1): 2006; Champions League (1): 2005; UEFA Cup (1): 2001; UEFA Super Cup (1): 2001


Individual: PFA player of the year (1): 2006; PFA young player of the year (1): 2001; PFA team of the year (8): 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2014; PFA Merit Award: 2015; FWA footballer of the year (1): 2009; UEFA club footballer of the year (1): 2005; MBE: 2007.

The very best players somehow create the team they play in. They inspire lesser talents to a level of achievement that would otherwise be beyond them. The greatest of the great are the heart and soul of their team and their performances lift all around them to the highest possible level of achievement.

Gerrard had this gift, but at a slightly lower level. He couldn't do it for England. He and Frank Lampard were neither generous enough to defer to each other nor strong enough to dominate each other, so England for years built their team around a personality clash.

But certainly Gerrard inspired Liverpool and did so for year after year ... years in which Liverpool never actually won the league title. He did all he could and he did wonders, but he could never take his club that tiny, enormous step further.

Apart from once. For nearly an hour Gerrard really was great: the greatest player in the world, nothing less. That was Istanbul. Well, of course it was; when Liverpool went 3-0 down in the Champions League Final of 2005 against AC Milan, came back to draw level, and then won on penalties. Gerrard scored the first goal, driving his team forward and driving the supporters to wild frenzies of encouragement. He turned the impossible into the inevitable.

Gerrard will rightly be given a good send-off, but it's the right time to leave.

We're inclined to heap all the praise on Gerrard for that night, though without an astonishing performance from the goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek it wouldn't have happened. But that's to carp: Gerrard had an hour of genuine greatness and that's far more than most can ever hope to achieve.

He could have left Liverpool and gone to another club, chasing the big trophies, but he always resisted. Part of this was wholly admirable: a sense of loyalty and gratitude his club and its supporters. Part of this is a little romanticised, for Gerrard is a throwback: a footballer who is part of the city and who speaks with the accent of the city, a man for whom the home city is his world.

But there's also the smallest hint of funk. Gerrard never wanted to leave the comforts of home for the unknown. He didn't want to be in a place where he was not the main man and, as he showed with England, he was a lesser player without that sense of self-assurance. Gerrard stayed with Liverpool, and by doing so he showed that he was aware of his and his club's limitations.

So will Liverpool be better off without him? Of course they won't. Gerrard didn't hold the club back. He made sure they were as good as they possibly could be in the eternal rebuilding process of the last quarter-century. But perhaps next season will be easier without the temptation to wheel him out whenever another miracle is needed. It would have been sad to watch him flailing about and failing to supply one.

Besides, Gerrard has shown no aptitude and not much appetite for the bit-part role. He's either the heart and soul of a team or he has no meaning. So it's the right time to move; or maybe a year too late. But certainly he leaves a flood-tide of goodwill from us all.

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