Steven Gerrard, from Liverpool to L.A., is still just a boy who loves football
STEVEN GERRARD TAKES his seat in the front row of a private box at StubHub Center and settles in to watch his first game as a stateside member of the Los Angeles Galaxy. It's July Fourth, and the stadium is sold out, 27,000 strong and festive. The Riot Squad, one of the more notable L.A. supporters groups, has been well-refreshed by the truckload of California beer that Gerrard bought them for their tailgate -- veteran move, that -- accompanied by a hand-signed letter: "I look forward to meeting you at tonight's match," Gerrard wrote. He is more than getting his wish. This isn't Anfield, and Gerrard is essentially sitting in the crowd, separated only by a low cement wall. A steady stream of fans stop by for autographs and pictures; a few of them are already wearing Gerrard's No. 8 in Galaxy white. "That's a bit of a gamble," he says. "They haven't seen me play yet." He points to one fan in particular. "He'll be back wearing his Robbie Keane jersey next week."
Gerrard might be one of football's legends, a standard-bearer for Liverpool and for England, but he's taking gentle first steps in Los Angeles, a city he had never visited before signing his 18-month contract with the Galaxy. "I feel like a kid on the first day of school," he says. "I'm normally the one welcoming the new boys." The jet lag has slowed him, and the traffic has left him off-balance -- he's still trying to get the hang of turning right on a red light -- but mostly he's in the unfamiliar position of watching the game he loves played by strangers. (Keane, a former teammate at Liverpool, is a notable exception.) He can't take the field before Major League Soccer's transfer window opens on July 8, so here he sits, his suit jacket already ditched in the heat, watching the Galaxy play Toronto FC. "I'd rather be out there," he says. "I'm not a good watcher."
Gerrard, as it turns out, is an excellent watcher. He sees football differently, sees it from the inside even from the outside, as though he's never anywhere but in the middle of play. From the opening whistle, his hands are in the air, conducting both sides, two halves of an orchestra. He points urgently to open men, curls his fingers to shape the ball, exhorts and admires and admonishes each side, nearly equally. "He's a good player, No. 10," he says, and he's referring to Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco, the dangerous Italian forward. The Galaxy earn a penalty in the ninth minute and when Keane steps up to the spot, Gerrard can't help guessing along with the keeper. "I think he's going to reverse it, toward me," he says. Keane fools even his old friend, going right and just under the bar for a 1-0 lead.
When Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers told the 35-year-old Gerrard that he'd see fewer and fewer starts, and after Liverpool danced around offering him a contract last summer and fall, Gerrard began looking for a new home for the first time in his life. He received offers from other Premier League sides and clubs across Europe, but he couldn't stomach the idea of ever playing against Liverpool. His agent, Struan Marshall, was talking to Galaxy president Chris Klein about another player when Klein -- "It was almost kind of a joke," he says -- asked about Gerrard's plans. To Klein's surprise, Marshall replied: "You know, I think we could have something."
Each side did their versions of due diligence. "I don't think we needed a lot of references in the case of this player," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena says. The team quickly put together a $9 million offer for a season-and-a-half of work. Gerrard called a number of friends who had made the move to MLS, including Keane, Thierry Henry and, most famously, David Beckham, another former L.A. import. (Gerrard says the first question he received upon his arrival in Los Angeles was more of a statement: "You're not as good-looking as Beckham, are you?") Beckham was emphatic: "Go for it, you'll love it," he told his one-time England teammate. "That was it," Gerrard says.
Now he's burrowing himself deeper into the layers of the American game. He's taking careful note of the time that players have with the ball, the distance from the front to the back, the movement of the midfielders. "We're quite high and aggressive," he says, monitoring the Galaxy's forward lines. "That tells me we're going to be quite positive. The important thing now is not to concede. Just frustrate them." The Galaxy's Sebastian Lletget makes a run, and Gerrard shifts forward to the edge of his seat: "Can you? In the box, in the box, in the box!"
He's asked whether he'll be as commanding on the field, or whether he'll take some time to introduce himself to his new teammates before he starts issuing orders. He shakes his head. "I'll be what I've been since I was 17 or 18 years old," he says. "I'm not going to change. It'd be naïve of me to watch this and think, This looks easy. But I'll be fine."
A.J. DeLaGarza blocks a shot and Gerrard claps his hands like a fan. "Superb defending," he says. The Galaxy counter and Gerrard starts shouting, "Change it! Change it!" He's struck by the play of his fellow midfielder Juninho, the tiny, quick Brazilian. "Oh, he's a lovely little footballer," Gerrard says. "He's technically very gifted. Do you see the way he's looking over his shoulders? He's already done the work before the ball comes." Toronto's Giovinco manages to loft a high shot off a broken play and Gerrard again takes note. "He's very clever. Have to watch him. Not many players have that sort of vision."
Giovinco isn't the only one to have earned an admirer on this night. A stumbling fan in an Iron Maiden T-shirt, blinded by both drink and possibility, makes his way to the wall in front of Gerrard. "I love you, Stevie," he slurs. Gerrard's blond wife, Alex Curran, is sitting behind him, and he turns to look at her, a little wide-eyed. He's fast realizing that while he won't be nearly as famous in Los Angeles as he is in Liverpool, he'll be more accessible. Los Angeles won't abide reverence's limits.
Just before halftime, Gerrard and Klein walk down from the box toward the far end of the field. They are down in a tunnel under the stands when Keane scores a second goal. They can hear the cheering, but the concrete muffles the sound, and Gerrard edges out into the night, better to hear it. Then the halftime whistle blows, and a montage plays on the stadium's big screen. It's Gerrard in Liverpool colors, always in Liverpool colors, scoring goal after miracle goal. He smiles, watching the clips -- "YOU BEAUTY!" the announcer cries -- and, god, Steven Gerrard really was a beautiful player. Steven Gerrard, at full gallop, head up, chest out; Steven Gerrard, who started playing for Liverpool when he was 8; Steven Gerrard, whose 10-year-old cousin was one of the youngest victims of the Hillsborough disaster; Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he'll pass the ball 40 yards, he's big and he's f------ hard; Steven Gerrard putting every last fiber of muscle and heart into a shot, tears of joy and tears of sadness streaming down his face depending on whether he hit or missed. That Steven Gerrard is somehow here, in Los Angeles, on July Fourth, about to step into his new home, and the crowd rises and roars to greet him: Welcome to America.
He stands on the middle of the pitch, bathed in warmth and light, and takes the microphone. "Thank you very much for a fantastic welcome, and thanks very much for making meself and me family feel at home here in L.A.," he says. "It feels great to be here. I'm excited, and I can't wait to get me boots on and play in front of you guys, and hopefully -- hopefully we can have some good times together and it can be a successful future. Happy Fourth of July. All the best."
Later that night, after the Galaxy won the game 4-0 -- three of the goals from Keane, a guiding star in this league of more minor constellations -- and after Gerrard begins his commute with his wife back to their new home in Beverly Hills, the already endless lights of Los Angeles are made even more infinite by the fireworks. There are fireworks rocketing into the air next to the freeway, and over the brown hills, and out of backyards and off apartment balconies. At any one instant, there are dozens of explosions in the sky, and it's a spectacular, throat-closing sight, a million white sparkles against the blackness, and Steven Gerrard must feel as though he has not only changed teams but worlds, having traded so much old for this shining sliver of new.
ON TUESDAY MORNING, July 7, Gerrard joins his teammates for the duck walk through the parking lots to University Field No. 2, outside the stadium, for his first official training session, or at least his first semi-public one. There are more than 100 reporters present for his unveiling. Some of them are English, filing updates on a departed hero; more of them are American, reporting on the arrival of the latest curiosity.
"Which one is he?" one cameraman asks.
"The one with the smallest forehead," an English voice answers.
A boisterous game of keep-away breaks out, but Gerrard stays clear of it, standing off to the side with Keane. They stretch a little and begin passing the ball back and forth, the early reunion of a partnership already weighted with expectation. Then Bruce Arena instructs his players through a more fulsome possession game. Now Gerrard gets right in there, his feet stabbing and slashing out. You can tell when he's holding the ball even with your eyes closed, because of the chorus of camera shutters that go off each time he finds it.
Other drills are whistled to stops and starts, and Gerrard looks good, if not great. His little touches, his tiny redirections and heels, demonstrate his gifts and the wisdom that has replaced some of them, but his shots are weak and off-target. It's like watching a plane that has lost an engine: still capable of flight, just not nearly as majestic.
Then Arena divides the team for a short-field scrimmage. They'll play four four-minute games. Arena puts Gerrard and Keane on the same side, which doesn't seem like an accident. They're wearing gray; the other side is yellow. "We'll play aggregate," the coach says.
Suddenly it looks less like a practice and more like a match. Keane puts the ball off the post and spits, "Ah, f--- off!" Gray net one soon after for a 1-0 lead.
In the second game, Gerrard steals the ball off the opposing keeper's nervous feet and stuffs it into the goal. Next he pushes forward a lovely little lead that results in another goal. Yellow strike once, but Gray answer quickly. The whistle blows: It's 4-1 aggregate.
In the third game, Keane races down the field with Gerrard, and they execute a perfect give-and-go -- "STEVIE!" Keane calls -- to score the lone goal of the match.
And in the final game, Gerrard sets up another strike with the most delicate of touches. Then he and Keane combine on a second give-and-go, with Keane finishing this time, too.
The final whistle blows. Gray has destroyed Yellow, 7-1, and Gerrard either scored or set up five of the goals. He might not be his former self, pyrotechnic, but there's still plenty of grace to be found in his sleights of hand, especially here, among the apprentices.
Keane doesn't even fully leave the field before he stops to express his praise. "His passing is incredible," Keane says, trying in vain to stem his salivating. "He finds you in those little pockets."
After a shower and a bite of lunch, Gerrard surfaces inside the stadium for his introductory media conference. He looks relaxed up on stage, sitting between Arena and Chris Klein, before a house packed with reporters and cameras.
Gerrard does most of the talking. He uses the word "fantastic" a lot. "I've come here to win," he says. "If there's anyone out there who thinks I'm here for a holiday and a last paycheck, they'll be proved wrong very soon." He's asked about the move from Liverpool to Los Angeles, the literal and metaphorical oceans between the disparate coastal cities he'll have called home, and he makes a joke about his newfound respect for sunscreen. "Factor 50," he says. "I got it off Keane-o." His only wobble comes when he's asked what he'll miss about Liverpool and playing for the team that's held every ounce of his aspiration and affection since he was a boy.
"Me teammates," he says. "The club -- I love Liverpool the city. I'll miss it at times. Everyone knows Liverpool will always be in my heart."
Then Gerrard catches himself, like the captain of a ship who has sat up and noticed suddenly he's off course. "But for me now it's all about fighting for a new badge."
After, Arena is asked about what he might do to help his latest star adapt -- how he might guarantee a 35-year-old, multimillionaire, 17-year professional footballer with a perfect blonde wife and three perfect blonde girls a gentler transition to this new life of his, the same as his old life, only sunnier and quieter and easier. Arena casts a sideways glance. "I'm going to make sure I warm up a bottle of milk for him," he says, and he smiles, though only a little.
THERE IS A box of cookies sitting on the table when Gerrard walks up. It's July 10, and after another successful training session, he's retreated to the stadium's Champions Club in the basement. It's mostly empty, just a few tables, no chairs, with a glass cabinet filled with trophies on the wall. The Galaxy are the most successful team in MLS history, and there is the shining hardware to prove it. There are also these cookies. "No thanks, first game tomorrow," Gerrard says. Soon, though, he opens the box, looks inside, closes the box, opens it again, takes another look, and then finally steals a piece of cookie about the size of a quarter. He eats it slowly, like he's taking communion. "I didn't demonstrate great mental strength there, did I?" he says.
He has been asked and has answered every possible question over the preceding days, and he's feeling a little as though there's nothing more for him to say. His three daughters have finished school back in Liverpool and made the long trip west with his mother, and he's anxious to spend time with them. Gerrard took his family to the Santa Monica Pier, and he marveled at how anonymous he was -- he could take his girls to look at the sea and ride on a roller coaster like every other father. He was almost startled by the absence of startles, as though he now faces a different kind of culture shock: He has to recalibrate what's possible and impossible for him anymore, not just as a player but also as a man.
"I had an opportunity to call it a day at Liverpool," he says. "I got an unbelievable farewell. It was a very emotional time. But I just didn't want it to end. I love the game, and I wanted to play on for some more time, try to create more memories. That's the reason why I've carried on. But I think I'm going to have the same feelings if I call it a day in 18 months. I know I'm going to miss it. Football is me life. It's what I'm qualified in, and it's what I love. So I'm going to be stuck. I'm going to be stuck."
He tries to explain more that terrible feeling, that curse of all great athletes: the insatiable desire to continue to do the thing you were born to do, even after time and logic tell you that you've done the best of it. It's a complicated, conflicting sensation, when strangers start talking about your legacy and how you're spoiling it -- as though past achievements are erased by present failures -- and yet you don't feel you've reached anything like the end.
"It's inside you," Gerrard says. "For me, it's more I don't want to embarrass meself. I like to come off the training pitch and after the game and be satisfied with what I've contributed. If that goes, I think you have to force yourself to quit. At the moment, I'm still feeling healthy, strong, I'm enjoying it, you know? Bruce [Arena] and Chris [Klein] made me feel very wanted, and they felt I could still contribute and do a good job out here. For me, that was what I wanted to hear. That was music to my ears, because I wanted to carry on.
"I could have come and had a year in L.A. and rented a place and got up every day and sat on the beach. But it's inside my DNA that I love football and I love winning. If I don't get any success here, I'll be going home a very disappointed man, let me tell you."
He is a man who wears his disappointments the way rodeo cowboys wear their fears, having given up pretending that they can conceal them. The way Gerrard's time with Liverpool finished -- a 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace at Anfield, a 6-1 defeat on the road at Stoke -- was far from dreamlike, but those defeats were tiny trembles compared to the more seismic pressures he has sustained.
"It was a horrific finish," he says of his last days in red. "It was a painful finish. I'd be too self-critical to judge meself and the team on the last few games of the season. We weren't good enough, and we have to take all that criticism, and all the stick on the chin of course. But I have to look at the big picture of the last 17 years. Liverpool were never the favorites to win any of the competitions that we won. We proved an awful lot of people wrong at times and achieved things that weren't in my wildest dreams. At the same time, we had some really crushing blows and lows that will stay with me and scar me for the rest of me life. But that's football. It's not a journey of highs all the way through. It's setbacks. It's lows. Them setbacks and them lows drive you on to achieve better things. So I'm hoping the cruel ending, the bit of a tough ending the last few games, will help drive me on to achieve success while I'm here."
He's said that not a day goes by without his thinking of his infamous slip against Chelsea during 2014's failed league title run, and there's something tragic about that, considering he's also the man who led the Miracle at Istanbul. Is the move to Los Angeles a way to give himself not only physical distance from Liverpool and its mixed history, but also mental deliverance from it?
"I think the whole arrival here gives me a chance for a fresh start," he says. "But the way I am, and what helps me to be consistent in my game, is to always think about the times when it hasn't gone well -- think about the times when I've missed out and it's been painful. I try to use that as a motivation to succeed in the future. I think it would be very disrespectful of me to just dismiss that slip, or those times when we haven't been good enough and forget about them totally, because it means so much to Liverpool supporters. It will always be with me. But I'm looking forward now to the L.A. Galaxy and who knows what's down the line? I want to try to grasp everything I can."
When he's asked for his happiest memory from Liverpool, countless images and moments flash through his head. But as he said in his farewell speech at Anfield, today it's not the ending that surfaces first, but the beginning.
"It's gone over in a flash," he says, and he's shaking his head at the time that's passed. "I remember being 8 years of age and getting two buses to a training facility in Anfield just to train with the under-8s. I remember the very first days going there, and the dream back then was just to play for Liverpool. Me dad was a huge Liverpool fan, me brother was a huge Liverpool fan. The pressure was building each year as I was staying there: Will he do it, will he get there? When you run out there for the first time in a Liverpool kit, as a professional for the first team, it's the best night of your life. You've achieved your dream. But it's also a relief that you've actually got there."
And now, in a little more than 24 hours, after 27 years, he will play his first game for a new team again.
"It felt strange doing a couple of photo shoots with the new kit on, but I'm sure I'll adapt and get used to it. But yeah, I'm used to the red, I'm used to putting that Liverpool kit on, since 8 years of age -- 27 years is a long time. To go all in white is completely different, but once the game starts and the whistle goes, it's a normal service regime for me. It's me job. It's the job I've been doing full-time since I left school at 16. I know what to do.
"That's why I'm here. You talk about me packing bags now in 18 months, going home and retiring and never going onto the pitch with a gang of boys to win a football match-that's like someone taking a lot of me life away."
He might be nearly done talking, but he's still managed to talk himself into never leaving, never confronting that finish of finishes, both surprising and inevitable at the time, when he'll never be asked to play the game again. These next 18 months will feel as unfamiliar as his life ever has, but in a larger, more meaningful way, nothing will change for him here. He begins drifting away from the table, waving his arms as though he were calling for imaginary backup, to go upstairs and make the case for Steven Gerrard to be allowed to play forever.
"Let's go tell Bruce and Chris now we should extend this contract. Come on, come on. Let's go."
He comes back to the table and sighs. "I have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but I don't think I'll be ready in 18 months either."
His eyes return to the box of cookies. He sneaks another little piece, this one of the size of a dime. "Don't tell Bruce," he says.
THE NEXT NIGHT, July 11, Gerrard makes his debut for the Galaxy, in a friendly against top Mexican side Club America. StubHub Center is once again at capacity, but this time it feels like an away game for the home team. The grandstands are filled with yellow jerseys. When the Galaxy players are introduced, Gerrard still receives a loud ovation, second -- if second -- only to Keane. He takes the field, and he stands out, tall and thin, slightly duck-footed, an ordinary man who became extraordinary and is fighting to keep from being ordinary again, a comet's fight.
His first touch comes straight from the kickoff, the ball given to him by Keane. Yellow smoke and streamers fill the air. He sends a long, beautiful pass to Dan Gargan, curling the ball across the field. Were Gerrard watching instead of playing, he would be applauding right now. Instead he's running forward, looking over his shoulders, calling offsides, moving his teammates like chess pieces, raising his arms when the ball goes out of bounds.
Club America score early and dominate play, but slowly the Galaxy shift the momentum. Gerrard makes a run, misses the net with a left-footed volley, returns to the back. A little more than 20 minutes in, he receives a solid pass and charges into the box, pounding a left-footed shot toward the far side the goal. The Club America keeper makes a good diving save, and Gerrard leaps up the way young boys do when they're let down, that strange mix of adrenaline and dejection that comes with a near miss.
Later, not long before half, Keane scores a wonderful goal, collecting a massive clearance from Juninho with his left foot, hitting the brakes, shifting his weight, and relaying the ball into the right side of the empty net. He stands triumphant, and Gerrard gives him a hug, the first of however many embraces they will share.
Both of them will be subbed off at half. The Galaxy will win 2-1, with much grander joy soon to come, including Gerrard's first MLS goal less than a week later, a right-footed strike in a 5-2 victory against San Jose that will see him sprinting to the corner in celebration. He will wear Liverpool shin pads that night, and he will pretend not to hear Arena, hollering from the sideline, asking how he's holding up, 60 minutes in. He will say he felt like a kid out there. "I don't want to come off," he will say. "I want to play as much football as I can." This will be the future he might not have lived.
But for now the score is tied, and for a friendly the game against Club America has been hard fought. It's proving a contest after all. Just before the whistle, Gerrard is taken down roughly, and he doesn't much care for the insult, having learned how important all of this is to him and how easily everything might be stripped away. The first half ends, and he pauses to catch his breath before he jogs in his whites back to the locker room. "It was a great feeling," he says, the sting of the tackle fast fading. Steven Gerrard is a happy man. He's just spent 45 more minutes on the grass, under lights, creating chances and memories. He's just gone one more time onto the pitch with a gang of boys to win a football match.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.