By: Josh Hunsucker (@jphunsucker)
Today is Steven Gerrard’s last Merseyside Derby. For most Americans this means absolutely nothing. Aside from World Cup jingoism every four years, most Americans generally fall into one or more of these camps: 1) soccer is not a “real” sport, 2) soccer players are p****ies who just flop all the time, 3) only hipsters like soccer, or 4) soccer is boring because no one scores. Nothing that follows will try and convince you otherwise but if you believe in sports heroes and can suspend any soccer-based prejudices, keep reading. I truly believe in sports heroes. That being said I am a full-fledged sports junkie. I watched Curling Night in America on NBCSN last night for God’s sake (huge 6-3 win for the U.S. over New Zealand!).
In 2002, I met Steven Gerrard when England was playing Spain in my Displaced Faithful buddy Huss’ (@HAlshibib) apartment on PS2. I knew little about soccer and less about Gerrard but soon after we began to play something made an impression on me. Maybe is it was the way the British announcers distinctly pronounced his name, maybe it was the swashbuckling way he bombed down the pitch, but probably it was his passing. Even in the world of crisp video game passing the guy was amazing. I didn't know if he was a fringe guy on the England team or if he was a superstar, I just knew he was my guy.
That same year four British exchange students moved in next door. On the first night of many cross cultural exchanges over our shared love of beer I noticed a number 17 (he's been 28, 17, and 8 for the Reds), Gerrard, Liverpool jersey hanging on the wall. In a horrible English accent I expressed my nascent love for the crisp passing Gerrard asking if he was a real life passing prodigy. Over the next hours and deep into the night I got a history lesson. I learned how he grew up in Liverpool and was a hometown hero, how the previous season (2000-01) Gerrard started every game for a Liverpool team that won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup, how he was voted Young Player of the Year, and that yes, that he was a passing God.
Over the next decade I watched as Stevie G not only amassed individual and team honors, he became synonymous with Liverpool. He is still the only soccer player ever to score a goal in an FA Cup, League Cup, and Champions League final. Even in seasons where Liverpool stumbled Gerrard shined. He was a constant measure of excellence at midfield for Liverpool for over 15 years. He won every individual award you can think of and only a league championship has escaped him. Last year, Liverpool was in the driver seat for the Premier League title until, in heartbreaking fashion, Gerrard slipped leading to a Chelsea goal that ripped away the one trophy Gerrard had yet to kiss. The heartbreak was palpable but Gerrard, the team's captain, owned it.
Earlier this year Stevie G retired from international soccer and later announced this would be his last year at Liverpool. This summer he will throw on the hated jersey of the L.A. Galaxy. Another fading European star to live out his days in America. In August, hundreds of Liverpool fans, myself included, will fill the San Jose Earthquakes’ new stadium clad in Liverpool red to cheer the man most of us have only seen on TV. Today, Gerrard is set to play his last Merseyside Derby, a cross-town match against rival Everton (aka Tim Howard’s team). He has 15 more games for the Reds, this one, his 33rd Derby, is likely the most massive. Most of the time you don't realize what you had until its gone. However, Liverpool fans are all too aware of the Red's impending loss in leadership, on field excellence, and, yes, passing when Gerrard moves to L.A.
In minutes he will take the field at Goodison Park for the final time. He has one more chance to further cement his legacy as one of the greats in Liverpool history. If you love sports and believe in sports heroes you will tune in.