The dust is finally beginning to settle after an announcement that Liverpool fans would have been dreading for some time. Steven Gerrard, a man voted by the readers of Sky Sports and the Liverpool Echo as the greatest Reds player in history, is leaving after 25-years at the club. But what does this outpouring of emotion reveal about people’s fear of change and the fragility of identity.
Gerrard’s decision to embark on a new venture in MLS next season is understandable. For a born competitor who still has plenty of energy left in those industrious legs, the prospect of having your game time “managed” is less than appealing. Of course, much has been written regarding the 34-year-olds departure and he has rightly received the highest plaudits. He has been eulogised as a ‘legend’ and one of the greatest ‘one-club players’ in history. The sceptics have taken umbrage to the latter assertion.
By definition, perhaps it would be wrong to put the Merseyside man alongside club icons such as Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti and Ryan Giggs, purely due to the fact that these players have only played for one club throughout their professional careers. That said, although Gerrard will be plying his trade in the United States next season, it would be unfair to question his loyalty, especially when this is predominately based on a transfer to Chelsea that never happened. It’s a spurious slur. Although Liverpool’s captain marvel handed in a transfer request to join the Blues in 2005, the move never materialised. Despite the temptation, he decided against joining Roman Abramovich’s revolution and his only peccadillo was considering a lucrative and career changing offer. Few players wouldn’t.
But that’s why Gerrard’s decision to leave Liverpool has fuelled such strong opinion. Loyalty is a diminishing commodity and players like Gerrard are a dying breed. With the opening of yet another January transfer window, many supporters across Europe will anxiously be scanning the gossip columns, hoping beyond hope that one of their club heroes or prized assets doesn’t give into the lure of a remunerative contract or the promise of silverware.
There is often a disparity between the loyalties of a supporter and that of a player. It’s one of football’s great taboos. Fans usually proclaim they will follow their club “till they die”, while players and managers swap clubs as if it were a game of musical chairs. This mercantilism isn’t a new phenomenon and throughout history, armies and noblemen have chopped and changed their allegiances, dictated by the opportunity of prosperity and riches. It is a reality that exists in everyday life, people jump ship when offered a more profitable job and indeed the world of recruitment is built around this premise. However just as in football, the act of moving to a rival firm or business is still frowned upon and condemned.
For Liverpool fans and Gerrard admirers, much of the furore surrounding his imminent exit is dictated by angst. What will life be like without Stevie G? Liverpool will lose a club bastion, a player who personifies their ideals, while the Premier League loses one of its most exciting home-grown talents. Lifelong Liverpool fan and current employee of the club, Rickie Lambert, labelled his teammate as “Mr Liverpool” while manager, Brendan Rodgers, admitted his captain would be “irreplaceable.” The most passionate of fans feel that they belong to their club while at the same time owning a portion. If you give your body and soul to something, you hope for the same in return. The Liverpool captain gave that to his club and he embodied the footballing qualities supporters so dearly desire. But this makes his departure even harder to bear. Losing such a prominent figure can be traumatic. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson clearly damaged Manchester United’s cohesion and efficacy and they have only recently showed signs of recovering.
But the clamour surrounding Gerrard’s departure may also tap into a broader social issue which has a contemporary pertinence, that being insecurity surrounding identity. Most people are desperate to have a clear sense of identity or in simpler terms, belonging. These are usually constructed by our social milieu, which normally includes family, peers, geographical location, nationality and social class. The economic downturn and political maelstrom in recent times has left a generation of disillusioned individuals, individuals who are desperate to feel a part of something. In this ever evolving and globalised world, it is increasingly difficult for people to map out a clear identity and in some cases this uncertainty has allowed ideological extremism to proliferate.
Football, described by ex-England international Kevin Davies as ‘too tribal’, has long provided a source of identity with clubs acting as rallying points for shared values. Unfortunately, the construction of social groups in a footballing context has also given birth to extremism in the form of hooliganism and on the continent, radical political ideology within Ultra groups.
But returning to the significance of Steven Gerrard, there is no doubt that in purely footballing terms his departure will have widespread implications for the club, its supporters and the Premier League. Love him or loathe him, there are few men who have struck balls as sweetly or governed midfields as imperiously over the last decade or so. But analysing the fallout of Gerrard’s decision in solely footballing terms is superficial. Football, sport in general, is a microcosm of society and thus the emotional reaction reflects a social trend.
Liverpool supporters, who have long been linked with the left-wing, socialist tradition within the city, immediately embraced Gerrard, a working class lad and boyhood fan of the club. His story resonates with many of those who sit in the Kop end; he grew up on the Bluebell estate in Huyton during the 1980’s, a period of austerity as the city resisted Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Gerrard himself recently admitted had he not been playing for Liverpool, he would be watching them in the stands. The tributes that Lambert and Rodgers paid to their captain illustrate how the clubs identity has become inextricably linked with the man. Without their emblematic leader, are Liverpool and their supporters losing a key component of their identity?
Gerrard’s departure signals change and in the eyes of many this change is unwanted. People are desperate to cling onto the halcyon days in which they grew up, in this case watching Stevie G in his iconic number eight jersey, the captains armband adorning his sleeve as he taps the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel before leading his red army into battle. It is a situation reflected in today’s society, one in which change is met with apprehension and uncertainty is influencing people to revert back to what they are comfortable with. Unfortunately for Liverpool, as Steven Gerrard sets off across the pond, a part of their identity will go with him. It seems identities are being redefined and not everyone is a fan.