Most football clubs have those quirky, curious “Did you realise…?” facts to relate, things that make you go “Really? Well, I never!”, or words to that effect. Leeds United, in all probability, have just as many as any other club, if not more. For instance: Did you realise… that Leeds United have been Champions more recently than mighty Liverpool, the greatest Champions of them all? The way things are looking, this is one particular fact whose days might well be numbered. And, although as a Leeds fan I’m rightly proud of such a pleasing statistic. it’s not before time for it to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Liverpool were perennial champions for most of my teens and twenties, when my beloved Leeds were banished to the shadowy hinterland of the game, much as they are now. It’s a sort of nostalgic feeling, then, to look at the top flight table and see them sat there again, on their accustomed perch, leading the way. A successful Liverpool is a reminder of happier days, when the game was not so estranged from the fans, when commercial interests still came second to battle and glory on the field. Nowadays, the commercial tail wags the football dog quite mercilessly; everything is subordinate to the over-riding preoccupation with making more and more money – with the fans being fleeced left, right and centre.
If the real Reds of Anfield do go on to clinch a first title for twenty-four years, then a large chunk of the credit must go to their long-serving skipper and midfield driving force, Steven Gerrard. He was to the fore again last weekend as Liverpool beat Manchester City in a pulsating game of quality and character from both sides. Gerrard played a captain’s part throughout the match and – significantly – directly after the final whistle. As he gathered the players into a post-match huddle, you could plainly see him ramming home the message: the job is not done, we need the same performance again in the remaining games. His face, contorted with fatigue and determination, had resolve and desire writ large in every line, his commitment radiating from every fibre of his being and into the less experienced team-mates around him. It was a battle-cry, a rallying call. Gerrard will not permit performances to wane, nor heads to drop. He will lead those lads to ultimate success, if he possibly can. It was an inspirational sight to see.
There are not that many Steven Gerrards left in the game today. Not enough warriors faithful to a cause, thinking not of the footballers’ notorious “bottom line”, but of being written into history as The Best, on behalf of a club they count it a privilege to serve. It’s far more common to see spoiled prima donnas like Wayne Rooney, sulking on 250 grand a week until he’s mollified by a wage rise of a mere £2.6 million. Or indeed my comparatively humble lot at Leeds United, who had the immense “stress” of wages deferral just a few weeks back, when the takeover was in flux – and found they simply could not kick a ball straight or even try a leg, most of them, because of this financial issue. In the modern game, money is King – to a far greater extent than it ever used to be. So, the fans can go hang, professional pride can whistle. All that matters is making sure that money – thousands a week, even at Championship level – keeps rolling into those fat bank accounts. When that’s sorted out, why – the players are prepared to try again, Blackpool are beaten, and what would have been a shameful, disgraceful relegation struggle is warded off.
Gerrard, in common with most footballers in the top two divisions, has more money than he will ever know what to do with. Money – you can tell – was the very last thing on his mind as he exhorted his team-mates to a replication of their fantastic performance against City – first when Liverpool face Norwich, and then after that, in all the rest of their remaining games. If anyone can inspire those players to the heights they hit at Anfield, then Gerrard is that man. The successful team pattern at Liverpool FC has been laid down by manager Brendan Rodgers – and he’s done a brilliant job. But without his trusty lieutenant on the field – without that 90 minute motivator demanding effort and commitment from all around him – things might not look as rosy as they now do for the league leaders.
The midweek games were kind to them, too. City slipped up at home to Sunderland in an unlikely lapse. They and Chelsea remain a threat, but both have trips to Merseyside to negotiate and neither will be taking it for granted that they will now find it easy to deny Liverpool a long-awaited first Premier League crown.
As a Leeds United fan, I have no particular Premier League axe to grind. As long as Man U don’t win it, I’m happy – and from that point of view, it looks as though I’ll be happy for a good while to come. Arsenal are my favourites, generally speaking, from the élite end of football. Until my own United return to the big-time, my interest in who wins what in the shake-up at the end of each season is generally limited to seeing who’s best able to deny the Pride of Devon more tarnished silverware. But I have to say I’d love to see Liverpool win the league, and for a few reasons. For their fans, who have suffered over the past two decades while their glory faded behind them; for the family and friends of the 96 who died at Hillsborough a quarter of a century ago, and for the 96 themselves – and for Steven Gerrard and his free-flowing, attacking team.
Liverpool as champions would be a credit to the English game. Up front and in terms of the supply to their attackers, they have all the attributes and talent of a top-class international side. Further back, they are merely good or very good – but in the creative and finishing part of the game, they have the stuff of greatness. And the thing is, they’ll only get better. So I shall look forward to the climax of this Title race with plenty of interest and in the hope that – just as things used to be when I was but a lad – Liverpool wind up on top again. And I don’t mind in the least that I’d no longer be able to boast about my beloved Leeds being Champions more recently than the Reds. Because it’s time for a return to the game’s real values – values that Gerrard epitomises better than perhaps any other current player.
Seriously – if there’s anybody out there who would begrudge Steve Gerrard a league title winner’s medal – I doubt that they have any real appreciation of what this game is all about. If ever a team deserve a Title, it’s Liverpool this season. And if ever a skipper deserved his medal – it’s Steven George Gerrard.