Golden Games: No 38, Steven Gerrard for Liverpool v Manchester United

To celebrate 30 years of the Premier LeagueThe Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here — as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.

Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.


Close your eyes and think of Steven Gerrard at his irrepressible, indomitable best.

It’s a European night, isn’t it? If it’s not Anfield under the floodlights, it’s probably May 2005 in the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. Or it’s the FA Cup final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium a year later, lashing home two equalisers, one of them in stoppage time from 30 yards out.

It probably isn’t in the Premier League. There are top-flight goals of his that will live long in the memory — an audacious solo effort against Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, a piledriver against Everton at Goodison Park, a preposterous dipping, swerving effort against Middlesbrough at Anfield, so many free kicks struck with precision, power or both — but, in an era when title glory eluded Liverpool, matches in other competitions shaped Gerrard’s legacy.

We debated this extensively when compiling our list for the Golden Games series. It is not a list of the greatest players; we’ve already done that. It is a list of the greatest individual performances.

And if Gerrard, or other undisputed giants of the Premier League era, didn’t make the cut, we were comfortable with that. There are some great, great Premier League players who do not feature in our 50.

Ultimately, Gerrard has got in because there were so many occasions, over a period spanning almost 15 years, when he appeared to almost single-handedly drag his team to victory in a Premier League fixture.

Even if his most celebrated, career-defining exploits came on the European stage, there were so many other displays that merited consideration for this series. He was that sort of player; in what was at times a mediocre Liverpool team, he stuck out so often that exceptional performances ceased to be … well, an exception.

The match we opted for was among the first that truly confirmed Gerrard as an elite player. There had already been a few milestones along the way — Premier League debut, first England cap, a number of performances that had marked his growing influence in a team re-emerging under Gerard Houllier — but a 2-0 win over Manchester United at Anfield on March 31, 2001, two months before his 21st birthday, marked his coming of age.

It would be fair to say Gerrard had a thing about Roy Keane.

“At the time, Keane possessed all the qualities that make a top midfielder,” he wrote in his 2006 autobiography. “Obviously I hated watching Manchester United, but I loved watching Keane. I wanted his aura, his ability to be everywhere on the pitch, tackling hard and passing well.”

Gerrard wasn’t awe-struck, though. In the build-up to this match, he spoke of having “got closer” to Keane and Patrick Vieira of Arsenal over the course of that campaign and wanting to be “as good, if not better” than them over the next 12 months. “You’ve got to set your standards high,” he said — and there was no doubting Gerrard’s willingness to measure himself against the very best.

But our chosen game wasn’t a Keane-like performance. It was one occasion when Gerrard wasn’t quite “everywhere on the pitch”. It came at a time when Houllier liked to deploy him on the right-hand side of midfield, with either Danny Murphy or Gary McAllister preferred alongside Dietmar Hamann in the centre. 

Gerrard didn’t like playing on the right, but watching the game back, you can understand why Houllier (and later Rafa Benitez) liked to use him there. It was partly about preserving Gerrard physically, given the growing pains he was still enduring, but also about utilising him in a way that gave the youngster more freedom to create without unbalancing the rest of the Liverpool midfield.

But the game was only six seconds old when he seized on a loose pass by Denis Irwin and flew in with a challenge on Ryan Giggs to win possession. Anfield roared approval. The tone for the afternoon had been set. Gerrard and Liverpool had the scent of blood in their nostrils.

United were 16 points clear of second-placed Arsenal at the top of the Premier League at kick-off that Saturday, closing in on a third consecutive title. They hadn’t lost in the league since Liverpool beat them 1-0 at Old Trafford a week before Christmas and looked well placed to take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals three days later. They had David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Keane and Giggs in midfield. But Gerrard wasn’t about to stand on ceremony.

In the 16th minute, a weak kick by Fabien Barthez was followed by a poor touch from Butt in midfield. The ball was headed on by Hamann and Murphy and then knocked into space intelligently by Robbie Fowler, giving Gerrard space in which to carry it forward.

He took two touches, the second of them to get the ball out from under his feet, then unleashed a 30-yard shot that arrowed past Barthez into the top corner.

“That is sensational,” Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler proclaimed as Gerrard slid away in celebration.

“That is unstoppable,” his co-commentator Andy Gray yelled. “Absolutely unstoppable. What a strike from the young man.”

As well as being a spectacular goal, it proved the catalyst for a classic Gerrard all-action display.

One minute he was hitting a cross that caused panic in the United defence. The next he was racing back to dispossess Teddy Sheringham on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area. Twice in the space of a minute, he won the ball from the struggling Irwin.

Then came a terrifying first-time delivery of a quality that would surely have been described at the time as Beckham-esque. Fortunately for United, Fowler slipped and couldn’t connect with it.

On 34 minutes, though, the Gerrard-Fowler combination worked perfectly.

Once again what leaps out is the ability to produce a moment of magic with so little time and space to work in. Receiving a lay-off from Emile Heskey by the right-hand touchline, it looked an unpromising position, but Gerrard sent a wonderful first-time ball pass over the head of Gary Neville, allowing Fowler to bring it down and hammer a shot past Barthez to make it 2-0.

It was the type of pass you would expect these days from Kevin De Bruyne.

Indeed, these two outstanding midfielders have far more in common than the more simplistic characterisations suggest. Just as the Manchester City player’s dynamism from midfield is often overlooked in the rush to acclaim his technical and creative talent, so did many portrayals of Gerrard underestimate his vision and touch. Some players tick so many boxes that it can be hard to pigeon-hole them.

There was another killer ball from Gerrard seven minutes before half-time: perfectly weighted, this time with the left foot, to send Heskey through on goal. Heskey’s shot lacked conviction, too close to Barthez, but it is no exaggeration to say that Gerrard could very feasibly have ended that first half with a goal and three assists.

More than two decades on, it is a little unnerving to see just how scrappy much of the game that day was: a lot of long balls pumped forward, a lot of tussles for the second ball. Liverpool had a lot of joy playing that way in that season — particularly when Heskey was up front and perhaps more so on this particular occasion, when Ferguson had 5ft 11in right-back Gary Neville playing central defence in Jaap Stam’s absence — but, with Paul Scholes kept on the bench for 75 minutes, even United’s football was a little one-dimensional.

Gerrard stuck out a mile and, while it is striking that he was one of relatively few players involved at Anfield who had not played an international the prior midweek (England won 3-1 in Albania on the Wednesday in a World Cup qualifier), he was coming to the stage of his career where that blend of power and precision began to come naturally, as did the ability to bend games to his iron will.

The one criticism that attached itself to Gerrard over the course of his career was that he played with heart rather than head. Sir Alex Ferguson called it “bravado” years later — and not in a positive way (though he was certainly effusive when he held faint ambitions of luring Gerrard over from Merseyside, expressing fears that Liverpool might have found “a player as good as Roy Keane”).


Gerrard was deemed to play with his heart more than his head in his early days (Photo: Getty)

If anything, it seemed Gerrard adapted his style to Liverpool’s evolving needs. For better and just occasionally for worse, the “Roy of the Rovers” stuff, charging around doing everything, shooting from all angles, constantly trying to force the issue, tended to come at times when he was trying to haul a mediocre team out of the mire.

During those spells when they had a coherent team under Houllier and Benitez, he was able to channel his energy more selectively.

That day against United, Gerrard was near-faultless.

His defensive work, not only in support of Markus Babbel on the right-hand side but moving infield to help out Hamann and Murphy when needed, was excellent. His use of the ball was outstanding both in the selection of his passes — long and short — and their execution. 

Liverpool played on the counter-attack in the second half, content to sit on their lead, but even, so Gerrard’s influence was impossible to ignore. One pass, hit first time from the right-back position, for Heskey to chase, takes the breath away. Heskey held off Wes Brown and struck the post from 25 yards, but the pass…

It was a De Bruyne ball again — and that is the highest of praise, just as it is when the Belgian is lauded for a Gerrard-type run from midfield.

Something weird happened in the closing stages, by which time Liverpool had lost Murphy to a red card.

With Barthez going walkabout, Gerrard twice tried their luck from the halfway line or beyond. Neither effort quite succeeded, but it said something about the confidence of the young man (as well as about the eccentricities of United’s World Cup-winning French goalkeeper).

By the time Gerrard left for a standing ovation with two minutes of normal time to play, the game was won and Liverpool had taken a step closer to Champions League qualification while continuing to challenge in the UEFA Cup and FA Cup, having already won the League Cup. They would end that campaign triumphant in all three cup competitions as well as qualifying for the Champions League and it is for good reason that Gerrard looks back on those few months as possibly the most thrilling and satisfying of his career.

It is a career that ended, famously or infamously, without a Premier League winner’s medal to show for it — and with his ill-starred pursuit of that trophy defined, ultimately, by that costly slip at home to Chelsea in the third-last game of 2013-14. Rival fans still sing about that moment eight years later, even though Gerrard is managing Aston Villa rather than playing for Liverpool. It’s not the type of treatment an ordinary player would get.

Gerrard’s legend was cemented elsewhere: that Champions League final comeback of 2005 against AC Milan, snatching the 2006 FA Cup final from West Ham’s grasp, even UEFA Cup and League Cup finals in the years before those two epic games. When we talk of the goals, the matches and the acts that defined his career, they did not come in the Premier League.

For the best part of 15 years, though, Gerrard played at an extraordinary level in the Premier League. 

This particular match is a case in point.

His Liverpool team lacked the quality to stay with Ferguson’s serial champions from Old Trafford over the course of a season, but, with Gerrard in this mood, they could compete with anyone on their day. He showed it time and again, from skinny teenager to broad-chested 34-year-old carrying the weight of half a city on his shoulders.

There were times, in the late-Houllier and early-Benitez periods, when he seemed to be the difference between Liverpool finishing in the top four and mid-table mediocrity.

Of course, his greatest moments in the Premier League were dwarfed by heroics in Champions League and FA Cup finals. But that is not reason enough to gloss over them.

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)



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Golden Games: No 38, Steven Gerrard for Liverpool v Manchester United

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