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Steven Gerrard was great but will have to accept he's like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs ... past it

Simon BarnesDecember 5, 2014
Steven Gerrard wants to be as great as he was in 2005 but just isn't © Getty Images

Am I ready to be wonderful? That is the question that every top-class player has to ask as his career moves towards the endgame. He has been brilliant, terrific, awesome, and perhaps even on occasions great. But being wonderful is something entirely different.

The decision to become wonderful tends to come to a footballer round about the age of 33 and a third. Sometimes a little later, say, 35 - midway through the journey of life for most of us, but within touching distance of the end for a professional athlete.

If the footballer has been lucky with injuries and the body he was born with, and if he has taken appropriate care of himself, then he can play on fairly deep into his 30s. But he has to accept a different role. Such things as brilliance and greatness are no longer within his scope. It's time to start being wonderful.

Gerrard doesn't want to be wonderful, he wants to be as great as he was in 2005 and stay that great ... Understandable, even laudable, but not achievable

Look about in the Premier League. Didier Drogba was brought back to Chelsea specifically to be wonderful. Frank Lampard is wonderful in his second coming at Manchester City. But Steven Gerrard sees it differently. The opportunity for wonderfulness is opening up before him and he doesn't want to know. He still wants to be great.

A footballer can only become wonderful when he accepts that the days of greatness are in the past. To be wonderful means that you have great respect, but a good deal less is asked of you in playing terms. Fewer matches, less playing time and cameos. On occasions, rolling back the years, but often doing so on a short-term contract. It's a different job.

The transition is easier for some than for others. Last season Ryan Giggs was clearly wonderful. In desperate times for Manchester United he played the role of rallying point and beacon of hope. This ended logically enough with Giggs as caretaker manager in a blazer. He succeeded in making his transitions.

Frank Lampard has accepted a bit-part role at Manchester City © Getty Images

Gerrard continues to resist. He wants to be the same rampaging box-to-boxer that he was in Istanbul in 2005. Then, he brought joy to the Liverpool supporters who hadn't walked out of the pub when they were 3-0 down at half-time, and anguish to the journos (I was one of them) there who had to throw away all the stuff about Liverpool's humiliation and start telling the tale of one of the great comebacks in football.

The trick about being wonderful is not to see it as a demotion. In return for playing less and no longer being cock of the walk, you get to be cherished a little more. You are the wise one, the smart one, the thoughtful one: the best of good pros. Gerrard's suitability for such a role at Liverpool is obvious: his reluctance to take it on is equally obvious.

It can be frustrating. I remember talking to Trevor Brooking when he was being wonderful at West Ham. "Everybody has a bad game now and then," he said. "And if you're a young player, they say, well, he had a bad game. But you reach a certain age and you have a bad game they say, well, his legs have gone."

The fact is, Brooking legs weren't that great in the first place - and players like that are especially suitable for becoming wonderful. Even in youth they have to rely on craft, vision and anticipation. When their bodies slow even further, they discover that they have spent their entire footballing lives preparing for autumnal excellence.

Teddy Sheringham, playing on past 40, took West Ham to promotion to the Premier League and the following year, 2006, he was the third oldest footballer to play in an FA Cup Final at 40 years and 139 days. He was a classic example of a forward whose best asset was his brain. You'd feel a bit miffed at such a description in your twenties; in the next decade - and the one after - it's an attribute that comes into its own.

The trick about being wonderful is not to see it as a demotion. In return for playing less and no longer being cock of the walk, you get to be cherished a little more

Being wonderful is a fine role for those players who have the temperament to take it on (and those who lack it can always go to Major League Soccer, like David Beckham). You don't start, or even play in every match, you are held back for significant interventions on important occasions. Your authority, your experience, your calmness set the tone for the team in tricky circumstances. You are also there as a moral example: around the club, on the training pitch, you are the player your manager wants the rest to look up to. It's by no means an unimportant role.

But if you want to play it you accept that you're growing older. Past it. In decline. No longer capable of doing the stuff you did as a boy: running several million miles every match, challenging hard for every ball, tracking back like a demon, making glorious charges into attack. Not everyone is happy about that.

Acceptance was never Gerrard's thing. Defiance, more like. His lifetime mission was his refusal to accept that Liverpool weren't the team they were in the 80s. On his greatest night in Istanbul he refused to accept the inevitability of defeat. Naturally he refuses to accept the inevitability of age.

It's a hard thing for us all. Ultimately, it's an acceptance of mortality, and that's no fun at all. Woody Allen famously said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying."

In the same way, Gerrard doesn't want to be wonderful, he wants to be as great as he was in 2005 and stay that great until the sounding of the last trump. Understandable, even laudable, but not achievable.

As Liverpool prepare to face Sunderland at home on Saturday, Gerrard has to work out his best tactic. To rage against the dying of the light? Or to accept the new dimness and plan his life accordingly? Gerrard really was great that night in Istanbul, but surely it's now time to be wonderful. There are worse fates.

Ryan Giggs went from player-coach to caretaker manager and now assists Louis van Gaal © PA Photos

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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