The timing seems a tad off.
Following his Liverpool side’s 3-2 triumph against fellow league title challenger Manchester City, Steven Gerrard’s eyes began to leak. He gathered his teammates for an expletive-filled postgame speech, exhorting them not to “slip” during their remaining four matches. Typically stoic and workmanlike, with a legendary Champions League performance and seven domestic cups on his résumé, Gerrard lost control of his emotions at a juncture when the threat of losing out on the league crown remained quite prevalent.
If you know anything about Gerrard’s story, however, you’ll forgive the man a moment of emotion.
Too prestigious (or conceited, depending on your perspective) to earn sympathy as an underdog, Liverpool nevertheless entered the season too overmatched to be considered a true force. The Reds finished seventh in the table in 2013, entering the season as more of a longshot to break their 24-year league championship drought than the U.S. Airways’ Social Media Intern is to remaining employed.
Aside from new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, head coach Brendan Rogers has relied largely upon players already settled in Merseyside by the end of last season for the 2013-14 campaign. The best of those players, mercurial striker Luis Suarez, fought tooth and nail to flee Liverpool for Arsenal last summer. (Literally — tooth and nail.) Back in August, Liverpool counted as fringe contenders for a top-four finish and Champions League berth: a young, promising team with a rich history that nevertheless resided a tier below oil-fueled titans such as Man City and Chelsea and Manchester United, the most valuable sports franchise in the world.
Their captain for more than decade, meanwhile, was aging and ailing. In his mid-2000s prime, Gerrard ranked among the best players in the world, an enterprising midfielder who covered the whole field and abused opponents from set pieces. After a string of injuries, however, Gerrard seemed to have slowed a step or two. His best chances of capturing a league title seemed at least a half-decade behind him.
Given that prelude and a quick glance at the Premier League table, you would think Liverpool vaulted to the top of the standings through a combination of smoke, mirrors and bribing David Moyes to throw games. But the most remarkable thing about Liverpool’s ascendance is its legitimacy: throughout the season, and particularly during an unbeaten 2014, the Reds have been thrashing the rest of Britain.
In the last two and a half months alone, Liverpool outscored Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham — four through seven in the current table — by a combined score of 13-1 in four league tilts. Suarez is cobbling together perhaps the most impressive striking season in Premier League history, leading the league in both goals (29) and assists (12) despite missing the first five games of the season due to suspension. Striking partner-in-crime Daniel Sturridge’s 20 goals rank second among Premier League players. And the 33-year old Gerrard, with 13 goals, 10 assists and a slew of expertly-delivered corner kicks, is playing some of the best football of his life.
So when the Reds bludgeoned Manchester City for the opening 30 minutes Sunday, it was hardly surprising. The opening goal from Raheem Sterling, as well as the winner from Philippe Coutinho, smack of both the quick-hitting precision and “And-1 mixtape tour on a field”-esque offensive brilliance which has fueled Liverpool all season. And yet, in a larger sense, it was startling. The Reds may boast the fifth-highest payroll in the league and a worldwide following, but the fact that they became this sublime — to the point that they can oust teams with twice their payrolls in the course of a 38-game season while depending enormously on guys like Jordan Henderson and John Flanagan — owes to more than money and talent.
In a sport derided by many for a skewed competitive balance, Liverpool — along with the financially challenged La Liga leaders and Champions League semifinalists Atletico Madrid — are proving you can still become a juggernaut without extra-deep pockets. Long after most pundits interred Gerrard’s hopes for a championship moment with Liverpool, the midfielder’s team is on the cusp of accomplishing something timeless.
Still, by his own admission, something more than team pride induced Gerrard’s tears.
While our country commemorated the victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings Tuesday, thousands gathered at Anfield to honor the 96 killed and several hundred wounded during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest at Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989. The youngest of the victims, 10-year old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was Gerrard’s cousin.
ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 on the subject and a litany of poignant online reflections offer a visceral depiction of the stomach-churning, controversial disaster that has ravaged a community for more than two decades. Now exonerated of any wrongdoing by a report citing a massive police cover-up and stadium deficiencies, the Hillsborough victims were for decades bandied about as discussion points in a broader discussion about fan hooliganism that had no place with regards to the tragedy.
And the tragedy has affected Liverpool’s most iconic player and Merseyside native in a profound, lasting way. It’s no stretch to suggest the fierce loyalty to club and community forged in the aftermath of Hillsborough prompted Gerrard to remain at Merseyside when conventional wisdom would have suggested a change of scenery (such as when Bayern Munich tried to snatch him a couple years ago). Gerrard felt the sting of Hillsborough’s scars, even as his spectacular playing career left a few bruises. Along with Jamie Carragher, he has committed his playing career to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in an era of superstar mercenaries.
Before Sunday’s game, Liverpool held a moment of silence for the Hillsborough victims, leaving 96 seats open. After Sunday’s game, the Reds barreled closer to a league crown than they had in 24 years. Had the game occurred on a different weekend, it still would have counted as the most monumental league victory for Liverpool in years. As it was, it represented as fine an opportunity as any for Gerrard to shed a few tears.
Patience may be the very first “virtue” we hear about as kids, but it sure seems to be the hardest one to embrace when it comes to sports. With each failure or lost season, the fear increases that our favorite teams or players will never achieve the ultimate prize, whatever that may be. In a way, that fear permeates all aspects of life, chewing away at our faith that the universe unfolds as it really should.
Gerrard’s story offers an eloquent argument for patience in waiting to see that faith rewarded. As his supporters continue to make inroads in the fight for justice from Hillsborough, his best chance to win them — and himself — a title has emerged now, in the twilight in his career and against all semblance of logic. What’s more, Liverpool can become the most improbable — and important — league champion in eons.
Somehow, the timing seems perfect.