In his weekly column for Liverpoolfc.com, football author Paul Tomkins writes about 14 years of watching Steven Gerrard...
Before getting onto the matters in hand, I just wanted to note that this will probably be my only article in November. I am taking my first proper break since launching the award-winning Tomkins' Times in 2009 (although with so many talented guest writers, whose work has been putting mine to shame of late, it will continue as normal during my brief absence).
I worked through my dad's deterioration with terminal cancer and his death last Christmas, and through this year without a proper break, but of late things eventually started to take their toll on my writing. Sometimes it's hard to see that your work is suffering.
It's probably fair to say that the past three years have been the most eventful in the club's history, with four different managers, two sets of owners, a massive turnover of players, one wide-ranging stadium u-turn, a controversy or two, and the monumental Hillsborough developments. Oh, and there have been a few talking points on the pitch as well.
I was due to take all of November off, but felt I owed Steven Gerrard a mention, to mark his 600th game. It's hard to pick a favourite moment from almost a decade and a half of football, because he's been such an incredible player, who has done so many remarkable things.
But if there's one thing he has done that I've never seen the like of in a lifetime watching football it would be his goal against West Ham at Cardiff. I was sitting at that end, and when the ball came to him some 40 yards out it never occurred to me that he'd shoot. If he did, if would be after a 10 or 15-yard run, to get to the edge of the box. But he just hit it. Bam.
As mammoth as his strike against Olympiakos was, and as pivotal as his goal in Istanbul proved to be, this was the last kick of a major final, with the Reds losing 3-2. There was still time to rescue those other occasions, but not this. And I don't think I've ever seen a ball struck in such a way from such a distance. It was bewildering. It stayed low and true and fast. He hit it on the sweet spot's sweet spot.
Before I became a football writer I submitted my best ever Liverpool XI to the match day magazine in September 2000, as part of a regular fan feature, and they chose to publish it. In my midfield was Steven Gerrard.
At the time I was making regular use of my season ticket and going to a lot of away games too, and I felt that the 20-year-old was already as good as anything I'd seen in the flesh. It was obviously premature on my part given that he'd achieved nothing in the game at that point, and he could have suffered a career-ending injury the next week, but I felt I could see the future. That said, I'm not sure I ever saw a future where he'd get 24 goals in a season. Gérard Houllier did a great job in blooding (and grounding) the young Gerrard and Rafa Benítez turned him into one of the world's best attacking midfielders/second strikers. But the player himself has had to carry the responsibility of being a world-class talent.
The hardest thing for someone like Steven Gerrard is to live up to his own standards. The pressure he is under to excel is immense, as the club's talismanic figure.
I've never bought that he's 'carried' the side (or that the Reds ever were a 'one man team'), particularly when Liverpool have also had players like Fowler, Owen, McManaman, Hamann, Babbel, McAllister, Hyypia, Carragher, Reina, Torres, Alonso, Garcia, Mascherano, Agger, Johnson, Skrtel, Lucas, Suarez, et al, but there's no doubt that he's been the go-to player in times of desperation. No-one has been able to pull a rabbit out of the hat quite like he has, although for a couple of seasons Torres ran him close, and, as we saw this weekend, he has an heir in Suarez.
However, to put Gerrard's contribution into context, if you add together all the games played by Torres and Suarez, then times it by three, you still only get a little over 600.
(If only Liverpool had possessed those three at their peak. The league title would have been a shoo-in.)
Gerrard is the most complete player I've ever seen in a red shirt. He has been an incredible athlete - pace and stamina - with excellent skill and vision, who hasn't lacked steel, either. This is not to say that he's perfect; you can find fault in anyone. For starters, Diego Maradona, the best footballer I've ever seen, was a short, fat, one-footed junkie with serious psychological issues. But still no one could stop him.
This time in his career might represent one of Gerrard's greatest challenges, as he heads up an incredibly young side, easing in the new generation. Raheem Sterling and Suso are probably the best teenagers the club has had since Gerrard emerged fourteen years ago (with Andre Wisdom not far behind), and players like Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly, Fabio Borini, Sebastian Coates and Jonjo Shelvey are all still 22 or under. (Without even mentioning various other promising teenagers who've played in the first team.)
In a couple of years these players will almost certainly be a lot better - so far are they from their peak years right now - but of course it can be frustrating to see their inexperience show itself, such as against Newcastle, with Shelvey (who took up so many great positions) rushing a couple of shots and Sterling (who was excellent all game) taking a fraction too long with a game-winning chance. These are things that they'll grow out of; after all, Gerrard himself only scored once in his first two seasons, as he came to terms with finding that extra few per cent needed at the top level.
Most match days, half of the 18-man squad is 22 and under, while two of the team's undoubted stars - Suarez and Lucas - are still only 25. Additions are clearly needed, but the promise is there.
If I were Gerrard, I'd be excited about this group of players, and looking to stay fit and sharp for the next couple of years (and indeed, beyond), to be part of what is clearly a fascinating project. It's not all gone to plan this season, and I'm sure we can all name things that need improving, but when it has clicked - sometimes in whole games, sometimes in fits and starts - it's looked very exciting indeed.
There's no doubt that results need to be better in the short-term, to help maintain belief, but if Liverpool can regularly play in the manner they started and ended the Newcastle match, then we should all find it natural to be patient and optimistic. The aim now has to be to cut out the middle section.