I met Steven Gerrard for the first time in 1998, when I was the manager at Liverpool. I told the head of the club's youth academy that I was looking for someone to play out on the right. Every manager has their own tactical style, and mine was to spread the play and have people out wide.
He asked me to come and take a look at a player who, in his view, would be the answer to my problem. It took me five minutes to realise that the player in question wasn't what I was looking for, but I stayed on the touchline all the same because there was a midfielder who'd caught my eye. His name was Steven Gerrard.
He had a typical teenager's physique. He was pretty skinny and slender, but what surprised me the most about him was his ability to put himself about like no one else on the pitch that day. He was everywhere. He shouted. He complained. He tackled. He urged his team-mates on. He energised everybody around him. He reminded me of Luis Fernandez in his pomp.
He was a real warrior even then. He'd only just turned 18 and he'd been moved little by little up to the U-19 team to help them out. He couldn't train on a regular basis because of ongoing physical problems. I went to meet him after the match and we had our first chat:
"What's your name?"
"Stevie," he said.
"Well, tomorrow you're training with the first team."
"I can't, boss. I'm with the U-17s."
"Stevie, who's the boss?"
"You're the boss."
"Which means tomorrow you're training with the first team."
And that's how the story began.
You could already see the respect he had for his superiors, the institution and the club. Sammy Lee and Patrice Bergues, who were my assistant coaches at the time, later told me that I'd undoubtedly saved his career that day. He wasn't training much due to physical problems, and there were only two things he needed to progress: confidence and the chance to toughen up. I gave him that chance because I knew he could be very strong.
He then started to train regularly and he got physically stronger. His game improved the more he trained with the first team and thanks to the specific work he did with the coaching staff.
He made his first-team debut against Blackburn in 1998 and got his first start against Tottenham, playing 12 matches in his first season, 31 in his second and 50 the following year. He was also called up to the England team during the 1999-2000 season. By the time he was 22 he was captaining Liverpool, and he held on to the armband for the rest of his career, in which he made over 700 appearances for his beloved club and scored 185 goals. That's absolutely remarkable.
Steven Gerrard is a student of the game. He took in everything that could help him become a better player. Like all the great players, he had class and he wanted to learn more and more every day and work at his game. He was the first to give his all, no matter whether it was in training or a match.
He's a totally committed leader with superb technique and an exceptional amount of mental and physical energy. It was a pleasure to coach a player like that. There are three words that describe him: classy, combative, captain.
This post first appeared on Goaleo.
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