at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
It is the hope that kills you. Having started the season accepting that his glittering career may never be crowned with a Premier League title, 33-year-old Steven Gerrard is now dramatically and unexpectedly within touching distance of the impossible dream.
Unbeaten in the League in 2014, Liverpool entertain Tottenham today having won seven League games on the trot.
From being regarded as no-hopers in August, neutrals are suddenly waking up to the idea that Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool could overhaul Chelsea and Manchester City to be champions for the first time since 1990, particularly as they still have to play both rivals at Anfield.
It would be an amazing story for British sport and the personal highlight of Gerrard’s career, which already reads like a Roy of the Rovers story, with Champions League glory and the England captaincy just two of his many achievements.
No wonder the man himself is finding it hard to ignore the significance of the next few weeks.
“Dare to believe? I try not to, but don’t get me wrong, winning the title flashes in and out of my mind from time to time,” said the Liverpool captain, generally ranked alongside Kenny Dalglish as the club’s greatest-ever player and now only two goals behind King Kenny’s tally of 172.
“I hope having so many younger players in the team will help. They shouldn’t have any fear because they are a terrific group who have a fantastic future ahead of them.
“It should be me who is anxious because I am the one who is running out of time. But now we have to keep going and try to get over each hurdle.”
Such has been the explosive form of the League’s leading goalscorer Luis Suarez and the vibrant talents of young England players Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool are no longer as reliant as they once were almost totally on Gerrard. But he is still enjoying an extraordinary autumn to his career.
Nine goals in his past 13 matches from a deep-lying midfield position is impressive. Rodgers relies on him being his eyes and ears on the pitch.
“He gives short, sharp and concise instructions and when he speaks, the players listen,” said Rodgers.
Gerrard was part of decent teams under Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, only to see the club slip backwards under the hated ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. But this is his greatest chance yet of lifting the Premier League trophy. So close, yet still so far when one slip-up would see the dream turn to dust before you could say You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Gerrard said: “It will be a tough game against Spurs. I think Tottenham have been one of the strongest teams in the Premier League away from home this season.
“Most of the criticism they’ve had has been in front of their own fans at home when the pressure has been on them. But they are certainly a good team on the road and because unlike us they have had no midweek game, they will be fresh.
“We’re expecting a tough match but we are in one of those situations at the moment where we have to win every game. It’s got to be a cup final mentality seven games to go we have to try to win them all.”
Fortunately for Liverpool, Gerrard has built his career on performing at his best when the stakes are at their highest. The unforgettable Champions League final in Istanbul when he single-handedly dragged Liverpool back from 3-0 down to AC Milan, springs to mind.
“We know the prize at the end for us this season and we know we can’t afford to underperform,” he said. “If we take anyone lightly or go into the game with the wrong mentality, we will slip up for sure and then we will be out of it. One bad performance or one bad error could lead to a draw or defeat, so that’s why we have to all stay focused.”
Gerrard was speaking before Chelsea’s stunning defeat at Crystal Palace yesterday which further opened the title door for the men from Anfield. He insisted: “We’ve won nothing yet but we’re involved in the title race now, there’s no getting away from that, and to deny it would be stupid.”
Given Gerrard was only nine years old when Liverpool last won the title, and as a boyhood Reds fan has been dreaming about it ever since, it is almost a relief to be playing matches rather than sitting about thinking about the magnitude of the final seven challenges.
“The games are coming thick and fast so there is no time to think, which is not a bad thing really,” he said. “When you have too much time to think, that is when your mind starts wondering “What if? It’s important the more experienced lads help the younger ones keep their feet on the ground and stay humble.
“I actually thought it was a great win for us against Sunderland on Wednesday. Even though it was only 2-1 and people were expecting us to roll them over by four or five, you still get the same three points at the end of the day.
“They never really came to Anfield to win, they came for the draw with two holding midfielders and five at the back, so it was difficult to break them down. But we showed a great winning mentality by hanging in there and seeing the game out.
“You need character as well as ability to win this League. If we can get both parts to our game of steamrollering teams and having a winning ugly mentality, we’ll go very close I’m sure.” - Mail on Sunday