There is a reason Sir Alex Ferguson once described Steven Gerrard as the most influential player in English football.
It is because he was – and perhaps still is – but it is also because the manager of Manchester United wanted him to leave Anfield and move to Old Trafford in what would have been an astonishing transfer coup.
The captain of Liverpool and England confirmed as much during this interview, just as he revealed that Jose Mourinho had indeed tried for a third time, in his current role as the manager of Real Madrid, to lure the midfielder away from his native Merseyside.
Twice at Chelsea and then in Spain. Mourinho might have mocked Gerrard for what he suggested was a lack of ambition when his advances were rejected for a second time in 2005 but the Only One, as he now likes to be called, could not resist another crack.
Rarely has Gerrard spoken with more candour than he did at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground this week. He has always been a good interviewee; forthright and engaging and a footballer one could never accuse of lacking humility at a time when his profession is being measured against Great Britain’s Olympians. But Gerrard is improving with age and experience and, at 32, he has become quite the football statesman.
He reflected on the European Championship and the personal suffering he endured in the wake of yet another penalty shootout defeat for England, just as he said he hoped to ‘sign off’ his international career with a more successful campaign at the next World Cup in Brazil.
But it was on the subject of Liverpool, the club he has served for most of his life, the club to which he has remained loyal when the opportunity has presented itself to win that elusive league title elsewhere, that he speaks most openly and passionately.
His take on why Liverpool have not won the Barclays Premier League, and most likely never will during his time, is brutally honest – as is his assessment of the challenge facing Brendan Rodgers.
The new Liverpool manager certainly has the support of the club skipper. Gerrard has been hugely impressed by what he has seen so far. But Gerrard says following Kenny Dalglish will be every bit as tough for Rodgers as it will be for the man who succeeds Ferguson at United. “They are big shoes to fill,” he said.
Ferguson was trying to fill some big shoes when he made known his admiration for Gerrard in 2004. “If you were looking for the player you would replace Keane with, it would be Gerrard,” he said. “He has become the most influential player in England, bar none. More than Vieira. To me, Gerrard is Keane. Anyone would love to have Gerrard in their team.”
It was a very public flirtation but one that appears to have gone beyond a strategically placed newspaper interview and one that coincided with strong interest from Chelsea.
While Gerrard is reluctant to divulge the finer details, he made it clear that there were advances.
“That sort of thing has been going on for the last 10 years,” said Gerrard. “People only really heard about it with Mourinho and Chelsea in 2004 and 2005. But it has happened a few times.
“It was flattering back then because the two best managers around wanted me to play in their teams.
“Gary Neville said he (Ferguson) wanted me. But you understand that playing for Manchester United would have been impossible. I never would have wanted to play for Manchester United. They are a fantastic club but that rivalry is there, and it’s why Gary could not have played for us either.
“Don’t get me wrong. It was flattering that, after everything he has done in the game, Sir Alex Ferguson wanted me to play in his team. But that was an impossible situation.
“The Mourinho thing was different, of course. This club weren’t really challenging at the time, so there was something to think about. But I ended up saying no and a year later I said no again.
“But he came back when he arrived at Real Madrid two years ago. I look at some players who get interest from clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona and they cause absolute wars to get out and get there. But that has never been me and, again, it just wasn’t going to happen. I was happy here. I was settled. I thought all that had gone really.”
Gerrard is not unlike Ferguson and Mourinho in that he says everything for a reason, and there is a message being delivered here. It is one that perhaps becomes clearer when he starts to talk about Jamie Carragher.
Like Gerrard, Carragher is devoted to Liverpool and together they have been the heartbeat of the team for more than a decade. The most iconic image of the club since their Seventies and Eighties heyday has to be the two of them holding aloft the European Cup in 2005. But Carragher is struggling to command regular first-team football and has entered the last season of his contract.
“Jamie won’t be fully appreciated until he’s gone,” said Gerrard. “When you’re local I think it can get overlooked, how important you are in the set-up. He does so much for the club on and off the field. The kids here really look up to him. The stuff he does in his spare time, he’s a real role model for the club and I don’t think everyone fully understands what that means.
“I’m sure the club realise and, hopefully, they will do their best to keep him around. He performs such an important role here.”
This is part of a wider conversation about Liverpool’s future and the need to maintain the connection with the city that Gerrard and Carragher have long provided as favourite Scouse sons.
It has been said that Gerrard’s future at the club is already mapped out. When he signed his contract extension back in January, he was signing “for the rest of his career” and would then become a Liverpool ambassador.
But that contract runs only until the end of next season – when Gerrard will have just turned 34 – and right now he is not certain the ambassadorial role is for him when he has no apparent desire to put a date on his retirement.
“I might be an ambassador,” he said. “‘It’s not definite. It’s an option I’ve been offered but I don’t honestly know what I’ll be doing in two or three years.’
Still playing is the obvious alternative, but could he instead become the manager?
Admittedly it’s a bit left-field and probably a bit unfair on Rodgers, but he has left the door slightly ajar. “Let’s hope not because that means that Brendan Rodgers hasn’t succeeded, and he wants to be here for a very long time,” said Gerrard.
“I understand what you mean when you talk about maintaining that connection with the city. But, if Brendan brings some stability and success back to the club, and I very much hope he does, I don’t think the supporters will worry so much about things like that.
“People look for things like that only when it’s not going so well. Let’s just hope I’m involved with the club for a long time beyond now. I’d like to be and I certainly don’t see myself playing for anyone else. But I don’t want to put it in black and white now because I still feel I’ve got some time left as a player first.”
This week Sven Goran Eriksson echoed the thoughts of Mourinho and one or two others when he said Gerrard should leave Liverpool to secure that first league title before it is too late.
Does the former England manager have a point? Would Gerrard be justified in leaving when things that have happened at Anfield – the political infighting, the changes in ownership and the sale of top players – have denied Liverpool the opportunity to compete for the championship?
“‘I see no point in pointing fingers,” he said. “I see no point complaining that I haven’t won the league because the owners left, because Rafa Benitez sold Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano wanted to go to Barcelona.
“I could point to the setbacks the club have suffered and blame them for why I haven’t won the league. But the season that we finished second we could have won the league. We drew two or three stupid games at home and I was in the team, I was playing; I have to take some of the responsibility for that. I may need to look at myself before I start pointing fingers. It’s too easy to blame other people in football.
“Of course, it’s the one big hole in my career and maybe I’ll never win the league now.
“But I’ve done a lot. I have no regrets. I’d love to win the Premier League. I still have that hunger. But I also know I have to be realistic and it could be I’m no longer playing when this club win the league again.
“But what do I do? It would be easy to say I want to leave. That I’ve had enough of this club. But I haven’t had enough. I want more. I’ve also won the best cup you can win. People talk about me never winning the Premier League but there are players who’ve won the Premier League who have never lifted the European Cup.
“I’m the captain of this team and I’ve achieved 90 per cent of what I set out to.
“I’m also approaching 100 caps for England, I’ve captained my country, I’ve captained Liverpool and I’ve won trophies. And right now all I’m thinking about is what I can achieve in the next two or three years, while I’m still feeling strong.’
He views the next two or three years and beyond with optimism, and not just because of Rodgers but because of certain players who are now in the side. He is excited by the arrival of Joe Allen, for instance.
“Any team who have two central midfielders like Alonso and Mascherano have a chance and, when you lose them, it is going to hurt,” he said. “Until you replace them with similar quality the team are not going to be as effective as we have been.
“Every time I have been successful at this club, in 2001 and in 2005 and 2006, we’ve had top players in the team. I think Joe Allen will fit in really nicely. I think it’s unfair to compare him to Alonso and Mascherano just yet, but he looks like a Liverpool player straightaway. And that’s because he can pass the ball, he’s safe on the ball, you can trust him, he works hard for the team and he’s unselfish.
“Some people think we are still a million miles away, but I don’t agree. We have got good players here and, if we can find a level of consistency, we can get back into that top four. It’s harder than it was and, when you look at City and United, and at Chelsea, that’s some challenge. But I think we are as good as the rest.
“This club have had a lot of knocks over the last few years and it feels like only now are we starting to recover from those knocks. But that’s the key thing, I feel we are recovering.”
He sees Rodgers as a huge part of that recovery process, even if succeeding Dalglish presents its own challenge for the 39-year-old Northern Irishman.
“I think it is like following Sir Alex Ferguson because Kenny’s regarded here the same way Ferguson is at United,” said Gerrard.
“The fact that Kenny was sacked at the end of last season won’t make any difference either. The relationship between the supporters and Kenny will never change. That’s the difficult thing. You talk about closure but there will never be closure. You can’t close the book on Kenny at this club until the day he passes away.”
In Rodgers, however, he sees someone who can handle that extra pressure. He sees a manager who, far from trying to ignore the club’s history, has gone out of his way to embrace it. One only has to glance around Rodgers’s Melwood office to see that. The first thing he did was cover the walls with photographs of Shankly and Paisley; of Liverpool’s glorious past. Rodgers regards them as a source of inspiration rather than intimidation.
“I already had an idea about Brendan because I asked about him around the England camp,” said Gerrard. “I spoke to Joe Cole about him too and nobody had a bad word to say about him. Great coach, great guy. Very demanding. Wants you to work hard.
“Of course it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. But there are already signs that things are moving in the right direction.
“We had a shock result at West Brom but, in the four or five games we’ve had, we’ve played some good football. He has said there will be ups and downs but I get this sense that there won’t be too many downs.
“He has a style I think teams are going to struggle to play against. Yaya Toure was saying last weekend was probably the hardest game he has had in England. That’s encouraging.
“I’ve also sat down with the manager and he’s talked about his methods and he’s very impressive.
“He will be supported here, and I suspect he’s even had a call from Kenny. I don’t know. We haven’t seen him back here yet. But I can imagine they’ve had a couple of conversations. Brendan has spoken glowingly of Kenny in the media and Kenny will always want the best for this club.’
Gerrard wants the best for his club; the best for England too. “I’ve really enjoyed being the captain and I was the happiest man on the planet when I got the job officially from Roy Hodgson,” he said.
“But I was gutted to go so close to captaining England in a semi-final in the summer. The Euros was still a great experience. Everything about it was right. The set-up, the staff; there was a real sense of togetherness.
“But that feeling after we missed out on the last four, the hours, the days, the weeks that followed, that was tough. It ruined my holiday. You’re with your family but it’s there, in the back of your mind. It’s hard to move on. But you do. You have to. And now we need to focus on improving and qualifying for the next World Cup.”
A World Cup in Brazil. “I hope I’m there,” he said. “If I can maintain my form and stay fit I’ll be available. I see it as a fantastic tournament to sign off at on the international stage.”