By JIM VAN WIJK
Images courtesy of Action Images
Steve Gerrard felt “humbled” to be honoured as the recipient of the 2013 Football Writers’ Association’s award at a gala tribute dinner in London’s Savoy Hotel on Sunday January 20.
The Liverpool and England captain, 32, was presented with the prestigious accolade from FWA chairman Andy Dunn of the Sunday Mirror.
Gerrard – voted the FWA Footballer of the Year in 2009 – was touched to have been recognised for his achievements once again. He said: “This award means a lot because these guys have followed me throughout my career, written about me and scrutinise your performances whenever I have played, to receive this award from the Football Writers’ Association is a very proud night for myself and my family. I feel very flattered and humbled to receive it.”
Tributes were paid at the dinner by former manager Gerard Houllier, who brought Gerrard into the Liverpool first team as a raw youngster, and his long-serving team-mate Jamie Carragher – who hailed Gerrard as Liverpool’s “greatest player ever” as well as former Liverpool captain Gary McAllister, who claimed it had been a “dream come true to play alongside Steven Gerrard.” Former Liverpool manager and Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish also passed on his congratulations via FWA executive secretary Paul McCarthy as he was unable to attend personally.
England manager Roy Hodgson was among the guests and paid his own personal written tribute to Gerrard’s character for the FWA. He said: “I know how good a player he is, how serious a professional he is and I know how inspiring a captain he can be – I saw that during my time at Liverpool, on occasions when things weren’t going so well, he was the one who stepped up and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck by his performances and encouragement to drag people through.
“Steven has a great enthusiasm and passion to play, and that can be infectious to other players. I can see him playing for many years to come… he is young enough in body and mind to look certainly towards 2014 and maybe beyond.”
FWA chairman Andy Dunn felt the evening allowed football to remind itself of just what makes the beautiful game so “enthralling” after what had been a testing year for the national sport.
Dunn said: “Steven Gerrard’s unbroken devotion and service to his club and country should stir the soul, not just of Liverpool fans, but of lovers of the game across the land. Rarely can a player have led his team on the domestic, European and international stage with such distinction. His passion for Liverpool remains undimmed and England has the captain it should have had a long time ago.”
Moving tributes were also made to long-standing FWA members Dennis Signy, Brian Woolnough and Danny Fullbrook, who all passed away recently.
Daily Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter conducted an engaging Q&A session with the England captain (below) to round off the evening, as Gerrard reminisced on sleeping with the European Cup, recalled when he almost joined Chelsea, asked everyone to lay off his “world-class” Anfield team-mate Luiz Suarez and finally looked ahead to hopes for the England at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
After the dinner had ended, Gerrard took the time to move around the tables as he happily posed for photos and signed autographs – a testament to the professionalism of the England captain.
HW: All the football writers were there in Istanbul at half-time ready to file their copy having told their offices: “It’s all over…Shevchenko, Kaka…all these great players are running the show.” And then something special happened. Tell us what went on in the dressing-room with Rafa [Benitez] and the other players.
There was a lot of disappointment because we thought the game was lost, that we couldn’t recover [from 0-3]. There were a lot of sad faces with people staring at their boots but you look around and see the players we had in the dressing-room, people like Jamie [Carragher] and you say to yourself if we can get out there in the second-half and score a goal we’ve got small chance. That’s exactly what happened.
What did Rafa Benitez say?
His first concern was the injury to Steve Finnan who had to come off, so he had to shift a few things around. He told us to just to keep believing, to be more positive…we’d paid Milan too much respect in the first-half. The difference was as much in the Milan team who had outclassed us in the first-half but they collapsed for seven or eight minutes and when we got the first goal and then the second…it gave us the belief .
Was it true someone left the dressing-room door open so you could hear the fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone?”
Rafa mentioned it in his team-talk. We thought even if we can’t win the game, the fans who’d paid a lot of money to get there deserve at least a goal and for us to show fighting spirit, which we did.
Did Rafa really say at the celebration party that your marking in the first-half should have been better?
He is a perfectionist and his attention to detail is spot-on. He played a massive part in us winning the Champions League that year. To be honest, it didn’t really matter what he said after that game…
Without being too personal, did you spend the night with the European Cup?
What happened was, the party was over and everyone was leaving…I saw the Cup on its own…[joking] there were a few Scousers about [laughter and applause]…some of whom were related to me so I thought it best if I took it with me.
On a more serious note when you drive through the Shankly Gates and see the Hillsborough names, do you seek out your cousin’s name?
It’s always emotional when you see the 96 names. Last year was a very emotional year for the club but there is light at the end of the tunnel and I’d like to thank all the journalists who have helped us [the the quest for justice].
Tell us about Brendan Rodgers…
He wants to win matches and be successful here. He gave up a top job [at Swansea] where he’d done fantastically well. He had the confidence and character to take this big job where the demands and expectations are there on a daily basis. If you were looking for a young manager to bring us success you’d pick Brendan Rodgers.
And Luis Suarez?
I think he’s world-class, he has everything and we are very lucky to have him [smiling] so I’d like people here to go easy on him. We want him to stay a long time and if Liverpool are to be successful in years to come Luis Suarez will play a big part in that. As a person he’s a very quiet guy, a family man…I am next to him in the dressing-room and every time I ask him what he’s doing he’ll say he’s going to be with his family. But when he goes on the training field or a football pitch he turns into a fighter…a winner…when you are trying to win prizes against the top teams Luis Suarez is someone you’d want in your side.
Is he the best player in the country at the moment? Could the FWA choose him as the Footballer of the Year?
I hope so because he certainly deserves that accolade. I’d go as far as to say he’s the best player I’ve played with and I’ve played with many world-class players.
Was there ever any opportunity for you to go to Chelsea?
It was close, very close. I’ve no regrets I made the decision to stay loyal to Liverpool. A lot of people talk about my loyalty to Liverpool, but what doesn’t get mentioned is their loyalty to me. I’ve been here since I was eight years old and the contracts kept coming. No matter what I’ve done I’ve always had fantastic people around me at the club and Liverpool deserve a big thank you from me.
On England…for how long should football writers book hotels with England at the World Cup in Brazil next year?
I don’t want to raise expectations if and when we get there. At major tournaments you need that bit of luck, the ball bouncing your way and a decision going in your favour. I’ve experienced this with Liverpool…Chelsea did it last year [in the Champions League] and not necessarily all the time does the best team win competitions. If we get there we’ll go with hope and belief. We have big players coming back from injury such as Jack Wilshere, who will play a big part. He’s someone who ticks all the boxes, but we have a batch of young players coming through and hopefully they can peak for the Brazil World Cup.
Is Wayne Rooney still central to England?
He would say himself he hasn’t always hit his high standards at big tournaments, but knowing Wayne as a friend and as a player he’ll feel the disappointment we all shared last summer at Euro 2012. He’ll be looking to guide us to the World Cup and shine in Brazil.
What’s Roy Hodgson like with the players?
We’re all enjoying working under him. England are going in the right direction, we’re growing as a team, we have some tough qualifying ties to come but we’re all in it together and will do our best to get the job done.