To truly appreciate Steven Gerrard, you have to focus first on the lowest point of his career.
For a player of such high caliber — one with a stellar list achievements most players could only dream of — “the slip” against Chelsea in 2014, when the Liverpool captain’s loss of footing before conceding the ball to Demba Ba set in motion the tailspin that set Brendan Rodgers’ team veering off its course to the Premier League title, has become the elephant in the room when assessing Gerrard’s career.
It is there, and Gerrard has admitted it will always be there, lurking in his psyche, haunting his reflective moments. But the fact that it will never escape him is a testament to everything he achieved during a glorious career with Liverpool and England.
Barring the Premier League title, Liverpool and Gerrard’s Holy Grail, he won everything else worth winning during 17 incredible years at Anfield.
The Champions League? Tick. FA Cup? Tick. UEFA Cup, League Cup, Liverpool captaincy, England captaincy — tick, tick, tick, tick.
Had Gerrard been able to lead Liverpool to the title in 2014, when it had begun to feel like an inevitability, his roll of honor would have been complete and he would have had a genuine claim to be regarded as the most influential player of the Premier League era.
Many will still make that case, but the lack of a Premier League winners’ medal on his CV ensures he would fall short when measured against similarly iconic figures such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, John Terry and Frank Lampard.
Yet none of the above can claim to have carried a club’s hopes on their shoulders as Gerrard did.
All those great players performed in great title-winning teams — and in the case of Manchester United and Chelsea, Champions League-winning teams — alongside equally important stars.
But for Gerrard, for the best part of a decade, he was Liverpool’s inspiration, with the likes of Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez only passing through as they shared the flame temporarily with the boy from nearby Huyton.
In many ways, Gerrard was to Liverpool what Bryan Robson became for United during Liverpool’s era of dominance in the 1980s.
Robson, nicknamed “Captain Marvel” for his on-field heroics, carried United on his shoulders through a decade of failure until he finally claimed his league winners’ medal as a 36-year-old just as Old Trafford’s own empire began to grow under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Gerrard was not as fortunate as Robson, and he will not want to be remembered as the best player not to win a Premier League title, but nobody better than him has ended their career in England without one.
So why was he so good? Well, he had everything that a modern-day midfielder needs to dominate his area of the pitch.
Gerrard could score on headers — his headed goal in Istanbul in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan helped secure his legendary status — or wonder goals from 30 yards; he could tackle, pass and he could lead.
While John Terry emerged as the vocal heartbeat of Chelsea’s successful team of the Roman Abramovich era, Gerrard led Liverpool with his deeds rather than his words. He was often a quiet captain, one who would inspire those around him with one of those tackles, passes or crucial goals, and Liverpool have only now started to learn how to live without him, almost 18 months after his departure for the LA Galaxy.
Had he left Anfield for Chelsea in 2005, when Jose Mourinho almost lured him to Stamford Bridge, Gerrard would most likely have won the trophies that eluded him in the final years of his time at Anfield.
He would almost certainly have won the Premier League medal that ultimately proved beyond him at Liverpool, but Gerrard has already admitted that winning the league elsewhere would never have felt quite the same as winning it with his hometown club. And staying on Merseyside when it would have been easy to move to London cemented his bond to a club that treats its heroes differently to most.
Assembling a top five of the Premier League’s best and most important players is a highly subjective proposition, but it would be difficult to select it without Gerrard being in there. Giggs, Scholes, Henry and Bergkamp would be in there, and a case could be stated for Cristiano Ronaldo, Terry, Lampard, Yaya Toure, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane among many others.
But Gerrard’s credentials mark him out from the rest because was still able to shine and deliver in a team that, for much of his time at Liverpool, was not worthy of his presence. He carried a burden of expectation for over a decade and, while his failure to claim the one medal he so deserved will haunt him, he is more than worthy of his place among the Premier League legends.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_