This is the second installment in the “Liverpool Alternate Universe” series, where I explore the resulting scenarios if a crucial historic moment in history was turned on its head and sent the club in a completely different direction.
There has not been a more iconic Red than Steven Gerrard. There is definitely an argument for Sir Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush or Kevin Keegan, but who exemplifies the Liverpool game more than him in the last two decades?
Robbie Fowler? No… Yes, he was God. Yes, he scored a ton of goals. Yes, he had the charisma and star power that the greatest players at Anfield have. But did he finish his career in England there? No. Those stints at Leeds United and Manchester City will not go away.
Michael Owen? No… He had a tremendous run with both England and Liverpool, but who is going to forget his refusal to sign a new contract, and then heading to Real Madrid to be Hawkeye in their version of The Avengers? His eventual stint for Manchester United and his disparaging words about his time in Liverpool didn’t help either. You have no case to be the most iconic Red after that.
Jamie Carragher? No. Great guy and the ultimate Scouser. Great defender for club and country. But where are the highlight reels?
Steven Gerrard was the man carrying the flag during the 30-year wait for a title. He caught the eye of the Anfield crowd ever since he made his first team debut in 1998 against Blackburn Rovers, and the meter started running after that.
I do not need to give readers an introduction to Steven Gerrard, but I will anyway. To the modern era of fans of club football, Liverpool FC will always be Steven Gerrard, and Steven Gerrard will always be Liverpool FC. Fans of Real Madrid, Barcelona, the Milan clubs, the Manchester clubs, the London clubs may have forgotten a lot about Liverpool, but they will never forget Steven Gerrard and his lion-hearted leadership during any game.
Yes, they will sing derisively about “The slip”, but the very same fans would have loved it if he joined them. We are talking about a man who won the most prestigious trophy in Europe by initiating the most exhilarating comeback in the history of Champions League/European Cup football.
The greatest players and managers of the 2000s had no problem with praising him to the skies. Players as legendary and diverse as Zinedine Zidane, Pele and Paolo Maldini had no qualms about including his name among the best midfielders in the world.
Perennial PFA player of the year contender. League cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League winner. Part of England’s golden generation of attacking talent with Owen, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, and Ashley Cole. Long range attacking threat and scorer of some of the most iconic goals in Liverpool FC history. No discussion about football in the aughts would be complete with mentioning Stevie.
One can accuse Chelsea FC and their billionaire owner Roman Abramovich of a lot of things. But one thing they cannot be accused of is a lack of ambition. Chelsea and their deep pockets caused one of the biggest paradigm shifts in English football since the inception of the Premier League. A scorched earth approach to squad investment, and a new, muscular brand of football with physical specimens like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Lampard made them the most intimidating club side in Europe.
By all counts they were the Galactic Empire of the Premier League, and Jose Mourinho was their Darth Vader. If your budget club had a talented player, they would come knocking. Every player and club had a price, and they usually got who they wanted.
Liverpool were in a good place when Jose Mourinho and Chelsea tried to lure Stevie to Stamford Bridge. The club made a bid for him in 2004, and then another in 2005. Considering the transfer action at the time, and with United, Chelsea and Arsenal vying for the title perennially, Gerrard would have been forgiven for making a move and winning the one title that had eluded him so far. Mourinho even reached out to him, through John Terry, to encourage him to make the move.
Not to mention, there were rumors of Gerrard having a frosty relationship with the notoriously aloof Rafa Benitez. In other words, it was the perfect external and internal environment for a high-profile move.
The Loyal One
Needless to say, Gerrard flummoxed everyone by choosing to stay at Anfield. It may seem open and shut now. But back then, a lot of fans, like yours truly, were resigned to him possibly leaving to fulfill his ambition. But, to the relief of Kopites everywhere, he stayed, pressured the club to spend on reinforcements, and propelled Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul soon after.
His inability to end Liverpool’s title drought tarnished his legacy a bit in the eyes of the neutrals, but to Liverpool fans he was “Captain Fantastic”. He led from the front and he will always be remembered as the greatest Red of the modern era. He left his stamp on the club and kept the club relevant and competitive during a time when other big clubs were either richer or more talented. Many times, his effort on the pitch could be compared to Horatio on the bridge, fighting a lone battle yet prevailing against the odds.
The tweak in the space-time continuum
We will now explore the alternate universe, in which the actual event is turned on its head. Chelsea make their second bid of 37.5 million euros, and (take a deep breath now) Stevie puts in a transfer request. Cue the dark clouds, ominous thunder, and creepy organ music.
The club accepts the bid and Stevie’s move to Chelsea is finalized. However, Liverpool did not have the combination of Michael Edwards and Jurgen Klopp back then. So Rafa Benitez decides to use the funds to bring in multiple players.
Even though the influx of funds from the sale is welcome, it still leaves a large void for Liverpool supporters who took it for granted that Stevie would be a Red for his entire professional life. The idea of seeing him in Chelsea blue induces a citywide gag reflex.
In addition to Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cisse, they also sign a young Spanish midfielder who came off the bench for Barcelona. Andres Iniesta Lujan would not fill the void left by Stevie, but he would go on to form a potent midfield partnership with Alonso at Anfield. The Kop takes a liking to this soft-spoken little Spaniard and his exquisite passes. His humility makes him a good fit for the team, and he forms a cozy Spanish contingent with Xabi, Luis Garcia and Fernando Morientes. His intricate passing skills catch the attention of commentators and pundits, and Liverpool become a trendy club to watch during the 2004-05 season.
The New Landscape
Contrary to popular predictions, the Reds actually get more cohesive as a unit and finish a respectable third in the Premier League. The entire squad step up and play organized-yet-attractive football with a lot of passing and some great finishing from Milan Barros, who improves after he realizes he can score easier when he actually looks up. Australian International Harry Kewell also benefits from Iniesta’s close-range passing game. The Reds evolve into a fluid team that pleasantly surprise their beleaguered fans.
In all the hubbub, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are offended at being relegated to a media afterthought, despite the high quality and good results of their respective teams. Wenger decides to wrestle the limelight back by complaining about the referees and their lack of respect for Thierry Henry. Sir Alex decides to do the same by reiterating his desire to knock Liverpool off their perch and initiates a flurry of demeaning comments about Liverpool through the mouths of his puppets Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs.
Both United and Arsenal respond by chasing Ronaldinho and trying to bring his talents to England. Ronaldinho commits to a move to Arsenal, but then does a U-turn when Wenger says the words “curfew time”.
Chelsea, on the other hand, become the unstoppable Juggernaut that everyone expects them to be with the addition of Stevie to a formidable squad. They go on to win the Premier League, while breaking all kinds of records along the way. Stevie’s move proceeds to torment Liverpool and the rest of the league as he combines well with the likes of Lampard, Essien, Drogba and Carvalho. With Mourinho at his most arrogant, they cement their legacy as the most hated team in Europe.
Stevie returns to Anfield and receives a, surprisingly, warm reception from the fans. Contrary to popular opinion, they are very accepting of players who move on gracefully, which is what Stevie did. Iniesta’s early success also contributed to the improvement in their mood. Liverpool end up drawing the game 1-1 with the only drama coming from a potential Gerrard game winner denied by the crossbar. The divorce turns out to be an amiable one and Rafa and Stevie develop a new found respect for each other.
Further drama unfolds when Liverpool and Chelsea face off in the two legs of the Champions League semifinal, with a finals place in Istanbul at stake. A great defensive performance from Liverpool forces a scoreless draw at Stamford Bridge, and they proceed to the final on the back of a Luis Garcia goal, assisted by Iniesta. Mourinho proceeds to call it one of the most competitive games he has ever been a part of, and lauds Liverpool’s strength of character.
Liverpool proceed to the final only to face a powerful AC Milan side, filled with the biggest names in football. Many of the Reds are awestruck and it shows in their play, as Milan take a 3-0 lead into halftime. The Reds come out of halftime with a better game plan and stage a fightback with some close chances and pull two back thanks to a goal from Vladimir Smicer. The game ends 3-1 as Liverpool miss that spark and leadership that could have clawed back from 3 goals down.
The Managers and Owners
Though they have lost, Rafa Benitez is both emboldened and liberated by the strange season that he has just been through. Owners Hicks and Gillett have a change of heart and feel more of a bond with the club after seeing how the team and fans galvanized after Stevie’s departure. They resolve to stop treating the club and the stadium as a cash cow and put their financial muscle towards bringing the Premier League title to Anfield.
Armed with a fresh inflow of money and the support of H & G, Rafa proceeds to raid La Liga by bringing in Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, Argentina International defender Roberto Ayala from Valencia. He also manages to pry away Portugal International goalkeeper Vitor Baia away from Barcelona. With weaknesses addressed, Rafa and his fully constituted “Spanish Armada” proceed to end Liverpool’s wait for a title the following year and repeat that feat a mere two seasons later.
The above scenario may seem like a stretch, but sports is rife with examples of teams drastically improving after the departure of a star player. Despite that wonderful night in Istanbul, the Gerrard-Benitez dynamic never felt right. They were different personalities and the conflicting energies always seemed to tamper with the chemistry of the team.
A move for Stevie might have been good and it would have probably forced the club to grow as a more balanced squad and Rafa would have approached his job more as an opportunity than a burden. The man had a brilliant football mind, and I do not think that he expressed himself to the fullest at Liverpool.
Stevie, on the other hand, might have developed an even better chemistry with his England teammates at Chelsea and the trio might have even propelled England to win a World Cup or a Euro title at the very list.
Nothing can be certain. But separation is not always a bad thing.