On paper, it should have been a great week for Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard. Named England Player of the Year by the fans, made captain for Fabio Capello’s first game and named Man of the Match in the 2-1 win over Switzerland. But it’s clear these are small consolations as another major tournament slips by and he has nothing to show for his efforts again.
“The pain remains,” he tells FourFourTwo at a sponsoredbyyou.com school visit organised by England sponsors Nationwide Building Society. “We’ve underachieved – that’s all there is to it – and now we have to watch a massive tournament this summer on the telly.” Only then can Gerrard and his England team-mates properly begin to exorcise those considerable demons...
The Croatia game. The image of you, forlorn on the sodden Wembley turf, is a vivid one. Do you recall what was going through your head at that moment?
Yeah, I do. Pain. Hurt. Those are the first emotions that spring to mind. From that moment when I was on the pitch, to going into the dressing room, to right this minute doing this interview, those emotions are still there.
Do you now have to use that pain to spur you on for the World Cup in 2010?
It’s important to get what happened out of our system. The games can’t come around quick enough really. We want to win in an England shirt to put all that pain to bed.
On a personal note, did you feel the disappointment even more keenly because you missed out on the 2002 World Cup through injury?
Definitely. These tournaments come round every couple of years and you want to play in as many as you can. To miss out on one through injury was tough, to miss out on another through underachievement is fairly difficult to take.
Were individual mistakes in the qualifying stages to blame?
No, you have to see the bigger picture. It’s all very well pointing fingers at those who made errors but there’s so much more to it than that. There were an awful lot of teams and squads picked throughout the campaign and I think we’re all responsible for what went wrong.
So what did go wrong?
We weren’t consistent enough over the whole campaign. With the players that we’ve got in the squad, it is clear that we should have not just qualified, but won the group. To be fighting for our lives on the last day of qualifying was a big disappointment, and proved that we simply had not been good enough or consistent enough.
But the spotlight inevitably falls on the likes of Paul Robinson, Scott Carson and even you for the miss in Russia.
As a team you win, lose and draw together. From a fans’ point of view, these moments stand out, they’re highlighted by the press and then the individual gets stick. That’s fine, we’re professionals, we can handle that and we know that in the world we live in, scapegoats have to be made. As a team though we take responsibility together.
You’ve already said you’ll have to watch the European Championships on TV. Have you made plans to get as far away as possible during the tournament?
I haven’t booked anything yet, and to be honest I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m a football fan so I’ll want to see some of the games. It won’t be the same as being involved but it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.
Who are your tips to win it?
As world champions, Italy will be strong but I fancy Holland to have a good go this summer. I hope Spain don’t win it, as I’ll never hear the end of it in the Liverpool dressing-room!
Let’s look ahead to a brighter future. What were your thoughts on �the appointment of Fabio Capello?
The England job is a big job. We are a big footballing nation, there are a lot of big-name players to deal with, and therefore Capello has to be the right choice. Everywhere he’s worked he’s been a winner and he’s been successful. As a player that gives you a buzz, an excitement and I can’t wait to work with him.
Where do you stand on the debate that the England coach should be English?
I’m not sure about that. What I will say is that I’ve worked with plenty of foreign coaches and it’s been brilliant. These are football people, they’re winners. It doesn’t matter what nationality they are. I’m sure Fabio will be desperate to be successful as the England boss and I think he’s the right man for the job.
English players don’t tend to go abroad anymore. Is that because they can learn so much from the foreign coaches who are now coming over here?
I was lucky enough to start my career under Gerard Houllier. Now I’m with Rafa and I spent five good years with Sven-Göran Eriksson and England. It’s brought me on as a player and I feel like I’ve learnt from their contrasting methods. As for us players not going abroad, we’ve been lucky enough that our league has become so strong that there is no need to move.
What about the argument that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League for the national team to prosper?
That’s just an excuse. There are enough good players in this country to do better than we have been doing.
At international level, how important is it that the England squad have total respect for the manager? No offence to Steve McClaren, but his CV doesn’t compare with Capello’s...
There aren’t many coaches out there who have a CV that compares to Capello’s. But yeah, Capello is a heavyweight and because of that there is immediate respect from us players. As a player you want to play under the biggest names – and he is certainly one of them.
What steps do England players have to take to win back the fans?
Players understand that the expectation that goes with the England team is massive. Look at the Switzerland game. It was the first match after the disappointment and failure of not qualifying for Euro 2008 but still, it was a sell-out. We underachieved but fans still come. The players understand that and respect that. What we need to do is channel the frustration of not going to Austria and Switzerland, and become a winning team. There is an excitement because of the new set-up and now we have to be positive and move forward.
It looks like the England team are hampered too often by nerves. Is that caused by that expectation?
Yeah, but that expectation isn’t going to go away and we have to deal with it. These big games can be decided by such small things and I don’t think we are far off being turned into a successful team.
What would success be?
I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to win the World Cup. We’ve just missed out on a tournament so let’s get to the World Cup and go from there. Of course it would be great for everyone if we could progress past a quarter-final. Football gives you the chance to bounce back and that’s what we plan to do to prove the doubters wrong.