Upon the Eve of a Gerrard-less Premier League

The English Premier League as we know it — the lucrative, worldwide operation that many consider to be the best domestic soccer league in the world — is an infant.

Rawr.

At least relatively.

America’s most popular sports league, the NFL, officially came into being in 1923 and turned into the league we recognize today in 1966. The NBA took its final form in 1949. The NHL dates back to 1917, and I’m pretty sure they were holding MLB games during Civil War cease-fires.

In 1992, when the top 22 teams in English football broke away from their league to form the Premier League in order to reap a whole globe’s worth of TV and sponsorship money, Steven Gerrard was three days away from turning 12 years old.

Six years later, the willowy 18 year old who grew up 10 miles from Anfield, Liverpool FC’s home stadium, trotted out onto a Premier League pitch wearing his home club’s shirt for the first time. It was 1998, and the Premier League was in its seventh season.

A year after that, Gerrard announced he was here to stay with his first of 120 goals for the club, an absolutely sublime piece of magic.

Since the league’s inception in 1992, Liverpool have played 848 Premier League matches. Despite starting his career in 1998, Steven Gerrard featured in 504 (or nearly 60%) of those.

Instead of listing his accomplishments (Champions League, FA Cup, etc.), I think it’s more significant (and interesting) to try to place Gerrard’s 17-year Liverpool career into some kind of historical perspective.

Although before doing that, let me list one accomplishment, ‘cuz this is pretty cool.

Steven Gerrard is the only player to score in an FA Cup Final, League Cup Final, UEFA Cup Final (now called the Europa League), and Champions League Final.

Professional soccer has been happening in England for a long time. That much is obvious — it calls to mind the Judge Smails quote from Caddyshack: “They invented the game there, you know.” Except while leagues like MLB, the NBA, and the NFL were racking in millions of listeners/viewers/dollars from their broadcasts, English football was beset by fundamental issues like crowd-control incompetence, blue-collar violence, and widespread hooliganism.

Disasters like the Hillsborough tragedy and books like Bill Buford’s excellent Among the Thugs shined a light on the culture of the English fan experience, which was nearly always vituperative and often as not ended in bloodied fists and split lips.

I’m a 25 year old who has grown up with slickly produced Thanksgiving NFL extravaganzas, NBA arenas catering to children by having fuzzy humanoid animals firing t-shirts into the crowd, and a stadium in my home city with the nickname “Friendly.” To me, England’s late-80s football climate might as well have taken place in Soviet Russia (indeed, in the Hillsborough tragedy, players helplessly watched fans).

It’s hard to imagine what ran through the head of an admittedly football-mad young lad during these times, especially when, at 8 years old, Gerrard lost his cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley in the Hillsborough disaster. He couldn’t have known that the league would grow into the glittering media conglomerate that it is today — at the time, it was a plodding, thuggish brand of football with barely any world-class talent. He couldn’t have known that following his passion would lead him to become one of the most beloved footballers of all time — at the time, he was just a neighborhood urchin tagging along with his older brother’s friends in hopes of getting a few kicks.

But whatever cocktail of hard work, dedication, trust in his abilities, and luck (musn’t forget luck) got him into Liverpool’s first team, it was missiles like this that kept him there.

There are a million more like this, and countless other videos documenting the other traits that made him a legend — the 40-yard cross-field darts to set up attacks, the mazy dribbles through entire defenses, and the crunching tackles which he loved so much (and which set him apart from other midfield luminaries who refused to get stuck in — cough cough Paul Scholes).

As his Liverpool career wound to a close, Gerrard dropped further and further back, attempting to occupy a point guard position similar to that perfected by Andrea Pirlo (now also playing in MLS for NYCFC). In short, it didn’t work.

For all Gerrard’s talk about doing what was best for the team, he was out of position as a deep-lying playmaker. Steven Gerrard attacked everything he did on a football pitch. You’d never see him shy from a tackle, not challenge for a header, or hit a delicate panenka penalty when he could just as easily strain the knots in the netting with a hammer blow.

A Gerrard-less Premier League season hasn’t dawned on England since 1998 — when Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office, gas was $1.06 a gallon, and most of the Liverpool fans I know were still watching Hey Arnold on Saturday mornings (both because we were 8 years old and because global Premier League television coverage was years away).

As the new season begins on Saturday, we’re all aware of the league’s ever-expanding influence. Through television, the Internet, video games (in fact, Gerrard became my favorite player because of his thundercloud of a right foot in FIFA 06), and now actual preseason trainings and matches, the Premier League has brought itself to our shores — a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable on the night Gerrard made that first wobbling run through the Sheffield Wednesday defense. It’s oddly fitting that his final goal for the club, albeit during a huge loss and with questionable defending, looked to be a slower copy of his maiden finish.

Gerrard will be a Liverpool legend until the day the sun goes supernova and blows up the Earth, and he will forever be remembered as one of the superstars who ushered the Premier League onto the world stage. Now, as he plays out his twilight years in sunny Los Angeles, he’ll have to turn to NBC Sports, settle in on the couch, and agonize over every touch, tackle, and through ball, just like the rest of us.