For those at Wembley who weren’t wearing claret and blue and leaping around joyously at the deserving victory of their team, there really was only one place to look shortly before 5pm on Sunday afternoon.
There he was, knees bent and slumped in desolation on the halfway line, knowing that he would never again lift a trophy as the captain of Liverpool. There were handshakes and hugs for Shay Given, Tom Cleverley, the hugely impressive youngster Jack Grealish and late substitute Joe Cole, but Steven Gerrard would rather have been anywhere else.
Aston Villa were the victors of the FA Cup semi-final, but for many it was Gerrard who was solely the loser; the much-heralded birthday cup final – so dominating the media agenda ever since Gerrard announced he was leaving Liverpool in January – had now become the stuff of fantasy. Then Photoshop and Twitter leapt into action to confirm that for us all.
But it seems to have forever been this way.
Such is the influence that Gerrard wields over this Liverpool team that every success the Reds have enjoyed during this century has been his success, and every failure has been his failure – spectacularly so in the past year.
Just to mark your card, next Monday is the one year anniversary of Liverpool’s oh-so costly 2-0 defeat to Chelsea which wrestled control of the Premier League title race from them and handed it to eventual winners Manchester City.
It is not a day which is remembered for Brendan Rodgers’ failure to set up his team to play for a draw – a result which would have preserved title favouritism – or his decision to station Gerrard behind noted defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva, or even play the two together. No, it is a day remembered for a man slipping over.
That’s understandable, of course. Gerrard’s stumble to allow Demba Ba to race clear is up there with Sergio Aguero’s late strike against QPR, Steve Bruce’s last gasp winner for Manchester United against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 and the Liverpool-Newcastle 4-3s as seminal Premier League moments, but would it be celebrated with such glee by rival supporters had it been Lucas or Joe Allen who’d stumbled? Of course not.
That force of personality which comes with Gerrard so often eclipses everything else at Liverpool, and that means that just what happens when he’s no longer there is already looking like the most fascinating aspect of next season.
Suddenly the spotlight will be on Rodgers, who with the weekend’s FA Cup disappointment has become only the second manager since Phil Taylor (not the darts player, but the man who came before Bill Shankly took the Reds out of the old Second Division) to go his first three seasons as Reds manager without lifting a trophy. The first was Roy Hodgson, who only had six months in the job and was lucky to even get that.
This isn’t a prediction of imminent doom and gloom for the Northern Irishman, and nor is it a claim that he is doing a bad job.
Rodgers is working at a club who have a very structured idea on transfers at a time when rivals aren’t averse to spending their way out of trouble. He is a boss required to polish rough diamonds whilst being blinded by the shining lights boasted by rivals. Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have all scored against Liverpool in the past month, to put it another way.
But we all know how these things work.
A sub-par start to next season – something akin to this one, which featured the Reds in 12th position in the table following a 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in late November – will see the heat placed firmly on the manager, and he’ll no longer have the Gerrard sideshow with which to deflect some of that spotlight.
You can debate whether or not Rodgers is the right man for Liverpool all you want, but he is almost certainly the right man for their current setup off the pitch, as the Reds owners have indicated.
A disappointing season shouldn’t be expected but instead accepted, but Rodgers might find such patience in short supply should the Reds look like failing again in 2015/16, especially if a certain Jurgen Klopp is still waiting in the wings.
The rumoured new contracts for his new captain Jordan Henderson and probable vice Martin Skrtel are good starts, with Raheem Sterling the next cab off the rank and a summer in which the right targets are identified and signed now vital.
Do all of that and it might be the fans in red who are leaping up and down in delight at Wembley next year, with the focus shifting to some other beaten, deflated captain crouched on the halfway line.
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