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Gerrard has to take it on chin

Towards the end of England’s 5-1 victory in Germany, and having enhanced a marvellous contribution with a crucially timed goal, Steven Gerrard gratuituously nutmegged Didi Hamann. No doubt he imagined toying with his Liverpool colleague made him look clever. But in reality Gerrard was exposing the mental flaw that led to his own humiliation in Basle last week.

There is, of course, a place for arrogance in football. Few who saw the greatest team of all, for example, can forget the waltz through a clutch of weary Italians with which Clodoaldo started the deliciously prolonged move that led to Brazil’s fourth goal in the World Cup final of 1970. But that was at the conclusion of a successful campaign.

All England had won, when Gerrard leapt aboard the showboat, was three points towards qualification for a World Cup which, in the event, he missed through injury; Hamann got to the final.

True, in the 14 months between Gerrard’s lark and his half-time substitution in Basle — Gerard Houllier sent on Salif Diao to partner Hamann in midfield and the improvement was almost sufficient to overcome a three-goal deficit.

The erstwhile Kopite has often worn Liverpool’s heart on his sleeve, giving enough brilliant performances last season to have convinced many of us that, but for the groin operation that kept him out of the World Cup, he might have been among its leading forces: a cure, at least, for the semi-paralysis that enabled Brazil to beat England with 10 remarkably comfortable men.

What a load of rubbish that seems now. Played off the park by Hakan Yakin, Gerrard could hardly have been expected to dominate Kleberson and Gilberto Silva.

You would not have been wise to back either Brazilian, though, in an ego contest with the 22-year-old Gerrard — and there are few drugs more hazardous to a footballer, alcohol possibly included, than conceit.

This was part of the reason Houllier took the unusual step of criticising Gerrard the morning after Liverpool’s departure from the Champions League, openly accusing him of allowing his head to be turned by praise.

It was, I suppose, a risky tactic, given that for a manager even to allude to a footballer's shortcomings has become the height of political incorrectness — a sort of new blasphemy for a godless age — but Houllier probably thought it more palatable for the public warning to come from the boss than from the increasingly impatient fans alongside whom Gerrard used to stand.

Predictably, observers have been suspicious of Houllier’s motives, asking if he had been trying to deflect attention from errors of his own in Basle, whatever they were: some thought Liverpool’s approach too cautious, others that it had been gung-ho (Vladimir Smicer, on behalf of the players, did wonder if they had left themselves open to the latter charge).

But to imply that Houllier would ever use one of his players as a shield was ridiculous, especially in the light of the Frenchman’s willingness to nurture Gerrard’s talent almost from the moment he joined Liverpool in 1998.

Gerrard was a boy then. It is now appropriate for him to be treated like a man. As long as he is treated fairly.

When Liverpool run out to face Sunderland at Anfield this afternoon, Gerrard will be on the bench — but not as a punishment. Houllier has been careful to maintain a dialogue with him. If the manager did err in Basle, it was in referring to his ‘environment’; in England such expressions are taken as euphemisms for drinking, and Houllier has no complaint about Gerrard’s behaviour away from the club.

Those who compare the situation with the long-running drama that led to Robbie Fowler’s sale to Leeds are wrong. In terms of professionalism, Gerrard is closer to his low-maintenance pal Michael Owen than any Spice Boy.

Sometimes, though, players have crises of which some elements are, and should remain, personal; and perhaps this is one. At any rate, Houllier ended the week confident Gerrard would eventually emerge with a clearer and more level head.

What is it, though, about young Englishmen that leads them to premature self-celebration' It would be wrong to generalise when the likes of Owen and David Beckham have put their gifts to exemplary use. But one explanation for England’s under-achievement — since they took a major title for the only time in 1966, Germany have claimed five, France three and Italy two — lies in the question of confidence.

And not a lack of it. By and large, when England are full of confidence they are in trouble, because it is usually the product of mental flaccidity rather than the hard grind of preparation. Hence the prevalence of meteorites.

If you doubt that there is a national pattern, move away from football and consider Exhibit Z — a collection of England cricket squads over the past two decades.

So for Gerrard to find fulfilment is important. However you order the cardinal points to be sought in a footballer — technique, speed, strength, range, leadership — he has the lot and, while there is the odd reassuring imperfection on which to work, such as a strangely dogmatic attitude to pass selection, basic material of this quality comes along very rarely.

Hence Houllier’s adoption of the skinny kid he invited to train with the first team those four years ago. What a pleasant lad Gerrard appeared, too, verging on the shy.

Some things never change and he is still in love with the ball. It was a joy to watch him train on the eve of Liverpool’s match in Switzerland; you would never have guessed what was to befall him in the same stadium 24 hours later.

While waiting for a fresh exercise to begin, he casually walked up to a spare ball in the centre circle and clipped it. It drifted in a gentle parabola, falling against the crossbar. “Oh, hard luck,” whispered someone behind me.

But Gerrard had meant to hit the bar. As, unknowingly, he proved by doing it again.It has been distressing to watch the symptoms of the English disease, the loser’s mentality, develop in a young man capable of conquering the world as Zinedine Zidane once did.

When Liverpool resume Premiership combat today, anxious to restore their pride, Gerrard’s place will again be filled by Diao as those who fought for a 3-3 draw in Basle are favoured. “You could feel a new wave, a resurgence in the second half,” said Houllier. “You don’t get that in a team that is not bonded — and this togetherness has probably put us where we are in the Premiership.”

Something had to be done about Gerrard. Indulging him would be to repeat the mistakes of the past. Look outside football again and absorb something that occurred on the same day as Liverpool fell short of their European requirement.

England’s Rugby Union manager, Clive Woodward, dropped Lawrence Dallaglio, saying the player’s workrate had fallen. Dallaglio took the blow on the chin. Light was shed without fuss or melodrama; both Woodward and Dallaglio behaved like adults.

It is, I believe, no accident that, of the three principal team sports in this country, rugby union is the only one at which England do not under-achieve, and that this has been conspicuous since Woodward took charge. Houllier was right. It is time football grew up.

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