LONDON (Reuters) - With a quarter-back’s eye for the killer pass and a sniper’s instinct when in sight of goal, England skipper Steven Gerrard is respected as one of Europe’s most complete midfielder players.
The Liverpool skipper needs only eight more caps to complete 100 games for England, and in a long England career has worn the skipper’s armband with pride and scored some memorable goals.
But as his 32nd birthday approaches, and another tournament looms, the one-club man knows last-chance saloon is approaching if he is to leave a lasting legacy for his country.
It will also be fascinating to see how he is used by new England manager Roy Hodgson after Hodgson endured an unhappy time as Liverpool’s manager during the first half of the 2010-11 season.
His buccaneering, box to box style has been rewarded with a cabinet load of silverware for Liverpool, including a prized Champions League winners’ medal and, while he has never won the English title, helping England lift the Henri Delauney trophy, as unlikely as that seems, might provide some compensation.
Despite his reputation, and the high esteem with which he has been held by a succession of England managers, Gerrard has never quite produced his best in a national shirt.
Injuries have been a factor, as when he missed the 2002 World Cup, but Gerrard has never quite reached the heights he achieves with Liverpool when he has three lions on his chest.
There have been highlights, his first goal for England came in a famous 5-1 victory away to Germany in a World Cup qualifier in 2001, but not enough of them.
His haul of 19 international goals in 92 appearances, very few of which have come against top teams, is a disappointing tally considering he scored consistently for Liverpool since his 1998 debut.
Gerrard is far from alone among England’s senior core in suffering international disappointment.
The so-called “Golden Generation” which included the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard have flopped at tournaments as instinctive club form is replaced by cumbersome straight-jacketed displays.
In some senses, Gerrard has paid for his versatility.
Sometimes used as an attacking midfielder, occasionally a second striker and often out on the flanks, he has been the highest profile victim of various managers’ attempts to fit square pegs into round holes in an attempt to accommodate the so-called best players.
Gerrard has never been given consistent license to maraud forward, hence his impact at Euro 2000, where he made only one substitute appearance, and Euro 2004 were minimal.
He was England’s top scorer at the 2006 World Cup before his missed spot-kick against Portugal contributed to yet another quarter-final exit on penalties.
Gerrard was captain at the forgettable 2010 World Cup where England performed poorly, but insisted afterwards he wanted to continue playing for his country.
Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp, who some think should have been leading to the team to the finals rather than Roy Hodgson, has stated that Gerrard is the natural leader of the team and England fans will look to the Liverpool man finally to take a tournament by storm.
With Wayne Rooney suspended for the opening two games and Arsenal’s exciting Jack Wilshere ruled out by injury, England are short of real attacking stardust and the onus will be on Gerrard to provide some inspiration.
Encouragingly, after an injury-plagued 2011 in which Gerrard even feared for his career as he battled a groin injury and an ankle infection, he will arrive in Poland lightly-raced.
He returned to action just before Christmas and since then he has shown flashes of his old self.
While the goals have not flowed, he scored twice in Liverpool’s League Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City and scored a hat-trick against Everton in the Merseyside derby.
He knows the clock is ticking and this is likely to be his last chance to take something tangible from a long and frustrating international career.
If he throws off the shackles and plays like the “Stevie G” so familiar to Premier League fans then England could still emerge from months of indecision and chaos to make an impact.
Editing by Tim Collings/Mike Collett