06 May 2014

Is Gerrard the last of the one-club men?

With Liverpool's epic collapse at Selhurst Park, we may just be seeing the sun setting on a gifted but not quite gilt career. Steven Gerrard, 33 years old, has played his entire career for Liverpool, having made his first appearance in 1998. While he may very well still have fight left in him, it's hard to escape the idea that, barring an even-more calamitous collapse from Man City, he'll once again end the season empty-handed. In an era when contracts and regulations seem to mean little, if anything, Gerrard has been a paragon of loyalty and consistency, slogging through some of Liverpool's dimmest seasons. While he has enjoyed a fair few trophies, most notably the Champions League in 2005, he may very well retire without ever having won the Prem. Prior to Liverpool's draw with Crystal Park, I was ready to swallow my anti-Suarez spite in order to see Gerrard hoist that trophy. That now looks all but impossible. Whether Gerrard has it in him to fight on for another season is another question.

First, a bit of context. I'm a bit of a sucker for loyalty. I've followed Arsenal for three decades and plan on carrying that forward quite a bit further. With that in mind, for as much as I may dislike Liverpool the club, I have nothing but respect for Gerrard the man. I can't think of a less-fitting end to a storied career. This current chapter, should it be the last, looks to have been written by Shakespeare in a fit of pique, casting Gerrard as Lear or Hamlet. Whether it's falling to gift Chelsea the opener last week or having to console Suarez after squandering a three-goal lead, Gerrard has taken it on with the grim dignity of a man who seems to understand that his fate is out of hands. Just as it was starting to look like Liverpool would sustain its title-challenge all the way to the very end, granting to Gerrard the Prem title, destiny seems to have slipped through his fingers on Monday. Of course, it's not yet over, not the season nor Gerrard's career, but the fat lady is clearing her throat.  However, I'm not hear to offer extended odes to Gerrard. I'm sure those will be offered when the time is right. Whether he ends up with a Prem title to his name this year, next year, or not at all can do little to burnish or tarnish his career, which stands as a testament to some rather old-school, if outdated, notions of loyalty.

My mind wanders inevitably now to our own squad and who among them might someday achieve something similar, albeit perhaps with bit more success in the Prem, if not elsewhere. By the lofty standards that Mr. Gerrard himself has set, only one current member of our first team is eligible for the same elegies in a decade or so from now: Jack Wilshere. Others who come close but don't quite qualify would be Kieran Gibbs and Wojciech Szczesny. Gibbs is disqualified for having started his youth career with Wimbledon, while Szczesny started his youth career with Agrkoyla Warsaw. For as young as each them was when he joined Arsenal, neither can claim to have started at Arsenal in the same way that Wilshere can.

And so we turn our eyes to Wilshere. Of course, most recently, our hearts were all a-flutter as young Archie Wilshere gamboled on the pitch after the win over West Ham, taking a tumble (and yet not appealing to the referee for a foul) and inspiring quips about having Arsenal DNA. Closer to reality is Wilshere père, who, at the tender age of 22, has already made 130 appearances. In the process. he's established himself as the club's youngest-ever debutant (16 years, 256 days old). While there's a long time to go between now and when Wilshere might match Gerrard for longevity, not to mention loyalty, he's said and done enough to make true believers out of most if not all of us. Most famously, perhaps, he said "I don't need an agent because I will never leave Arsenal." Whether he said that in the brashness of youth or from the bottom of his heart, only time will tell. Times, after all, have changed. In the post-Bosman, pre-FFP era, players can change clubs almost as easily as they change socks. Contracts, such as they are, are more like suggestions or requests than commitments. How long can any player pledge himself to one club in such a climate? When Chelsea, PSG, or Man City (among others) can offer to double or triple a player's weekly wages without batting an eye and guarantee silverware almost annually, how's a man to resist? Everyone has his or her price, after all.

Looking beyond that, Gerrard could at least content himself with silverware from other sources: in his time with Liverpool, he's won two FA Cups, one league cup, one Europa League, and one Champions League. He's also won too many individual awards to list here. Wilshere, of course, has already garnered a few individual awards of his own, but how long could he endure if our infamous trophy-drought continues? For as much as Gerrard serves as a grizzled lion one would do well to emulate, he might also offer exist as a graying warrior one would do well to eschew. Should Liverpool not win the Prem this season, the enduring image may be of him falling against Chelsea. To me, though, the starker one is of Gerrard, the loyal solider, consoling Suarez, the rank mercenary. If anything, it should have been the other way 'round, with Suarez and other youth of today falling to their knees at Gerrard's feet, apologizing for letting him down. Such are the times, it seems. The same qualities that encouraged Gerrard to commit to Liverpool are the same that compelled him to offer support to his teammates, and the same qualities that motivate Suarez and others to shop around relentlessly are the qualities that prevent them from understanding the bigger picture. There's an undeniable element of short-term, narcissism there that prevents a player from fully understanding a club or connecting with its fanbase.

Given a choice, many fans might happily opt for a ever-shuffling squad as long as it delivered silverware. Contrast that against a club that only occasionally, if ever, wins anything, and it doesn't seem like that hard a choice. In an ideal world, we might see a stable squad that also earns trophies. However, we can't quite have that. The era of the one-club man might come to its end with the retirement of Gerrard. Sure, there will be players who see out their entire careers with one club, but few if any will be as talismanic or eponymous as Gerrard has been for Liverpool. Giggs for Man U. The list of players is awfully short, at least in England. I'm sure many of us who follow Arsenal would love to see Wilshere ten or fifteen years from now, as gray and grizzled as those men. For as boyish and brash as Wilshere is now, picture him in 2029, deep lines etched across his face, hair graying at the temples—and just one of many.trophies in hand.  There is no trophy for loyalty, only more ethereal, ineffable accolades: adulation. Respect. Veneration. It may only be for Gerrard to decide if these will satisfy him, if these will matter more in the long run than a trophy. If we fast-forward to the waning days of Wilshere's time, will he face a similar question? We can hope not.

Given a choice between seeing a procession of players who come and go and win trophies along the way, or a core of men who commit their lives to the club without delivering the trophies we're so hungry for, I'm not sure I can commit to the high road. Having come this far, I'm torn. I want Arsenal to win. I buy into the ideal of the badge on the front over the name on the back. However, when the names and the faces and the personalities who wear the badge help me bond with the club. Am I a more-noble fan if I claim that I'll continue to support Arsenal if our trophy-drought continues ten more years? I could, after all, prove that I'm loyal, die-hard, authentic, and more in ways that are harder when we're winning hand over foot. Here's hoping that a player like Wilshere renders the question moot by staying with this club and helping it to achieve memorable feats. After all, when we remember the club's achievements down through the years, the images that flood our minds and hearts don't consist solely of faceless, anonymous players. We learn to love, for better or worse, particular players, and that relationship (for as artificial and as one-way as it may be), is a large part of what drives our dedication. Seeing that kind of dedication from a player goes a long way towards forging an even-deeper relationship with the club. It's been since Tony Adams retired that Arsenal have seen a man start and finish with one club. He, of course, did well to split the difference by achieving individual and club honors enough to be known as Mr. Arsenal. In time, and with enough good fortune, perhaps that will be a title to be handed down to Jack Wilshere.