A Nocturnal Upon St. Steven’s Day

by Clerical Staff


Upon first listening to a Tom Waits record, the response of the uninitiated is often the same: ‘This guy cannot sing.’ Waits growls, hollers, mumbles and whispers as he voices the various narrators in his songs. Fluctuating between a moaning falsetto and a tectonic rumble, he gives the impression of a man barely in control of his own voice. Yet this is misleading, for the truly stunning thing about Waits, which one grows to realise, is that he isn’t merely winging it: he has complete control over that seemingly unmasterable voice.

This puts me in mind of the way Steven Gerrard plays football. Gerrard hunches over the ball as he moves forward with it, often dragging it out from underneath him, constantly looking like he is on the verge of miscontrol – either knocking it too far forward or getting it stuck beneath his feet. He looks rushed and desperate, always at the very edge of control. These are not characteristics that you would usually associate with great players, yet despite all this, Gerrard is an exceptional footballer – one of the most gifted in the modern game. Like Waits, Steven Gerrard has made an art of consistently producing controlled acts out of apparently uncontrolled movements.

On the pitch he is impulsive. The fully-qualified physician and former Brazil captain Socrates once said that ‘someone who thinks doesn’t run, and someone who runs doesn’t think.’ Gerrard runs everywhere. In fact he never looks like he’s thinking; rather he looks like he’s feeling. The football practiced by Gerrard is driven by two things: impulse and emotion. In short, he does what he feels. Perhaps this is why, as Brian Phillips of Run of Play has pointed out, Gerrard’s best moments seem to come when he has the ball for the shortest amounts of time – acts of explosive voluntarism:

Most of his greatest moments have come from touches of the ball that lasted under two seconds. This is precisely why he’s disappointing when he’s played out on the wings: from the center of midfield his intuition has the most available targets. He takes criticism, when he isn’t playing well, for his number of aimless passes; it surprises people that he isn’t more accurate, because of his tactical forehead and furrowed-browed look. But in truth he’s just the sort of player who will kick the ball away often. His calculations are so instantaneous and unscrutinized that they’re bound to be frequently wrong. But when they’re right, he’ll see something that no one else sees, stretch out, and do something amazing.

Gerrard arrives late to thunder in a dramatic blooter; he pings the ball across the pitch into the path of attackers; wearing a pained expression he attempts to rouse his teammates. Gerrard seems to exist entirely in these almost photographic moments rather than in a liquid temporal procession. And in all these moments he fully communicates the passions that he is going though. Never a player who goes about things quietly, Gerrard ensures that we are always aware of what he is doing on the pitch. Each action is exaggerated and theatrical – each sign must have ‘absolute clarity’. No wonder he is so adored by the Liverpool faithful, demonstrating as he does such paradigmatically British sincerity – he is an honest lad, probably a hero, unlike the conceited Latin schemers seen abroad. His perceived honesty is seen as the exception, rather than the norm.

The way in which Gerrard plays football, emoting his way across the pitch in various moments of brilliant heroism and drama to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’ (as sung by Tom Waits) puts me in mind of the distinction that Gallic essay-buff Roland Barthes draws between the boxer and the wrestler:

A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions… In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which arises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go through exactly the motions which are expected of him.[1]

Barthes speaks about wrestling in contrast to boxing, where the latter is a sport and the former is not. Boxing is a chronological story, the goal of which is at the end – the win. In wrestling the end is not what is of importance, rather the process itself is the source of meaning. If, then, we see in Gerrard characteristics more suited to the wrestler, we start to see more clearly the limitations which have marked his game, for good theatre does not mean a successful team.

The irony is that whilst Gerrard is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers of his times, he isn’t actually that good at playing football. By this I am not referring to his technical ability which is, as I have already stated, of the highest level. Rather I am referring to his ability to act as a player in a football team, playing a game of football involving positions and tactics. There has long been a debate as to which position Gerrard is best suited to. The truth is that Gerrard’s best position is not any position that can be topologically located on a pitch. His best position is in his own head; it is at 2-0 down in a cup final; it is as Hero. If we are to compare Gerrard to a player of similar technical ability, then, in Ruud Gullit we can see the contrast: Gullit was world class in several positions on the pitch; whilst Gerrard is world class, in no position. This speaks in part of the historical suspicion of tactical development in British football, where the value of players who are positionally and technically reliable is often overlooked (consider Stewart Downing and Tom Huddlestone, for example).

The wrestler’s primary intention is to entertain and this is done through the communication of emotion. In the way he plays football Gerrard is one of the most emotional, and one of the most entertaining, players in the game. Yet the wrestler, unlike the boxer, is not focused on the win. What makes Gerrard entertaining is not always something that actually helps his teams in winning games. Of course this needn’t be a problem. Rafa Benitez almost won the league with a fantastic Liverpool side that employed two holding midfielders behind Gerrard, to allow him and Torres the freedom to express themselves further forward, facilitating his heroism. Throughout the season he was fantastic and Liverpool were deeply unlucky not to take something away that year.

When Gerrard tugs at his captains’ armband it is almost as if he is trying to draw his power from this symbolic item. He, as much as any player, seems fully engrossed in his symbolic position on the pitch; so much so, in fact, that he often is more aware of this than his tactical position. Gerrard is simultaneously a problem and a solution – to this extent, perhaps his expected gradual phasing out of the Liverpool team over the next few seasons will actually better them. He is a wrestler trying his hand at boxing. At times this may be confusing, and often incredibly irritating, but at the very least it is always entertaining.


[1] Roland Barthes, ‘The World of Wrestling’ in Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 16.

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