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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July, 2005, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
The making of icon Gerrard
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

Steven Gerrard's status as a Liverpool giant was confirmed in the time it took him to lift the Champions League trophy in Istanbul in May.

But he was not always the imposing figure who was so close to leaving Liverpool for a British record transfer fee.

Former Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson recalls his first sight of the player many now regard as Europe's finest midfield operator.

And he paints a very different picture from the midfield powerhouse who was courted by Chelsea or Real Madrid but has now committed himself to Anfield.

Thompson told BBC Sport: "I have seen him grow up, and not just in footballing terms. I remember when I came back to the club in November 1998, Gerard Houllier and myself took him from the academy to work with us at our training headquarters at Melwood.

"He wasn't the energetic boy you see making those lung-busting runs now. In fact he was actually smaller than Michael Owen - difficult to believe when you see him now, but there are pictures somewhere to prove it.

"I recall the first time I saw him play in the reserves at Leeds. He used to just patrol the centre circle and dominate from there.

"But he could break things up, would always make the crucial interceptions and you could tell at that age he could read the game outstandingly well.

"He was a midfield holding player if you like. But if one thing singled him out as special, even at that age, it was perhaps his character even more than his ability.

"Stevie could pass the ball, but what you noticed was that he had this real edge. No-one took liberties with him, team-mates or the opposition, even though he was a slight lad and very young.

Steven has an aura about him on and off the pitch - it says 'I'm the leader of this team'
Former Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson
"Some players are leaders, and you could seen even then this was a potential leader."

The only blight on Gerrard's early career was a succession of injuries that continually forced him on to the sidelines, a crisis remarkably cured by a 20-minute operation after groin problems ruled him out of the 2002 World Cup in Japan.

Thompson said: "People were wondering whether Steven could actually play two games a week and we realised we had to get to the bottom of what was keeping him off the football pitch so often.

"We had fantastic medical staff at Liverpool, and it was all sorted by a 20-minute operation on his groins in the summer of 2002.

"The theory was that he had grown so quickly that all his muscles and tendons had stretched. The surgery seems to release tension or pressure and he was on his way."

Since then, Gerrard has gone from strength to strength, and became an iconic Anfield figure and symbol of the scouse heartbeat of Liverpool's side along with Jamie Carragher.

Thompson said: "There are very few players who are leaders in this day and age. This is why he is coveted by every big club - he is young, world-class and has his best days ahead of him.

"He has an aura about him on and off the pitch. It says 'I'm the leader of this team.'

"The great thing is that he is 25 and his best times are ahead of him. I think his best days will be when he is 27 or 28, which is a frightening prospect.

Former Liverpool assistant boss Phil Thompson makes a point to Steve Gerrard
Thompson watched the development of Steven Gerrard

"He is still very much in the learning process and he is a very willing learner and listener.

"I used to tell him to vary his game a bit more when he was younger, not always go short or long with his passing. Produce things that would take the opposition by surprise.

"Sometimes he would look at you, not in a rebellious way with a bit of questioning look, then he would listen and learn.

"I can see him getting even better and it's easy to see why people are willing to pay so much money to get him.

"He is the sort of player every coach and manager looks through his youth ranks and hopes to find to give you that edge, the player with something that marks him out.

"Steve had that and is an outstanding player. I wouldn't swap him for anyone in his position, and the only one I would even consider swapping him for if my arm was twisted up my back is Patrick Vieira.

"You saw him to perfection in that second half against AC Milan in the Champions League final.

"He picked up that team and drove it. You had that six foot-plus figure running at them and scaring the life out of them. It was a magnificent sight.

"It showed his world-class quality and showed why he is valued so highly."




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