There comes a moment in every sports fan’s life when she is faced with confronting her idol’s mortality, a moment of painful unmasking that reveals that the idol is human, after all. The moment when after floating in the clouds for an epoch on the wings of Icarus, the heat of time begins to melt the wax wings. Today, a minute or so into the second half at Anfield in the game between Manchester United and Liverpool, that moment arrived for me, a lifelong Steven Gerrard fan.
Gerrard had been a halftime substitution, meant to inspire and prop up a listless Liverpool trailing 0-1 to a determined United, but within barely 60 seconds of his introduction got entangled into a challenge with Ander Herrera, and retaliated by stamping on his foot which meant referee Martin Atkinson went straight for his red card.
This was a potentially season defining match up. A win for Liverpool would have lifted them over United into fourth place and Champions League spot contention. It was a big home game. And in one tiny moment of madness, everything came unhinged. It was always the opposite case for almost the entirety of Gerrard’s career at Liverpool, especially as captain. He was the talisman, the glue that held a rickety performance together, and often producing sublime moments of magic to rescue a win or at the least a draw. This was not to be that day. In a game that needed them to be calm, calculative and composed, Liverpool gave into the temptation of chaos and adrenalin and lost their collective minds, the epitome and the nadir of which was the Gerrard sending off.
Balotelli tried his hardest to follow suit, at one point the Anfield faithful literally intervening at the sidelines to restrain him from entering into a scuffle with Ashley Young. Martin Skrtel crossed that dangerous line between being aggressive and being malicious with a stamp on David De Gea, the United keeper at the fag end of the game, an incident the referee did not notice (but might be retrospectively reviewed by the FA).
Liverpool lost the game 2-1. As a fan, a loss always rankles. A loss to a bitter and competitive rival even more so. That is the pathos and ethos of sport and being a sports fan. But when you see your heroes puncture the notion of the game that you want them to uphold, it rankles even deeper.
Gerrard’s antics today will add an asterisk to a stellar career (and I am not here to discuss if he could, or should have won a league title etc.) not because he and his team failed, but because they seemed to be at war with themselves. There will be some amount of Schadenfreude from the fans of Manchester United and assorted clubs, but that is to be expected.
All of us have probably been in heated and competitive situations and we are biologically wired to have our blood pressures and heart beat rise as the brain senses danger or clouds out of anger and frustration. The survival instinct takes over and our primal side surfaces, metaphorically converting our Bruce Banners into the Incredible Hulk. When the dust settles, we often see our folly as Gerrard did and apologized. But for the countless number of times that I have always brushed his foibles aside because he was truly superheroic in my eyes, this time is when that cookie crumbles. I still absolutely love him of course but now with the acutely painful realization that I saw the ugly verses of his closing chapter at Liverpool begin with my very own eyes.
This is not the first time a hero of mine or for that matter any one of yours has done something stupid that has punctured his halo if not vaporized it. This will not be last either. But every time it happens, your happy bubble floating in dreamland bursts. And sport, which is meant to be a rabbit hole of escape, hurts for a bit. And then we hope to heap new memories to make that go away.
We pick ourselves up from that fall, our Icarus wax wings melted in the heat of reality, and down that rabbit hole, we go again.