The scenes last weekend at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, UK, were emotional, heart-warming and faith-affirming as Steven Gerrard was given the kind of send-off that his lifetime of loyalty to the eponymous football club deserved. Watching the scenes, one became aware of some sort of history being at play; as sport becomes ever more mercenary, the possibility of a sportsman sticking to one club, or one team or even one brand is ever more remote.

Gerrard, who will spend his footballing sunset in the rather more salubrious surroundings of Los Angeles Galaxy (and the less frenetic pace of Major League Soccer), joined Liverpool as a schoolboy—he was born in neighbouring Huyton—and stayed with them right through a glittering career.

Very few among his contemporaries boast a one-club record—Chelsea’s captain John Terry is one, with a career span eerily similar to that of Gerrard, Bastian Schweinsteiger is Bayern Munich to the bone and Barcelona’s top players have spent their lives at the Nou Camp since boyhood. There is, though, one significant difference between Gerrard and the rest—while the others won everything there was to win at their respective clubs, and were virtually assured of a trophy each season, Gerrard—like his teammate Jamie Carragher, who retired two years ago—stayed at Liverpool even when silverware was not guaranteed. The one giant empty space in an otherwise stacked cupboard is of course the spot where the Premier League winner’s medal would be. Liverpool last won the league in 1990 and, though they have threatened several times since, have never been the best team in English football.

Last week also marked 20 years since Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League title—the last time a “provincial" club were English champions. Since then the league trophy has gone to two cities—London and Manchester—and four teams: Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester’s City and United. Liverpool have managed the odd top-two finish but never reached the peak, which explains the empty space in Gerrard’s trophy cabinet. It’s not a scenario unique to England. In Germany, Munich (Bayern) and Dortmund have won 16 of the last 20 Bundesliga titles; Spain’s two major cities, Madrid and Barcelona (three clubs between them), have 17 in that period, as have Milan and Turin in Italy. Only in France, among the top European leagues, is there a spread, with nine cities boasting title-winning teams in the past two decades. So the odds were clearly against Liverpool.

What Blackburn—dubbed by their manager of the time, Kenny Dalglish, as the “people’s club"—did was almost freakish. Prior to that league title, Blackburn’s sole claim to fame outside of the British Isles was the 4,000 holes that John Lennon sang about. As Dalglish said, “It’s not even a city, is it?" And yet it had, and still has, a large—15% of the town’s entire population of 100,000—and fanatical support. I remember meeting in 2003 a Manchester councillor, whose office overlooked both Old Traffords—the cricket and football grounds. Supporting United would have been easy for him but he was a committed Rovers fan, spending hard-earned money to travel the country supporting his team.

It’s hard to see a small-town club doing now what Blackburn did 20 years ago. It has happened in Germany, with Wolfsburg winning the Bundesliga in 2009, and in Spain in 2000 with Deportivo La Coruña, a town of around 200,000 people. But those are the exceptions. In England it’s not the top 4 but the top 6 or 8 clubs from London, Liverpool and Manchester that have traditionally dominated the Premier League. The brightest spark of the past couple of seasons has been Southampton, from the southern most part of the country, whose players have been responsible for some of the most attractive football. Southampton will finish in the top 8 this season for the second year running, an improbable scenario for a club that was essentially on the verge of liquidation in 2009, but which has been revived—and how—thanks to smart and committed ownership. They began the current season winning 11 of their first 14 competitive matches—this after losing their manager and five top players in the previous few weeks. They’ve even caught the eye of actor John Abraham, the owner of the Indian Super League side NorthEast United, who said it’s the team he admires most for its business model.

Few would equate Southampton with mighty Liverpool, winners of 18 league titles and five times champions of Europe, but they are linked by a similar sense of community, the sort of close-knit club atmosphere that nurtured Gerrard and inured him to all the riches on offer elsewhere. They breed loyalty, and it works both ways: fans and players feed off each other. And so as this least Hollywoodian of all current football heroes makes his way to the bright lights of Los Angeles, he will find comfort and company in the words of Liverpool’s club song: You’ll never walk alone.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

Close