Steven Gerrard shows Liverpool what they will miss

By Phil McNultyChief football writer

When Steven Gerrard suffered a rare blemish in the middle of his latest masterclass, AFC Wimbledon's fans pounced on the topic that will dominate Liverpool's agenda between now and the day he takes his leave.

"You're not wanted any more" rang around Cherry Red Records Stadium in Kingston as the home supporters put their own twist on Gerrard's decision to decline a new Liverpool contract and move to the United States next summer.

Liverpool's followers were only too happy to offer the conflicting view - and no wonder after their 34-year-old captain once again dragged them out of hazardous terrain to safety almost single-handed with both goals in this 2-1 FA Cup third round win.

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If Gerrard needed - not that he does - to build a monument to what Liverpool will miss when he goes, this was the perfect template and left the questions hanging in the air.

How can Liverpool let Gerrard go?

Gerrard's departure next May has been presented by Liverpool and the player himself as the right time for the parting of the ways. This iconic captain's future would have been carefully managed had he stayed another year, with his number of performances inevitably reduced.

It seems Gerrard does not want, or indeed deserve, to close out his magnificent career with a lengthy spell of bench-warming.

It is tempting to use every significant Gerrard intervention as part of the case for the prosecution to accuse Liverpool of failing to do enough to keep him - and even this superb performance should be placed in the context that it was with a middling League Two team in opposition.

And would he be able to sustain this level of performance and energy, especially in a more advanced role, on a weekly basis in the Premier League into next season? Valid questions but questions Liverpool's fans were prepared to set to one side on Monday.

Steven Gerrard (centre) celebrates scoring against AFC Wimbledon
Gerrard has now scored nine goals for Liverpool this season

Even now, with the credits rolling on his Liverpool career, they still have no-one like Gerrard who can give them hope when it seems lost, such as against FC Basel with his late free-kick on the night they went out of the Champions League, or here against AFC Wimbledon, when he produced yet again when matters were starting to look extremely difficult.

Jordan Henderson is Gerrard's successor-in-waiting as Liverpool captain but does not yet come within light years of the impact the current incumbent has either on the field or off.

He is still a developing player and personality so it is actually a tough comparison, but how can he, or indeed anyone else, follow Gerrard as a leader in battle, a figure afforded total respect (perhaps even fear when it comes to opponents) off the field or as a symbol for the fans?

Whether Liverpool like it or not, this debate will run and run until the day Gerrard walks out of Anfield for the final time and perhaps even beyond - it was certainly raging on Monday night.

Gerrard's former Liverpool team-mate Jamie Carragher, who feels aggrieved that the midfielder has somehow been allowed to drift away from Anfield, tweeted on his @Carra23 account: "If Gerrard was one of the new signings at 24 we'd be raving about him but we judge him at 34 against himself at his peak."

Carragher had earlier tweeted: "Liverpool struggled for goals this season. Their top scorer is going to the MLS next season!"

Even QPR striker Charlie Austin tweeted: "How can Liverpool let this man go?"

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was the subject of lavish praise in Gerrard's abdication speech, with the player saying he wished he had worked under the manager a decade ago, but there is no doubt there will be questions for the club's owners and executive staff every time he affects events as he did against AFC Wimbledon.

BBC MOTD pundit Alan Shearer on Steven Gerrard:
"He gives Liverpool more the further forward you push him. He might not be able to get into areas he did 10 years ago but he's so clever. He knows what positions to take up and when he gets a chance, like we saw with that free-kick, he is deadly."

Gerrard's former Liverpool team-mate and room-mate Danny Murphy told BBC Sport on Match of the Day: "Liverpool are very fortunate they've got Steven Gerrard as his two bits of quality have been the difference between the sides and not much else."

And Alan Shearer added: "There was one guy who dragged Liverpool through by the scruff of the neck. How many times have we said this over the years? It was his performance, his goals, his work-rate, his effort."

Shearer also drew the parallel with Chelsea's decision to let Frank Lampard go, only to see him turn up at Manchester City as a danger to his old club's Premier League title chances.

Gerrard has made it clear he will never play against Liverpool but Shearer added: "I just wonder whether Chelsea look at the Frank Lampard situation and just wish that they hadn't let him go. I wonder if Liverpool will do the same."

The bottom line is that no matter how much Liverpool look to the future, the player and inspiration they still rely on is Steven Gerrard. For that overall impact on games, his colleagues and his club, he will be impossible to replace.

Evergreen Gerrard
Steven Gerrard has scored nine goals so far this season, one more than both Manchester United forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. His two goals on Monday followed his double against Leicester and is the first time since July 2005 that he has scored at least two goals in consecutive appearances.

Same old problems for Liverpool

Liverpool's debt to Gerrard was placed in even sharper relief by the fact it allowed them to secure an FA Cup fourth round tie at home to Bolton Wanderers despite seeing the usual fault lines exposed by AFC Wimbledon.

After Gerrard put Liverpool ahead in the 12th minute, there was a period of relative calm as Neil Ardley's side were subdued and the Premier League giants looked in control.

It did not last long as Liverpool's defence came under pressure and, as it has done so often this season, almost instantly looked incapable of coping.

Sean Rigg had already missed one good chance before he forced a save from Simon Mignolet and it was alarming to see how a routine kick from AFC Wimbledon goalkeeper James Shea created various degrees of panic and a chance that Matt Tubbs wasted.

Wimbledon's equaliser from Adebayo Akinfenwa was Liverpool's defence in microcosm. Mignolet flapped hopelessly at George Francomb's corner under pressure, Mamadou Sakho bundled the ball against his own bar and amid the carnage Akinfenwa reacted first.

AFC Wimbledon's Adebayo Akinfenwa (centre) scores
Liverpool's defensive frailty resurfaced to allow Akinfenwa to equalise for AFC Wimbledon

Mignolet, only restored in goal because of an injury to his journeyman deputy Brad Jones, was taunted throughout by AFC Wimbledon fans well-versed in his problems with the ball at his feet.

If Liverpool could get their hands on a goalkeeper of quality as a long-term replacement for Mignolet this month surely they will, although it could prove easier said than done. Mignolet may have to do for this season but not beyond.

Rodgers works on defensive organisation and is certainly too skilled and confident a coach to bring in an outsider to assist with defence, but that vulnerability must remain a concern.

As he pointed out when Arsenal scored at Anfield recently, it is not a matter of coaching or organisation when three one-on-one headers are lost in Liverpool's own penalty area. The current players simply need to be better - or replaced by better players.

Akinfenwa leads from the front
AFC Wimbledon is the 11th club Adebayo Akinfenwa has played for in his 13 year career. The others are Barry Town, Boston United, Leyton Orient, Rushden, Doncaster, Torquay, Swansea, Millwall, Northampton (twice), Gillingham (twice). Monday's goal was his 10th of the season from 29 appearances.

AFC Wimbledon write own slice of cup history

Adebayo Akinfenwa
Adebayo Akinfenwa, a lifelong Liverpool fan, pleaded with Steven Gerrard not to leave the club after the game, according to Sam Elliott of the Non-League Paper

Much was made of the memories of the original Wimbledon FC's FA Cup Final win against Liverpool at Wembley in 1988 as the sub-plot to this occasion - and it was right that two of the real heroes of that day and the old "Crazy Gang" were on hand for this tie in the shape of goalkeeper and captain Dave Beasant and goalscorer Lawrie Sanchez.

This, though, is a different time and a different era - as well as a different club for the fans who have helped the rebirth of AFC Wimbledon after they started the long road back in the Combined Counties League in 2002 before going through five promotions and a return to the Football League in 2011.

And this FA Cup night was a credit to the way this club has been reshaped and the passion of those loyal fans. Neil Ardley's team were honest, committed and did themselves and AFC Wimbledon proud on their big night.

There are still further steps for AFC Wimbledon to take, perhaps even back to their old Plough Lane home, but for now this is a good news story for everyone involved.

Climbing the ladder - literally

The FA Cup provides tales to tell for all involved - not just for clubs but for the media following the progress of this wonderful competition.

Sunday's tie between Yeovil Town and Manchester United involved a temporary home in the front row of The Screwfix Community Stand, where you could almost reach out and touch the action at ground level.

Cut to Cherry Red Records Stadium a short walk from Norbiton Station 24 hours later and home was a specially built overflow press box in a corner of the stadium, access gained by climbing a rather shaky ladder.

The ladder leading to the press box at the Cherry Red Records Stadium
Phil McNulty risks life and limb to report from the Cherry Red Records Stadium

All good fun - especially for the unsporting AFC Wimbledon fans who subjected Her Majesty's Media to (to put it politely) to catcalls as they made an inelegant exit down the ladder before leaving to hear from Neal Ardley and Brendan Rodgers.

The chants of 'You don't know what you're doing" were not entirely inaccurate but given (and taken) in good part.

The FA Cup third round is still one of the great dates in English football's calendar - and anyone wishing to argue against that could not have been present at Yeovil or AFC Wimbledon.


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