Ton-up Gerrard reflects on England regrets
Steven Gerrard has seen all the highs and lows that have befallen England over the last decade, including three penalty shoot-out defeats in major tournaments.
But something is keeping him going as he earns his 100th cap by captaining his country in a friendly against Sweden in Stockholm on Wednesday.
The Liverpool midfielder has been one of the symbols of English football for as long as many young fans can remember.
At times it hasn't been easy; after all Gerrard has out-lasted four England managers and faced regular criticism earlier in his career that he was incapable of reproducing his club form at international level.
But earning a century of caps for England puts him in an exclusive club that includes only Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright.
"It's something I never thought I would ever achieve to be honest with you," he said on Monday ahead of the squad's departure for Sweden.
"Growing up and getting turned down at the national school at 14, there have been times when I thought I'd never get one cap.
"The likes of Moore and Charlton will always be heroes of mine and heroes of English football.
"As far as playing for England, there are maybe 14 or 15 heroes. The rest haven't really delivered."
Those words hit at the heart of the pain and frustration that runs through English football; and has done for more than 40 years since Moore captained his country to World Cup glory on home soil in 1966.
Gerrard, who rates his England career as 'six or seven out of 10' in comparison to the greats of the past, names a 5-1 victory over Germany in 2001, in which he scored his first ever international goal, as the most memorable of his career so far.
But even that memory is tinged with regret because he was injured for the finals in Japan, where England lost in the quarter-finals to Brazil.
"I'd probably say that was the strongest England team I have played in," he said. "I think we had a great balance of young and experienced players.
"To be honest, I totally agree with a lot of what has been written when people say that group of players under-achieved at big tournaments.
"That team should certainly have got to a semi-final. It is certainly a regret now."
Gerrard is uniquely placed, perhaps, to analyse why England have under-achieved so often; and he paints of a picture of intense pressure and a heavy burden of expectation.
"I think the shirt weighs heavy because of a mixture of things. It's the fans, it's the media, it's because we have got the best league; and I think it is because every other country is so desperate to beat us," he claimed.
If Gerrard can guide England to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, he could yet get close to Shilton's national record of 125 caps by the time he retires.
And that's not something he could have envisaged as a teenager starting his international career in May 2000 under Kevin Keegan.
He recalled borrowing a car from a friend to drive to the team hotel -- unaware England players are sent a chauffeured limousine.
And then he endured a ruthless initiation -- thanks to his native fellow Liverpudlians Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.
"My birthday always falls when England are together -- 30 May --- and I travelled down to that get-together with them two," Gerrard said.
"They knew it was my birthday. I'd come in after training and my room was just upside down.
"I told them how carefully I'd packed my bag -- and my Mum had done my undies and ironed all my socks, the lot. The next thing, it was just all in the bath."
It was an age of relative innocence compared to the extreme scrutiny now facing England footballers.
"If anything the expectation is even greater than when I came through because there is a lot more coverage now with social media," said Gerrard.
"There are a lot more eyes, a lot more cameras -- and a lot more opinions.
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