Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have been generation defining players. Throughout the course of the Premier League era, they are talents that have embodied the values of their respective clubs and subsequently they will be forever associated with those teams. But there comes a time when even these players choose or are forced to move on despite the synonymity they harbor.
For Lampard, that process has already begun, while Gerrard stands on the cusp of it. And even now, it’s peculiar to see the former in the sky blue of Manchester City instead of the royal colors Chelsea, and it’ll be uneasy seeing Liverpool’s skipper donning anything other than the iconic red. But as we’ve already seen in earnest from Lampard, this phase of a career can be fascinating.
But what should these big name players do when they move on? And how do they know when it’s right to call time on their career at the pinnacle of the game and find a new home abroad or lower down the soccer pyramid?
Players dropping down their league at the back end of their career is a relatively abnormal phenomenon these days, especially for those talents who have played at the very highest level. Jimmy Greaves—one of English football’s greatest ever goalscorers–sought solace in the lower leagues with teams like Brentwood, Chelmsford City, Barnet and Woodford Town after problems with fitness and alcohol punctured his career after leaving West Ham United.
But off hand it’s tough to think of any players in the modern game that appreciate they aren’t quite up to the level of top flight football anymore and have decided to make the drop down. The most recent example is perhaps Edgar Davids, who signed for League Two side Barnet in a player manager capacity after moving to North London.
There have always been special instances, but even those are rare these days. Paul Scholes always professed he would love to have played for boyhood club Oldham Athletic at the end of his career, but admitted in 2011 that they never gave him the opportunity to do so, per Sky Sports.
There’s an obvious factor holding a lot of these clubs back: Finance. Oldham, you suspect, wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay Scholes even a smidgen of what he was on at Manchester United and the same applies for a host of clubs in the lower leagues who may be looking to lure veteran players from the top flight to their clubs.
Granted, if a player has a strong affinity with a team then he might play for a relative pittance. But such are the advancements in sports science in the modern game, those who are perceivably on the cusp of retirement seem to be playing on for longer and can continue to have an impact at the very highest level.
It’s something that’s been clear during Lampard’s loan spell at Manchester City and although Gerrard’s influence is waning at Liverpool, he’s still the club’s top scorer and arguably their best midfielder.
Gary Neville spoke about the matter recently in his column in the Telegraph and admitted the tipping point is not cut and dry.
“You fluctuate. Your sense of your own capabilities can vary from day to day. You have down days and days where you feel: ‘I could go for another two or three years here.’ Twenty-four hours later you will come into training and be a yard off it, everywhere. An internal voice says: ‘I’m coming to the end.
“I’ve been through it. My immediate contemporaries have been through it. The question nags you: when to stop, when’s the right moment? People say – you always know when it’s the right moment. Well, in many ways I didn’t.”
Neville retired as a one-club man on his own terms, but as is the case with the aforementioned duo, players don’t always have that luxury.
Gerrard admitted that if Liverpool had offered him a contract he would have stayed, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that his attributes are no longer appropriate for the kind of team Brendan Rodgers is looking to build at Anfield. Whether or not that’s a decision the manager regrets remains to be seen.
A lot of managers have been in similar situations and will rue the decisions they made, though. Jose Mourinho clearly felt as though Lampard couldn’t cut it for Chelsea any more and that could prove to be to his team’s detriment, with the midfielder scoring vital goals for the Blues’ title challengers.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini has utilized the 36-year-old superbly. And you suspect that if Rodgers had used Gerrard in comparable fashion, he’d have a less immersive but perhaps just as crucial part to play in Liverpool’s season.
Another example is Andrea Pirlo, who wanted a three-year deal at Milan back in 2011 when he was 31 years old; they only offered him one and the insouciant midfielder went on to be the catalyst for Juventus’ Serie A stranglehold.
It’s a tentative scenario and in the case of players that are iconic figures with various clubs, it’s extremely difficult for all associated with the team to handle. But as players start to preserve a much more longstanding vitality courtesy of advancements in the game, you suspect it’s one that managers are going to have to become increasingly better acquainted with.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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