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Sports Features of Thursday, 21 May 2015


Could Ayew replace Gerrard at Liverpool?

Sometimes, in football perhaps more than anywhere else, stars align quite perfectly.

Might it be that as Liverpool bid farewell to the legendary Steven Gerrard, as the local boy closes the page on many splendid service, they acquire a player who can go some way to filling their iconic skipper’s boots?

Andre Ayew’s future is far from certain, but the one thing that does appear to be guaranteed is that the Ghana superstar will not be at Olympique de Marseille next year.

Ayew, like Gerrard, is set to leave his boyhood club this summer.

It is, of course, impossible to predict Ayew’s destination with any certainty, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Liverpool are favourites for his signature.

Both AS Roma and Spartak Moscow may have made firm contract offers, and Bayer Leverkusen, more so than most, are rumoured to be particularly keen, but it is Ayew who will ultimately have the final say.

Despite being reticent to confirm—before this week—that his future will be away from the Stade Velodrome, Ayew has indicated that he is already eyeing a move to the Premier League.

In the middle of April, the Black Star—fully aware that speculation about his summer move was picking up—revealed his admiration for the English Premier League and for Brendan Rodgers’s Reds.

“I grew up watching English football and I support Liverpool,” Ayew admitted.

“Steven Gerrard is my favourite player. They have always had exciting teams and now they are a club that likes to play with pace and give chances to young players.”

The 25-year-old went on to confirm that he definitely saw the Premier League in his future—although not immediately acknowledging that it would be this summer—while also revealing that he has discussed a future across the Channel with his fellow professionals.

“It's true I'd like to play in England,” he continued, “I'm 25 now and it is a good age for me to take the next step in my career. I have offers from England, Italy and Germany but it would be unfair to say who from. I speak to my friends such as Morgan Amalfitano at West Ham and Joey Barton at QPR and they always talk well about the league and the atmosphere.

“I have been fortunate to experience Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford in the Champions League but I want to play at Anfield and other grounds.

Since making these comments, inevitably, various sources have been quick to confirm Liverpool as Ayew’s next destination.

I certainly wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Despite admitting recently that he wouldn’t close the door on clubs who weren’t in the Champions League next season, the prospect of playing at Roma—who will be competing in Europe’s elite continental competition, will surely prove appealing, particularly with a Francophone coach, Rudi Garcia, in situ in at the Stadio Olimpico.

Similarly, the number of Ghanaians who currently play in the Italian top flight, and who have thrived there, must make Serie A an intriguing potential destination.

Arsenal are also worth mentioning, having been linked to the player by both the Independent and the Express.

The Gunners can offer Champions League football, they can offer life in London, and they can offer the guidance of Arsene Wenger—another French coach, which may or may not be a factor for the player.

The perception of the club, currently, is one on the up, which comes in contrast to Liverpool’s fairly muddled future, particularly without a player such as Luis Suarez or…looking back to the Emirates Stadium…Alexis Sanchez to call upon.

Despite this, if the Reds make a bid for Liverpool-fan Ayew, then it would be little surprise for me should he eschew Champions League football to move to Anfield.

While Ayew is facing his own emotional farewell from his boyhood club, could he replace a player who said his own teary goodbye to his own home fans last weekend?

The question, 'can he replace Gerrard?', is, simultaneously, pertinent and ridiculous.

On the one hand, of course, the straight simple answer is ‘no’.

Ayew can’t replace Gerrard, and indeed, probably no one can; you could mould Andre, Jordan and Abedi Pele together, and you still wouldn't replace him.

Gerrard was that magic, priceless blend of tenacity, loyalty, class, influence and determination rolled into one; he was also a local boy…which counts, ever-more, for an awful lot.

Who else can rival this in the modern game?

John Terry, of course, is one example, Francesco Totti is another. We could point the finger at Carles Puyol, Jamie Carragher, Daniele De Rossi, the great Ledley King, Tony Adams, Norrie McWhirter.

Examples are few and far between and, generally, worth their weight in gold.

Ayew cannot replace that.

Nor can he replace Gerrard directly in an on-field capacity.

Ayew is certainly not early-Gerrard; he is not the all-action, tenacious, driving, wonder-goal-scoring midfielder that won Liverpool the 2006 FA Cup and played a key role in the magical Champions League victory in 2005—not least with that famous late effort, from range, against Olympiakos in the group stage.

Nor is he latter-day-Gerrard, the pass-slinging quarter-back, sitting at the base of the midfield, controlling the tempo, dictating the play, passing majestically over both short and long distances.

Symbolically, and in terms of his on-field contribution, Ayew cannot replace Gerrard.

However, partly because they’ve had so many, there aren’t many clubs who revere their heroes quite like Liverpool do.

They are a club who hold history close (perhaps better than anyone else) and who crave the kind of iconic figurehead who can lead (or fire) the team to glory.

In the post-Gerrard era, heroes may be hard to come by.

Rodgers hasn’t yet suggested that he can truly command the kind of cult of personality that Bill Shankly did (few can), while Jordan Henderson is unlikely to emulate Gerrard in his prime.

Daniel Sturridge’s injuries threaten to overtake him, while Raheem Sterling may not even be at the club beyond this summer—he is hardly hero material.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have put Ayew into the ‘leader-hero’ bracket, but having seen his improvement for Marseille under Marcelo Bielsa this season, I am beginning to warm to the notion.

Similarly, while the steely Gerrard would never have broken down as Ayew did after the Cup of Nations final, nor would he have received the after-match red card that Andre did following OM’s recent defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, the player has certainly grown since being named Ghana vice-captain.

I have been impressed by his cajoling support for his Marseille teammates this season, even as the side collapsed and fell out of the title race.

Also, Ayew has begun to demonstrate the captain’s knack for making crucial contributions when it matters most.

Of course, the majority of his goals have come in the Phoceens’ biggest victories this season, but there was also the extra-time effort against Grenoble, the second-half goal against Reims, and, critically, the recent inspirational display against AS Monaco—including a 79th-minute goal—which dragged OM back into Champions League contention.

A sense of responsibility is growing—both for club and country—as Ayew has himself admitted.

The Black Star isn’t perfect, and he remains too emotional to truly captain one of the world’s major sides, but in time, with temperance, he could take Gerrard’s cherished armband.

Can he replace the departing Liverpool skipper? Of course not.

Can he ease the loss? Most definitely…