Steven Gerrard can shine on for years - Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez
STEVEN GERRARD today celebrates his tenth anniversary as a Liverpool player having received a glowing testimonial from manager Rafa Benitez.
It was on this very day a decade ago that the then 18-year-old Gerrard made his debut for the Reds in a Premier League game against Blackburn Rovers at Anfield.
As he trotted on to the pitch to replace Veggard Heggem, the Huyton-born midfielder began a first class career that would take him to European glory and the captaincy of the club he supported as a boy.
Ten years on and his current boss cannot hide his admiration for the way Gerrard continues to develop as a player.
And Benitez believes there is still more to come from Liverpool's talisman even though he is already widely regarded as one of the finest players in the world.
Benitez said "To play ten years in a row for a top side is very difficult to achieve in the modern game so I am really pleased for Steven that he has managed this and also very pleased for the club that he has achieved it with us.
"Hopefully he can remain with us for a long, long time and continue to score goals for the team."
Gerrard's development from a wiry teenager with vast potential to a global star who has scored goals in European, UEFA, FA and League Cup finals and who is now spoken of as one of Liverpool's greatest players of all time is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Benitez can vividly recall the first time he saw a video of Gerrard in action, in what was a typically combative and energetic display from his future captain.
It was clear to him then that Gerrard would go on to achieve great things in the game but the Spaniard believes he has become even better still in recent seasons as his tactical awareness and game intelligence has grown with experience.
"I think the first time I really noticed him as a player he was actually playing as a right back against Everton and he was making lots of tackles and showing lots of passion," said the Reds boss.
"My first impressions of him were that he was a player of great potential because he had quality, he had power and he had determination.
"He had so many of the things that you would look for in a player and to have them at such a young age was really good.
"I think he is a different player now because he is more mature and more experienced.
"He has played under different managers and learned from them so I think that has allowed him to develop more game intelligence.
"He can analyse things better now than he could before, especially tactically, because that comes with experience.
"But this hasn't come at the expense of his strengths - he still has the power, the determination and the quality."
There was a time when Benitez's relationship with his captain was questioned, with Gerrard himself admitting that there were times when he felt he deserved more appreciation than he was getting.
Benitez, though, insists that while their rapport is now stronger than ever as a result of an increased knowledge and better understanding of one another, there were never any real problems between them.
"You can say that the relationship between us has got better but it was never bad," he said.
"Steven is a nice boy, a good lad and a very good professional so there have never been any problems between us.
"I think what happened was people were talking about what it was like for Steven before and his relationship with (Gerard) Houllier whom he was very close to and who would put an arm around his shoulder.
"I was a little bit more critical, trying to improve him and help him to become an even better player.
"But I think that he knows now that each manager and each person has his own way of doing things and clearly what we were doing is working because we are winning games and we have also won trophies and he has been a very important part of this."
Anniversaries are a time for reflection but they also present an opportunity to look ahead at what the future could bring.
And Benitez is in no doubt that there is still a lot more to come from Gerrard.
As far as the Reds boss is concerned, Gerrard's physical ability remains high enough to maintain his presence at the very top for some years to come.
But he also believes the 28-year-old can give himself even more playing time in the future by playing games with his brain as much as his legs.
He said: "Clearly he is a player who is a very good professional who has taken care of himself all of the time and we can give to him the things that he needs.
"So he can definitely play for a long time.
"How long exactly we do not know because you can have injuries or bad luck but physically he is ready to play for a lot more years.
"Now he has to give us the time on the pitch, by that I mean that he has to control the tempo of games with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
"These players - they have to manage the games and Steven definitely has the ability to do this."
Steven Gerrard's ability has never been in any doubt and after ten years at Liverpool the only question that remains is will it be rewarded with the prize he cherishes above all others - the league title.
"We all hope that we can achieve this," said Benitez.
"For Steven it is perhaps more special because he is a local boy and a supporter of the club so it would be really good if this could happen."