By SHAUN CUSTIS
STEVEN GERRARD joins the 100-cap club when he leads out England in Stockholm tonight.
But ask him to rate his 12-year international career with a mark out of 10 and he is brutally honest — “six, maybe seven.”
It sums up the failings of the ‘golden generation’ of which Gerrard was very much a part.
Back in September 2001, England thumped Germany 5-1 in Munich in a World Cup qualifier.
Gerrard fired his first goal for the Three Lions from 25 yards and he thought it was the start of something very big indeed.
England were going to challenge for the major prizes, win championships and be cheered through the streets.
But the glory days never came and for Gerrard, now 32, they may have gone forever.
The Liverpool star said: “That Germany game was probably my greatest day with England because of who it was against, how emphatic the result was in their backyard, and it being a World Cup qualifier.
“It’s difficult to beat that.
“I’ve scored many a good goal for Liverpool and scored 19 times for England but the one against Germany is up there in my top three.
“That was the strongest England team I’ve played in. It had great balance between young and experienced players. We had some world-class players.
“I know the golden generation always gets spoken about, but when you look at that side from front to back it was really strong.
“That group of players under-achieved at big tournaments, it should have done better and should certainly have got to a semi-final.
“We were unlucky at times in the penalty shootouts but it’s certainly a regret now.”
Skipper Gerrard will become the sixth man to notch up a century following Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Billy Wright, and two of the 1966 World Cup winners, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
For Gerrard, the boys of ’66 showed the way and those that followed have failed.
He added: “If Charlton and Moore are 10 out of 10, then I’m six, maybe seven. The World Cup-winning team will always be heroes of mine and the English public.
“In football, the hero and legend status is given out far too easily. As far as playing for England goes there are 11 heroes — the rest haven’t really delivered.”
Gerrard believes the incredible attention England get, not just at home but around the world, places enormous expectations on the players and perhaps causes them to freeze.
He said: “It’s a mixture of the fans, the Press, it’s because we’ve got the best league and every other country is so desperate to beat us.
“There have been times when I’ve found the shirt to be a bit of a weight and had to try to play through it and get on with it. If you don’t play well, you have a bad game or a nightmare you know the amount of coverage is worldwide.
“Everyone watches England. When I speak to the foreign lads in the Liverpool dressing room the first result they look for after their games is England’s.
“Even when they are playing at the same time as us as soon as they come off the pitch they think ‘how did England get on?’”
Gerrard also insists nothing in football is more intense and pressurised than taking a spot-kick for England, especially in a shootout with the country holding its breath.
He missed at World Cup 2006, and scored at Euro 2012 while he was already off the field having been subbed at Euro 2004. Each time England were eliminated.
The midfield star added: “Taking a penalty for England in a tournament, with the nerves and how your body feels, is a million times more difficult than a penalty in a normal game.
“It’s three times for me and I don’t think any other international player would have experienced that. The new players haven’t experienced the disappointment I have.”
Gerrard is now the elder statesman, nurturing the next generation with stars like Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling and possibly Wilfried Zaha.
And Gerrard added: “When I was deciding whether to knock it on the head or carry on, being captain and having players like Jack coming through made it worth hanging about for a couple more years and seeing if things change. Jack’s a fantastic talent and if we can produce more players on his level maybe we’ve got a chance of going far.”
Despite those crushing feelings about what might have been, Gerrard will be a proud man in Stockholm.
He admitted: “This is something I never thought I’d achieve.
“When I was growing up, getting turned down at the national school at 14 and not getting picked for England Under-15s I thought I might not even get one cap.
“To be on the eve of 100 is an unbelievable achievement. It’s difficult to put into words because when I speak about it, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
Gerrard, though, is more concerned about the team.
He said: “My interest is qualifying for the next tournament. If we can get to the World Cup in Brazil that will be job done for me and then you focus on the tournament. If I get 104 caps, or 120 it would be nice but it’s not my priority.
“I have always tried to give my best for England.
“My performances have not always been great but it has never been because of not wanting to be there, or lack of effort.
“I always go back to what my dad said to me when I was eight going to Liverpool’s centre of excellence.
“It’s basically ‘you get out of football what you put in’.That’s the advice I’ve always tried to stick to.”
Gerrard has proved father knows best.