FOR three successive summers, Steven Gerrard found himself the object of transfer speculation that at various times was doing my head in. Unfortunately for England, two of those years coincided with major tournaments and, having achieved considerably less than he was capable of at both Euro 2004 and then the 2006 World Cup, he would love to avoid slipping into the old trap.
The problem is that after Liverpool's unexpectedly poor season, certainties are few. Who if anyone knows precisely what the future holds for the club's owners, the manager, Fernando Torres or Gerrard? After finishing as far away as ever from the Premier League medal he craves, and facing a first season since 2003 without Champions League football, he must attempt to put aside thoughts of anything except England for the next six weeks.
"There has been speculation about my future for the last two or three months," he admitted at the squad's training camp in Austria last Wednesday, "but it seems to have been that way for many, many years. I fell into the trap four years ago in the last World Cup where I was driving myself mad thinking about my future. This time I won't make that mistake. I won't consider my future or think about what is going to happen to me until after the World Cup."
How easy will that be, though, in those long hours between matches and training sessions, with one of his best friends, club-mate Jamie Carragher, likely to be at breakfast, lunch and dinner? Only two days ago, one report suggested he was prepared to leave the club. "I feel as if I am experienced enough now to park issues like that. If other people want to talk about my future, I can't control that."
It was well-documented that Chelsea pursued him for two successive close-seasons, starting with the European Championship summer of 2004, when he admits he "let England down". Now he has revealed that 2006 in Germany was equally bad: "I used to read the papers and go on the internet and then I'd speak to people at home who were telling me there was stuff going on. I knew Chelsea were very interested because my agent was telling me. Every time I went back to my room I was driving myself mad thinking about should I go to Chelsea or not.
"People around me are under strict instructions not to be talking about my club future or any speculation. It's not important now. What is important is that I have a good and successful World Cup. Agents, friends and family have been told not to be talking about club stuff to me."
If Gerrard underperformed at the last two tournaments, he was hardly alone. "As a team we weren't successful in '04 or '06. Not many players came out of it with flying colours. We've underachieved. Hopefully this time it is different, the squad is a lot more experienced, the quality is there.
"Can we get out on the pitch and prove we're good enough to be successful?"
Well, can they? "Everyone around the world knows the tools are there in England's armoury to go there and do well. There is a mental situation with this team in the last couple of tournaments where we've failed to get past the last eight. After the setback of not qualifying for the Euros, we feel as though we owe it to the nation to deliver this time around.
"Yes, I think our players are more mature now. We're at that age where players are peaking. There's a good mix of young talented players and experienced old heads. Hopefully that mixture will hold us in good stead."
Welcome as the breath of fresh Austrian air will have been after the stifling Anfield atmosphere over the past nine months, Gerrard acknowledges that he and Carragher have an additional mental hurdle to overcome. "It was a massive disappointment after finishing second the previous season. This season we took steps backwards. Hopefully things might happen whilst I'm away. There might be players coming into Liverpool to help strengthen the team. But I'm not really interested at the moment in what's going on at Liverpool. My main focus is the World Cup."
The past few days in the Austrian Alps have begun the process: "Once you start training, you get talking to the lads and the banter starts flying and people start talking about World Cups. That helps you put what's happened at club level firmly behind you. That's gone now, there's nothing I can do to change what happened this season. What is in my control is what happens going forward. It's getting close now and I'm excited. I can't wait to sample another World Cup."