Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard will leave his boyhood club this summer with a heavy heart but plans to return in a different role in the future.
The midfielder, who turns 35 in May, is likely to seek a different challenge in Major League Soccer in the United States after confirming he would not be accepting the offer of a new contract to extend his stay beyond this season.
It is a wrench for the Huyton-born star to end an association with the club which began when he was eight years old but with former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier tipping him to become manager one day, there remains a glimmer of hope Gerrard could once again be an influential figure at Anfield.
“This has been the toughest decision of my life and one which both me and my family have agonised over for a good deal of time,” Gerrard said in a statement.
“Liverpool Football Club has been such a huge part of all our lives for so long and saying goodbye is going to be difficult, but I feel it’s something that’s in the best interests of all involved, including my family and the club itself.
“I’m going to carry on playing and although I can’t confirm at this stage where that will be, I can say it will be somewhere that means I won’t be playing for a competing club and will not therefore be lining up against Liverpool – that is something I could never contemplate.
“It is a very special place to be part of. It is my sincere hope and wish that one day I can return to serve Liverpool again, in whatever capacity best helps the club.”
Gerrard has followed the example set by close friend Jamie Carragher two years ago in going public with his decision early to prevent ongoing debate about whether he would stay or go.
However, unlike Carragher – who retired aged 35 in 2013 and went straight into a job as a television pundit – he still feels there is plenty of life left in his legs.
But with the former England captain ruling out joining a club which could ever face Liverpool in competition, it puts America top of his likely destinations, although there is interest from the Middle East.
“I am making the announcement now so that the manager and the team are not distracted by stories or speculation about my future,” he added.
“My decision is completely based on my wish to experience something different in my career and life and I also want to make sure that I have no regrets when my playing career is eventually over.”
But while his advisors will begin the search for a new club, Gerrard insists he remains fully focused on the remainder of Liverpool’s season. A 2-2 draw at home to bottom side Leicester, in which Gerrard scored two penalties, left Liverpool seven points adrift of the top four and their minimum aim – they also have a two-legged Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea on the horizon – remains retaining a place in the Champions League. Despite reduced playing time this season as Rodgers tries to manage his captain, whom he admits cannot play three matches in a week to the level either of them would want, there will be no holding back from Gerrard.
“One point that is important to make is that from now until the last kick of the last game of the season, I will be as fully committed to the team as I ever have been and giving everything I have to help Liverpool win games,” said the midfielder, who has won every domestic honour apart from the league despite coming agonisingly close last season.
“I can’t thank Brendan [Rodgers], the owners and everyone at the club enough for how they’ve handled this and I am leaving on great terms.
“Also, I would like to thank my team-mates and all the staff for their help and continued support.
“My final message is for the people who make Liverpool Football Club the greatest in the world – the supporters.
“It has been a privilege to represent you, as a player and as captain.
“I have cherished every second of it and it is my sincere wish to finish this season and my Liverpool career on a high.”