Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard told supporters he was “devastated” about leaving the club during a heartfelt on-pitch address after his final game at Anfield.
Gerrard, 34, will join the Los Angeles Galaxy in July after almost 17 years at his home-town club and following a 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace, he paid an emotional tribute to Liverpool’s fans.
“It felt very strange. I’ve been dreading this moment. I’m going to miss it so much,” Gerrard told the crowd at a sunny, sold-out Anfield.
“I’ve loved every minute. I’m absolutely devastated I’m never going to play in front of these supporters again.” He added: “I’d like to thank everyone at the club who’s helped me over the last 17 years. There are too many people to name.
“I would like to thank all my team-mates, all the ex-players. They’ve made me the player I am today.
“I’ll save the last thanks to the most important people at the football club. These supporters stand out more than anyone.”
He was then interrupted by cheers and applause from the fans, before continuing: “Before I go, before the tears come, I’ve played in front of most supporters around the world, but let me tell you, you’re the best.”
Gerrard was joined on the pitch at the final whistle by his team-mates, all of whom wore shirts with his name and squad number, eight, on the back, before going on a lap of honour.
He was also presented with a keepsake by former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, who handed Gerrard his debut against Blackburn Rovers in November 1998.
Liverpool took a 26th-minute lead through Adam Lallana, but Jason Puncheon equalised with a free-kick shortly before half-time and second-half goals from substitutes Wilfried Zaha and Glenn Murray gave Palace victory.
‘Love them to death’
The defeat ended Liverpool’s paper-thin mathematical hopes of Champions League qualification, but Gerrard predicted a bright future for the club despite his imminent departure.
“The club’s in good hands,” said the former England captain, who has made 709 Liverpool appearances and scored 185 goals since joining the club at the age of eight.
“We’ve two fantastic owners, Ian (Ayre, chief executive) underneath that and a fantastic manager in Brendan (Rodgers).
“There’s unbelievable potential in the squad. I’m sure there’s going to be new signings in the coming weeks.
“I just look at the players I’ve shared a dressing room with. I love them to death and I wish them every success in the future.”
Rodgers said he was disappointed that Gerrard had not been able to sign off in winning fashion.
“He gave everything right to the very end,” said the Northern Irishman, whose side visit Stoke City on the Premier League season’s final day next weekend.
“He was the one driving forward, trying to get the goal.
“It was a fantastic day for him and his family. But in terms of the performance, it was disappointing.”
Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, in a hand-written note delivered to Gerrard, said: “You are a great man and cool captain…It is a pleasure to leave free-kicks and penalties to you.”
Meanwhile Jamie Carragher, Gerrard’s former Liverpool team-mate and fellow member of the 700-plus appearances club, told Sky Sports: “Steven has basically been the fan on the pitch. Every kid who grows up wants to be Steven Gerrard.”
Tributes to Gerrard didn’t just come from England with Roma captain Francesco Totti, who played against the midfielder in European competition, telling the Italian side’s website: “I would put Gerrard among my top three players, not just in England but the whole world.
“Would I have liked to play alongside him? Any player would like to play with a player of his calibre. He’s a formidable player, a match-winner.”
The 38-year-old Totti, who like Gerrard has spent all his senior career at one club, added: “He’s played so many years with the same jersey for the same club.
“That means he warrants respect for everything that he has done.”