Soccer star and the gangsters: Steven Gerrard and the murky depths of Liverpool's underworld
By RICHARD PRICE - More by this author »
Last updated at 00:26am on 19th April 2008
When the name of the character witness was read out to the sleepy jury at Lincoln Crown Court this week, even the doziest of their number sprang to rapt attention.
Steven George Gerrard MBE - captain of Liverpool Football Club, occasional captain of England and role model to millions of impressionable youngsters - wished it to be known that he had "the utmost respect" for the man who stood in the dock.
Never mind that the defendant, John Kinsella, was a known gangster charged with tying up a security guard during a £41,000 robbery.
Gerrard and his father, Paul, were happy to vouch for the defendant's character in an open letter to the court.
Kinsella, the jury heard, had earned their gratitude by persuading a notorious criminal, George Bromley Junior, to call off a campaign of intimidation and extortion against the footballer.
The self-styled enforcer "took steps", as he euphemistically put it to the court, and Bromley paid heed.
How unfortunate for the well-meaning Gerrards that their supposedly reliable friend went on to take several more steps as the trial drew to a close - straight out of the court grounds to flee custody during a lunch break.
Kinsella is still on the run today, having been convicted of the robbery and handed a 14-year jail sentence in his absence.
The Gerrards are now more than a little embarrassed.
Still, it could have been worse. The Mail has learned that when Kinsella visited Paul Gerrard on the eve of the trial, his initial demand had been for Steven to appear in the witness box on his behalf.
That, as we know, did not happen. Nevertheless, that a known violent criminal should so easily be able to extract a compromising letter from one of the world's leading sportsmen is extraordinary.
Or is it? In fact, far from being an isolated incident, this is just one example of a sprawling network of links between Steven Gerrard and Liverpool's gangsters.
The Gerrards, it must be stated here, are a law-abiding family without a stain on their character.
Steven is widely regarded as a model professional whose defining characteristic as a player is his insatiable appetite for hard work.
Yet, for all his demonstrable qualities, not to mention a personal fortune of £15 million, he has not been able to shake off the criminal elements he has known since childhood in the tough Liverpool district of Huyton.
He is not alone in this. Fellow Liverpudlian England star Wayne Rooney is another high-profile player from the inner city who has been targeted by violent thugs.
Meanwhile, another multimillionaire Premier League star who hails from the city, Joey Barton, has seen no fewer than three close relatives sent to jail for murder in recent years.
Yet the full extent of the gangsters' influence remained something of a guilty secret for years - until that compromising letter was read out in court this week.
Signed by Paul Gerrard, it detailed how Kinsella, an amateur boxer and martial arts expert, saved Steven from a young gangster who threatened to shoot him in the legs in a dispute over a girlfriend.
"We were at our wits' end when we were introduced by a family friend to John Kinsella," the letter concluded.
"From that time we have never had any more problems from the Liverpool underworld."
And that, supposedly, was that. Scratch the surface, however, and the story runs far deeper. An investigation into Gerrard's background has revealed that his family have long-standing friendships with gangsters in the city.
Five years ago, the father of one of his ex-girlfriends, with whom Steven is said to have been close, was given a lengthy jail term for possessing 5,000 ecstasy tablets and a gun.
Further, Gerrard's wife, Alex (nee Curran), used to date a well-known Liverpudlian criminal by the name of Tony Richardson, who left her for Jennifer Ellison, Steven's girlfriend at the time.
Even his stellar football career is alleged to have fallen prey to the villains.
Four years ago, Gerrard's multi-million pound transfer to Chelsea was called off at the eleventh hour because of intolerable pressure being placed on his family by "certain elements".
Confused? Perhaps we should go back to the beginning.
As a football mad teenager at Cardinal Heenan School in the Liverpool district of West Derby, it was common knowledge that young Steven had a glittering future ahead of him.
At 17, he signed a contract with Premier League giants Liverpool FC and within 18 months had forced his way into the first team. He had money in his pocket, an expensive BMW and girls falling at his feet.
Unfortunately, this drew the attention of some less desirable elements; and when he started dating a pretty blonde teenager by the name of Lauren Ashcroft, it set in train a series of events which would leave him fearing for his life.
Lauren, it transpired, had also dated George Bromley Junior, an aspiring gangster who revelled in the nickname "the Psycho" because of his reputation for needless and extreme violence.
During the 1990s, Bromley's father, George Bromley Senior, had established himself as the top "enforcer" in Liverpool, making an illicit fortune by "taxing" drug dealers, stealing their profits and their drugs.
His reputation for violence was peerless even by underworld standards (his favoured form of torture was to take a red-hot iron to his victims' groins).
All this came to an end ten years ago when a £100,000 contract was taken out on Bromley's life. He was executed in the kitchen of Charlie Seiga, a legendary Liverpudlian gangster who was later acquitted of his murder.
Seiga, as we shall see, is another underworld figure with links to the Gerrards.
Having grown up in his father's shadow, Bromley Junior was determined to prove himself - even taking over his father's signature of burning enemies - and in his eyes wealthy young Steven Gerrard was the perfect target.
"Bromley decided to use Stevie as a cash machine, basically, and started demanding large sums of money," says an anonymous Liverpool underworld figure.
"Stevie was terrified. Bromley is a complete nutcase. He threw a brick through Stevie's car window, chased him through the streets of Liverpool in his car and threatened to shoot him in the legs."
The Gerrards sought police help, but it did little good.
"Stevie was under police guard for ages, but it didn't put Bromley off," says Seiga.
"So the Gerrards called in a few contacts to sort it out. They're a well-respected family in Liverpool, so there was no shortage of hard men willing to step in for them."
And step in they did. In court, John Kinsella said he was the fixer who solved the problem by having "words".
According to a well-placed source, however, Kinsella was not alone in his mission - and words were not the principal deterrent.
"It wasn't just Kinsella, we all got after Bromley about it," Seiga told me this week.
"We knew what he was doing was wrong and he needed to be put straight.
"Yes, there were some strong words spoken. But I think the thing which really convinced him to cut it out was being shot in the mouth."
Investigations reveal this is not just bravado. Bromley was shot in the face, but with buckshot in order to scar him without causing serious risk to his life.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Gerrard was aware this might happen.
But it sufficiently cowed Bromley, who backed off. He went back to selling heroin and crack cocaine, for which he is now serving a lengthy jail term.
Since then, Steven Gerrard has supposedly moved on. He is now a married man with two infant daughters, and has moved away from his working-class roots to a mansion in upmarket Crosby, on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Yet, to this day, the legacy of this underworld deal remains.
As a Merseyside police source explained to me: "When the Gerrards asked Kinsella and the others for help, they made a decision which will stick with them for life.
"You can't just call in a gangster to fix something for you then wave them goodbye. It doesn't work that way in Liverpool. Once you've made that connection, you're stuck with it.
"You have to realise this is a small city and everyone knows each other's business. There are criminal elements in Liverpool who feel Steven Gerrard owes them, and he will not be allowed to forget it."
There is strong evidence to support this argument. Since calling in Kinsella and his cronies six years ago, Steven has been subjected to vile chanting at football grounds based on rumours about his gangland connections.
Much of the chanting has focused on his wife, Alex, because of her links to Tony Richardson - who is widely reviled in the city as a "grass" because he supposedly aided the police in certain inquiries several years ago.
Indeed, after the Merseyside derby three weeks ago, Gerrard's manager, Rafael Benitez, criticised Everton fans for revelling in the unfounded rumours.
"Before Alex was with Steven she used to go out with a bloke called Tony Richardson who was building up a reputation as a hard man," says a police source. He attracted a lot of attention and everybody in the city knows about him and Alex. The vicious rumours about her links with gangsters are still hanging around like a bad smell."
Then there was his abortive transfer to Chelsea in 2004. Following the European Championships that summer, Gerrard was all set to move to London.
With a big wage increase in the offing, he even text-messaged then Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho to say he was looking forward to working with him.
Days later, all that changed. Gerrard told a stunned press conference that he had changed his mind and would be staying in Liverpool.
Officially he was happy - but his ashen face and monosyllabic speech told a different story.
The truth, insiders say, is that on the eve of his transfer, Steven had a visit from his father.
Paul Gerrard, who had previously been supportive of his move to the capital, had a stark message for him: you can't go.
"If you were to leave this city and this football club," he said, "our lives would become intolerable."
Steven, sources say, buckled under the pressure.
The precise reasons why this remarkable U-turn came about remain shrouded in mystery.
However, it is known that, at the time, a number of leading gangland figures in Liverpool were determined that their football club's prize asset should not be lost to the city - at any cost.
Not everybody in Merseyside sees the symbiotic relationship between footballers and gangsters as a bad thing.
Charlie Seiga, who has occupied a place at the top table of Liverpool gangsters for five decades, says: "I know Steven Gerrard and his parents very well. We grew up in the same neighbourhood. He's a good, well brought up kid - not a thug or villain.
"But being from round here, of course he knows a lot of people who are. That's what happens in Liverpool - I can rub shoulders with career businessmen and the worst villains in the world in the same bar on the same night.
"We do things our own way around here. If somebody rapes a young girl or mugs a woman, we dish out our own punishment - because the police won't do anything about it. Steven's family understand that."
Steven's experience is far from unique. Wayne Rooney, who grew up five miles down the road from his England team-mate in Croxteth, had a narrow escape of his own in his teens.
Even at the age of 13 it was common knowledge in Liverpool that Rooney was a future superstar, and in their naivety, his honest working-class parents were persuaded to sign him up to a couple of aspiring local agents.
He was just a boy, and no contract signed could be binding. Four years later, he signed his first professional contract and joined the bigger Proactive Sports Management agency.
They subsequently negotiated a hugely lucrative transfer from his hometown club of Everton to Manchester United. The legacy of this legitimate decision was a simmering saga of threats, guns and gangsters.
Overnight, Paul Stretford, Rooney's new agent, became the target of a campaign of extortion which left him in such fear that he employed bodyguards for several years.
When the criminals' demands were not met, three shots were allegedly fired into the front door of Stretford's next-door neighbour's home on a wellappointed Cheshire estate, just 100 yards from the home of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Police were called in, Rooney moved away from Liverpool - to a mansion in leafy Cheshire - and gradually the threat receded. Steven Gerrard has not been so lucky. He still lives in the city of his birth, where everybody knows his business.
Four months ago, he was reminded of the ongoing threat to his family after their gated mansion was broken into while he was away playing for Liverpool in Marseilles.
Their multitude of surveillance cameras and alarm systems didn't stop the criminals finding a way in.
Steven's wife, Alex, was in the house at the time, but was mercifully uninjured.
All this goes to show that the claim made in that extraordinary open letter in court this week ("we never had any more problems from the Liverpool underworld") is not exactly true.
Even his liaison with Lauren Ashcroft had an embarrassing postscript. After they split, Lauren's father, Peter, was jailed for possessing a large quantity of class-A drugs and an illegal firearm.
Meanwhile, Steven's supposed friend, John Kinsella, remains at large. Police believe he is most likely to be either in Spain or hiding in Merseyside.
"This has been a huge embarrassment for Steven," says a friend. "It's at times like this when you just feel like moving a million miles away from Liverpool and starting all over again."
Whether this fundamentally decent man will ever find himself in a position to do that is another question entirely.