King Carra: Jamie Of All Trades, Master of One

Posted by Paul Tomkins on March 28, 2005, 08:53:37 PM

The following is an extract from "Golden Past, Red Future"


A very subtle but paradoxically seismic shift took place over the course of 2004/05. Almost unnoticed, with a stealthiness unassociated with his all-action, vocal performances, Jamie Carragher –– man for all positions, but, until Benνtez took charge, total master of none –– became the Kop's number one idol. It first became clearly evident around Christmas 2004. Steven Gerrard's position as Local Hero had been tainted by his flirtation with Chelsea and ongoing refusal to rule out leaving Anfield, and suddenly a boyhood Blue was succeeding a boyhood Red as the fans' favourite. Despite the enduring absence of a suitable chant with which to show their appreciation, Liverpool fans had, all the same, finally fully warmed to Carra after years of admiration coloured with nagging doubt, and a tendency to take him for granted. An unsung hero who, to all intents and purposes, remains unsung by the Kop choir (much to his own disappointment, it has to be said), but one whose crucial importance to the team is no longer unspoken. As with Fowler before him, a boyhood Evertonian ended up epitomising the Kop's desire, and, in the No.23 shirt, ran out at Anfield as the fans' favourite.

   Bootle-born Carragher had finally transcended the adverbs that had been tied like tethers to his ankles throughout his career –– compliments that somehow also seemed to damn with faint praise: dependable, reliable, versatile. It made him sound like a mid-range Skoda.

   Suddenly he was remarkable, colossal, indispensable. Commentators in the national media began, somewhat belatedly, to take note. He was suddenly named amongst the very best central defenders in the land, while still never having the cachet of someone like Rio Ferdinand, whose exorbitant transfer fees and assorted outrageous hairstyles (and periodic tabloid notoriety) turned him into a 'superstar'; or John Terry, whose regular goals ensured he grabbed headlines for his actions at both ends of the field.

   Carra's winning mentality was never in doubt from the moment he made his debut in 1997 as a raw and somewhat ungainly midfielder, who, at home to Aston Villa, misled us by scoring a goal on his first start –– something he'd repeat only once in the next 300+ starts. Years earlier, Ronnie Moran –– who had seen and done it all at Liverpool –– suggested Carragher would be best suited to centre back, but like all young players in that position, mistakes dogged his early career in that role. Gerard Houllier later converted him to full-back, with considerable wisdom. It was in this position that he was spoken of as one of the 'old school', a throwback to days when defenders simply defended: equally prepared to enter into a 50-50 with a skinny winger or a Panzer Tank. But full-back, while highlighting Carra's old-fashioned defensive qualities and never-say-die spirit, also exposed his weaknesses: the absence of a trick or two to go past opposing full-backs when overlapping, and the inability to whip in a decent cross. Even now, everything with Carra involves an exaggerated use of the instep: the side-foot pass is all he knows, as if his legs are not assembled like other players', but instead permanently set into 'block tackle' mode: foot placed at 90Ί like a golf putter. Attacking moves lost all momentum when the ball reached his feet, as he stopped, looked around, turned back and played a square pass.

   As fans we crave exciting full-backs who double-up as wingers. It is only once we are faced with an attacking full-back who cannot actually defend that our cravings for an exponent of the 'basics' returns. But the ideal full-back remains a combination of the two, with the best recent example being Markus Babbel during the Treble season, when –– despite not being the flashiest of players –– he exuded quality and effectiveness at both ends of the pitch. (Steve Finnan, now Carragher has finally moved infield, has started to show the form that made him so highly rated by his peers, although I know I am not alone in wondering how Rob Jones would be faring had his career not been so prematurely curtailed by injury. Given he would still only be 33, it would be interesting to see Jones, if still fit and playing to the peak of his abilities, in a Benνtez  team –– age not a barrier to making into the Spaniard's defence, given he won the 2004 La Liga title with a 39-year-old, Amedeo Carboni, at full-back; the Italian featuring in 33 of the 38 league games. Jones was the apotheosis of the modern full-back, and while famously he never scored for the Reds, his attacking instincts were very strong.)

   Since moving to centre back Carra's passing has proven to be surprisingly accurate and incisive: no doubt down to the option of being able to look both left and right –– whereas previously, being on the wing meant he could only look infield, or back. He's also proven that he can go past players with a drop of the shoulder or a quick dragback (nothing much more fancy than that –– he's not taken to nutmegs or elaborate Ronaldinhoesque flicks over opponents' heads). Much of this is down to forwards' challenges tending to be a cross between 'token effort' and a hedging of bets, where they gamble on the defender making a mistake. In committing themselves it offers a cool centre back the chance to turn out of trouble. Carra is especially adroit at this. He seems to play himself into trouble by trying to control the ball (and therefore the situation) in a tight area, and then, without breaking sweat, turn in the opposite direction and, now with time and space, release a pass into midfield. It's a part of his game that is still developing apace, and like Tony Adams before him, he is a supposed clodhopper turned libero; the footballing equivalent of ugly duckling turned swan. There can also be no doubt that while Benitez doesn't permit his centre backs to needlessly over-elaborate around with the ball, he does encourage more composure at the back than his predecessor, who was more than happy to see his defenders 'get rid' as early as possible, and as far as possible. In the most recent Mersey derby, Carra showed just how composed he has become. As Everton launched long ball after long ball, Carra was seen strolling around with the ball at his feet as the tackles flew in. He was rightly voted Man of the Match.


Not your average road-sweeper

Erstwhile Southampton manager, Lawrie McMenemy –– a man whose south coast side put up a hard-fought challenge to Liverpool for the league title in 1984 –– came up with the best analogy about the different types of player you need to win football matches: concert violinists and road-sweepers. The former category, amongst others, includes Dalglish, Barnes, and now Xabi Alonso: those who make the game look effortless, and beautiful to watch. You pay money to hear the music –– the harmonious note that chimes –– when they strike a football. But they are nothing without the workers who scurry to clean up around them: the road-sweepers.

   McMenemy said that whenever a 'road-sweeper' came into his office looking for a pay rise, he'd open the window to the street outside and shout "send up another road-sweeper, will you?"; the clear implication being that these types of players are ten-a-penny, and instantly replaceable. You need a number of them in your side, of course, but there were always plenty going spare; their identity wasn't crucial. It also draws to mind Eric Cantona's disparaging description of his (highly decorated) colleague Didier Deschamps as a mere 'water carrier'.

   It's fair to say that, going on this analysis, Jamie Carragher is more of a road-sweeper than a concert violinist. You'd certainly never pay to watch him try to make sweet music with a football. It's also true: road-sweepers are ten-a-penny. But not road-sweepers like Carra. He is the kind of man that, if an actual road-sweeper, would, if not supplied with an adequate broom, get down on his hands and knees to pick up the rubbish with his bare hands, or his teeth. Hell, he'd even head battered old tin cans into his refuse bag.

   The credit of Carra's ascent belongs mainly to three people: the player himself, as no one else puts the effort in for him, either in training or in matches; Rafael Benνtez, for recognizing that the time was right for the player to move to centre back, and encouraging his development; and Gerard Houllier, whose faith in the player was unshakable, and who, in 2000, foretold of the transformation now taking place; stating that, with more experience, he would make a top class centre back. "He'll be our Marcel Desailly", said the Frenchman, although it took a Spaniard to prove the point.

   Carragher's early days at centre back –– once it was clear he didn't quite have the wherewithal for central midfield –– were blighted by the mistakes all young players make in that position, when the inexperience shows, and the slightest slip gets punished. He scored as many own goals against Manchester United in one Anfield game as he has managed to date at the correct end during his Liverpool career. It didn't help that he was surrounded by a collection of fairly incompetent defenders in those early days. In the summer of 1999 Houllier went out and signed two older, more experienced defenders of a similar ilk: Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, who went on to form a formidable partnership together over the next few seasons. Carragher shifted to right back, but then, the following summer, Houllier signed Markus Babbel, the highly-accomplished German international, on a free transfer from Bayern Munich. Babbel arrived with a massive reputation, and didn't disappoint. Yet again Carragher's days were listed as numbered, and yet he was reborn at left-back, and had an absolutely inspired time in that position as the team went on to win the cup treble in 2001. Babbel's serious illness –– a       year spent seriously incapacitated with Guillaume-Barre Syndrome –– meant a return to right-back for Carra until, in 2003, Houllier signed the Irish right-back, Steve Finnan –– previously selected by his peers in a Premiership team of the season, and seen as a more complete footballer than his Scouse counterpart. The attack-minded Irishman was not bought as cover, and again conventional wisdom suggested the demise of Carra; but 'JC' was back in the team at left-back –– Houllier simply couldn't omit him. The only full-back who could successfully dislodge Carra from the Liverpool side played for Blackburn: Lucas Neill, whose reckless high tackle broke Carra's leg in September 2003.

   Maybe –– and somewhat perversely –– we can also thank Lucas Neill. It hurt Carra in more than a physical way. He couldn't stand not being part of the team, and having to watch from the sidelines –– this is a man who, by all accounts, eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes football –– drove him barmy. There was a detectable difference when he returned later that season; even more hunger in his play, if that was possible, and an improvement in the quality of his distribution, not to mention some scalding long-range efforts on goal, one of which came within inches of winning the Anfield derby. Or maybe it was us –– the fans –– who came to notice what the team would be like without Carragher.

   We didn't like what we saw. Absence made our large, red, collective heart grow fonder.


Eleven Carraghers

Gerrard Houllier once stated that he would "win the league with eleven Carraghers". While it was surely said simply to highlight the then-underrated and under-appreciated Carra's importance, it is also clearly not true –– not least because you need players who average more than one goal every five years, and who have some sort of creative power in the final third. In other words, you need your concert violinists, too. But where Houllier was utterly correct is that the kind of mentality Carragher has is what all the best sides need.

   Houllier deserves a lot of credit from turning Carra from a typical English kid –– one who would famously shame himself and the club at a Christmas party –– into a man whose professionalism and dedication marked him out as an inspiration to others.

   While the doubts about Carra have largely dissipated, a couple remain. Perhaps it depends on who he is partnered with, as any weaknesses in one central defender can be counteracted by the man playing alongside him. While not sluggish, Carra is also far from the quickest defender around. When there was a chance that he'd start England's first game in Euro 2004, as cover for injured Sol Campbell and suspended Rio Ferdinand (a spot that eventually went to Spurs' much-improved Ledley King), TV stations, with a fear bordering on the hysterical, showed a clip where Thierry Henry gave Carra five yards on the Anfield flank and overtook him in ten. Despite it being slightly misleading, as Carra also had to change direction while Henry had already built up a head of steam, there's also little doubting that Carra is not a defender like Chelsea's William Gallas, who can keep pace with the most jet-heeled attacking talents.

   It says a lot that when Djimi Traore was not in the side, Carragher was the club's quickest defender during 2004/05, and this highlights a major problem with the personnel Benνtez inherited. Houllier had tried the tall and pacy Igor Biscan at centre-back the previous season, with mixed results: the big Croat was sensational at times, but looked lost at others, and was ultimately (somewhat harshly) ridiculed whenever he put made the slightest mistake, in contrast to the way someone like Rio Ferdinand can cost him team goals and still do no wrong. For all Biscan's good games (and there were more good ones than bad), it was clear he lacked the concentration and consistency to play at the heart of the defence at a top club, where pressure is greatest. It was an interesting experiment, but one which ultimately failed. A year later, and Carra was partnering the canny but sluggish Sami Hyypia. If Carra could compensate for Hyypia's statuesque running style (at times the Finn appears like an ice sculpture), it was only a partial compensation. Neither are sprinters. While an advanced reading of the game can compensate on most occasions, nothing can beat the kind of cover Mark Lawrenson so famously provided, where anyone clean through on Liverpool's goal could be caught.

   The other weakness with Carragher is that while he is superb in the air, and as brave as a lion, he is not as tall as many centre backs. If Hyypia is ever replaced by a smaller, quicker player, the Achilles Heel of aerial inadequacy that dogged the club during the 1990s could return. Where Carra's reasonable pace gets Sami out of some tight spots, Sami remains the defender who can deal with 6ft 5" strikers. Carragher used to be given a torrid time by Everton's Duncan Ferguson, whereas Hyypia usually won the dual, to the point where Ferguson's elbows would flail with deliberate movements toward his marker's head, as his frustration grew. Perhaps the English game moves ever-further away from the big target man, with Shearer and Ferguson close to retirement, and the hugely-effective Niall Quinn having already hung up his boots. The modern game involves almost every team utilising a speed merchant (a fast runner, not a drug dealer) who plays on the last shoulder of defenders, or drops deep and sprints at them. But just when you think it'll be all sophisticated interplay and balls into feet, or perfectly-weighted passes into space, promoted clubs bring their own brand of direct football, or players like Southampton's Peter Crouch emerge as if from some genetic experiment gone horribly awry –– 6ft 7" of lanky beanpole. It seems the English game will always involve at least some use of the long ball to the big striker.


As good as Ayala, as sound as a pound

Perhaps the greatest compliment comes from his current club manager. Midway through his first season, Rafael Benνtez said of Carragher: "I have worked with some great defenders at Valencia such as Marchena, Pellegrino and Ayala. If you say to me that Ayala was the best then I would say Carragher is not a worse player than Ayala.

   Speaking on BBC's Football Focus in March 2005, John Terry, Chelsea's defensive lynchpin, claimed Carragher to have been the best central defender in the Premiership over the course of the season. It has taken time, but word is slowly spreading. Pundits are taking note. Unfortunately, people form quickly-cemented opinions on players, and leave themselves little leeway to reassess, so it takes time for some players to get their dues.

   When Carragher himself was interviewed –– by Sky TV, prior to the Everton game at Anfield –– he was asked if he would ever consider leaving the club. (How often must any player be asked this question?). "You could join a bigger club and win more medals –– why stay at Liverpool?" asked Jeff Shreeves. Jamie, having none of that, gave a snort of contempt that shook his pinned-on microphone. "Bigger than Liverpool? Are you kidding? Who's bigger than Liverpool?" he asked with a barely-suppressed smirk, turning the tables on his interviewer. You see, to Jamie Carragher –– avid student of the rich history of the club –– there remains no English club to have won more league titles, or more European Cups. If Liverpool were now in the footballing backwaters, that would perhaps be slightly less relevant –– after all, Nottingham Forest's two European Cups, while momentous achievements that will never be forgotten, will not save them from financial impoverishment and further relegation. But the interview in question was conducted days after Liverpool won through to the Quarter Finals of the Champions League.

   He is aware that, of the five domestic and European trophies that teams can win –– League title, FA Cup, League Cup, European Cup and UEFA Cup –– only the record amount of FA Cup wins eludes Liverpool. Eighteen league titles remains a clear record.  Seven League Cup wins remains a clear record. Four European Cups remains a clear record for an English club, as does the UEFA Cup tally of three.

   Any additions to those figures over the next half-dozen years will almost certainly be in no small part down to Jamie "sound as a pound" Carragher.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

This is an extract from "Golden Past, Red Future", the book I am writing with the assistance of Jonathan Swain, and which is now available to pre-order, for those who wish to do so, at www.paultomkins.com, with the first 500 copies individually numbered. Note: this chapter may be subject to further edits and additions before publication at the start of June, especially if Carra is Man of the Match, leading Liverpool to victory in the Champions League final in May! ;)

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