Sports

Carradonna: Heart as Big as Liverpool

Roger Holland

Jamie Carragher comes from one of the rougher sides of Liverpool. He's a footballer whose honesty, hard-work, loyalty, dependability, and refusal to act like some sort of primadonna arsehole just because he can kick a ball a bit places him head and shoulders above any other top-flight player in the English game.

A few years ago, Liverpool's frankly minor airport was rebranded as John Lennon International. Presumably someone somewhere thought it appropriate given that Lennon got the hell out of Liverpool just as soon as he could. And I guess that same someone thought no one would be rude enough to point out that once he'd left, the city's sacred cow came back less often than Halley's Comet.

Whatever. If I had my way, we'd rename it the Jamie Carragher Airport.

Carragher is my very favorite footballer and a true working class hero. And, if everything goes to plan, on the evening of May 25 in Istanbul, he'll be giving yet another display of absolutely top class defending as Liverpool FC goes head to head with AC Milan in the final of this season's European Champions League. Americans might like to think in terms of the Super Bowl, if the best 74 teams from 48 different countries were allowed to compete.

Although Milan is one of the strongest and most skillful club sides in Europe, I'm still genuinely optimistic that Liverpool can punch above its weight one last time, confound all the critics, and bring the Champions League trophy home to "John Lennon" for the fifth time in 30 years. But even that won't be enough for me. Not really. I want Jamie Carragher to make the last gasp challenge that turns the game, I want him to score the winning goal, I want him to take the trophy home and put it on his mother's mantelpiece. In short, I want him to get the public acclaim and rewards he deserves.

Known as "JC", "Carra", or, more recently and with tongue very firmly in cheek, "Carradonna", Jamie Carragher comes from one of the rougher sides of Liverpool. He's a footballer whose honesty, hard-work, loyalty, dependability, and refusal to act like some sort of primadonna arsehole just because he can kick a ball a bit places him head and shoulders above any other top-flight player in the English game. A current favorite song of Liverpool fans -- to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" -- runs "We all dream of a team of Carraghers", so he's not quite an unsung hero but he certainly hasn't been getting anything like the respect he deserves in a sport dominated by glitz and sleaze.

Carragher first signed for Liverpool in 1987 as a nine year old. I first saw him play ten years later in January 1997. It was his first full game for Liverpool and he marked it with a headed goal in a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa. In the eight years and 360 games since, he's only scored one more, so perhaps he's due to net a couple in Istanbul.

Carra's always seemed to be blighted by bad luck, hard knocks, and setbacks. At the time of his debut, he had the potential to become the hard-tackling midfield enforcer Liverpool sorely needed. But then the club spent seven million pounds on ex-Manchester United star Paul Ince, and JC found himself languishing in the reserves, while starring as a central defender for his country's Under 21s.

His next chance for Liverpool came in his preferred position -- centre-back. But it's a role that demands experience and maturity, and a young player stepping up into the highest level needs to slot into a solid defensive unit where established colleagues can support and educate him. Unfortunately for Carra, Liverpool's defence was so notoriously porous it soon lost manager Roy Evans his job.

His successor, Frenchman Gérard Houllier, promptly pushed Carragher straight back to the fringes, bringing in the excellent Sami Hyypia and Stephan Henchoz. As the new Double H partnership thrived, Carra began to find his opportunities coming courtesy of his versatility, playing right back or left back as the need arose.

No sooner had he begun to make the right back position his own than Houllier did it again, signing the world-class German right-back, Markus Babbel. No matter, JC simply shifted to the left and stepped his game up, enjoying a highly successful season as Liverpool went on to win three cup competitions in 2001. The former Liverpool and Juventus star Ian Rush commented: "Jamie Carragher is my player of the season. Competitive and a born winner, he's been absolutely superb and wherever he plays he's always consistently good."

The next season, Babbel contracted the life-threatening Guillaume Barre Syndrome and Carragher moved back to the right. He performed well, but began to bear the brunt of the Liverpool crowd's dissatisfaction at the unadventurous brand of football Houllier's team was playing. As he said at the time: "I'm not kidding myself. If the team is getting beaten then I know I'll be one of the first to get criticized."

That summer, it happened yet again. Gérard Houllier signed the Irish right-back, Steve Finnan. Carra's comment was typical of the man he was becoming: "There's no point sulking about it. There's not a lot you can do, except impress the manager in training and in games. Or find out his [Finnan's] address and send the boys round."

Given his age and his history at the club, it would've surprised no one if Carragher had begun to look elsewhere for guaranteed first team football. Given the attitude of most modern footballers, it's a wonder he didn't throw seven fits a week in the red top gutter press until he got his way. But not Jamie Carragher -- he stood his ground and fought for his place.

It was a fight he was winning when, 11 minutes into a game at Blackburn, Lucas Neill launched himself into a recklessly high, studs-first assault on Carragher, earned himself a red card, and injured the Liverpool player so badly he couldn't continue. It transpired that Carra had suffered a broken tibia, but in typical fashion, he didn't realize until the next morning when his leg was still so sore he thought he'd better go to hospital after all.

Once again JC's looked in jeopardy, but six months out with injury actually proved to be the final making of the man. He missed playing so much that when he returned there was a fresh hunger to his game, still more resilience to his defending, and more ambition to his ball play. And, just as he missed the game, so Liverpool fans came to realize just what they were missing in his absence.

On his return, Carra excelled. He ousted Steve Finnan from the right back position, and began to appear in the full England squad. Then, for once, he had some good luck.

In Summer 2004, Liverpool sacked Gérard Houllier -- a year too late in my book -- and brought in the Spaniard Rafael Benitez fresh from his successes with Valencia. One of Benitez's first moves was to break up the pedestrian-paced Double H partnership and move Carragher back to the centre of the Liverpool defence. It was a masterstroke. Carragher stepped his game up once more, became one of the game's finest central defenders, and gave Liverpool a solidity and a passion that allowed it to exceed almost all expectations and fight an underdog's path through to the Champions League Final, defeating both Chelsea and Juventus on the way.

It was then that Carradonna began to get the credit he deserved. Suddenly, the British papers began to get the point. After the game in Turin, the Independent called him "immense"; the Telegraph doffed its cap to his "impressive leadership in the heart of Liverpool's defence" and proclaimed "he was everywhere, giving everything, blocking Juventus, ensuring the offside trap worked smoothly and always exhorting his team-mates".

After Liverpool defeated Chelsea, Football365 hit the nail on the head: "At the heart of it all was Carragher, who produced one of the finest performances from a defender we have witnessed in some years. How many vital blocks? How many immaculately timed tackles? How many towering headers?

"His dedication is clearly contagious because he demanded and was rewarded with similar performances from a central defender long dismissed as well past his best (Hyypia), a right-back viewed as average rather than spectacular (Finnan) and a left-back seen as a laughing stock up to just a few months ago. They were all brilliant."

Clearly Carragher has not just developed into a hugely impressive defender; he's also become the heart and soul of the Liverpool side. An inspiration to colleagues and supporters alike.

Liverpool legend Alan Hansen -- arguably the best centre-back ever to play for the club and winner of three European Cups during his time at Liverpool -- also praised Carradonna: "The way he held Chelsea at bay was unbelievable. I'm in awe of how many times he intercepted, blocked and covered. Carragher is up there with the very best of the Liverpool greats."

Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Rafael Benitez. One month into his first season at Liverpool, long before those epic European encounters, Benitez said Carragher was "the best central defender I've ever worked with".

"I've worked with some great defenders at Valencia," he added. "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." Praise indeed. The rock at the heart of his national side, the Argentinian Roberto Ayala has been acknowledged as one of the most accomplished defenders in Europe for several years. Fast, clever with the ball, and fearsome in the tackle.

Yet Carradonna has not even received his due from his fellow players. When the Professional Footballers' Association gave their annual award for the Player's Player of the Year, he didn't even make its shortlist. James Lawton, writing in the Independent, commented that it should be a "deep source of regret that there will be no official acknowledgement of the stupendous effort of will by Liverpool's Jamie Carragher". After complimenting the Liverpool defender on his play throughout the season, Lawton went on to add: "But this is not just about performance on the field; it has also to do with demeanor and spirit and discipline, a sense that a professional football life is short, and now hugely rewarded, and there is thus a pressing obligation to deliver the best you have for the club, the fans, the game, and, in the end, yourself.

"In all these respects Carragher has not had just a great season. It has been epic."

Take a look at the back pages of any English newspaper on any day in any week and you will see some fresh scandal involving English footballers. They demand more and more for less and less. They want more say in the running of their club. They want an immediate transfer to whichever new team takes their fancy. They're fighting their teammates on the pitch. They're filming each other taking turns with football's "groupies". They're punching out their girlfriends. They're driving drunk, banned, and uninsured. They're killing people in hit-and-runs. Or -- and for some reason, this is my absolute favorite -- they're refusing to play at all unless they're able to dictate their position and role on the field. In short, they're acting like complete arseholes.

Not so, Carradonna.

While one celebrated England international is given to burning wads of 50 pound notes in upscale bars to put lesser beings in their place, Carradonna celebrated Liverpool's victory over Chelsea by popping into his local pub with his father and sharing his Man of the Match champagne with the regulars. Jamie Carragher had been playing in the Liverpool first team for more than four years before even he moved out of the family home, and, when he moved, his new house was only ten minutes away from the old neighborhood.

"People think every footballer's like [David] Beckham," says Carra, "But we [Carragher, his fiancée Nicola, and their two children] lead a normal life. I'm not having a go at Beckham, but that lifestyle gets you in the press a lot, and something similar is happening to Wayne Rooney [a Merseyside prodigy currently hitting the headlines for good and bad reasons at Manchester United]. People look at the money certain players spend on cars and jewellery and think everyone's the same, but there's only a handful like that....I haven't forgotten my roots or whatever. I see myself and the fans on the same level. I don't see myself on a pedestal."

Carragher tells a story that underlines this perfectly. He'd bought a wallet, "just a normal wallet" -- there's nothing Prada or Gucci about Carra -- and he went to the pub to meet some old friends: "Where I'm from, you carry your money in your pockets, and I got slaughtered by my mates. I'd never had a wallet before and they thought I was trying to be someone I'm not. I got rid of it. Never had one since."

There are so many reasons to love Jamie Carragher. Not least, his loyalty to the cause.

Arsenal's multi-millionaire right-back, Ashley Cole, is currently under investigation for trying to engineer a move to London rivals, Chelsea.

Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United's much-celebrated central defender, is delaying a contract extension amid rumors of outrageous wage demands and threats of moves to Chelsea or Real Madrid in the summer -- not the best way to reward the club for its support during his eight month ban for avoiding a drug test.

Carragher's friend and club captain Steven Gerrard was romanced by Chelsea's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich during last summer's European Championships, and came within hours of signing up with the Russian's mercenaries. Although Gerrard finally decided to stay at Liverpool -- sporting a black eye widely believed to be the result of a full-and-frank exchange of views on the subject with Carradonna -- the question of his future refuses to go away, and it's become quite clear to Liverpool fans everywhere that Gerrard considers himself to be bigger than Liverpool. Until the club beat both Juventus and Chelsea to reach the Champions League Final, it was considered almost inevitable he'd be leaving this summer.

Again, not so, Jamie Carragher. Interviewed on TV before a match with city rivals Everton, he was asked if he would ever consider leaving.

Smarmy Sky TV Interviewer: "You could join a bigger club and win more medals, why stay at Liverpool?"

Contemptuous Carradonna: "Bigger than Liverpool? Are you kidding? Who's bigger than Liverpool?"

The truth is that Jamie Carragher will be getting offers this summer. He's done too well, on too high a platform, for him to continue to sail under the radar of the high-spending clubs. But unlike Steven Gerrard, he won't be listening. He's worked too long and too hard to leave Liverpool any time soon.

"I'd never do that," he said in a recent newspaper interview. "I think it's very important to stay here. Winning the league is what we're building for. That's our manager's aim. I don't think we're capable of winning the league next year, though we'll try, but I'm sure that by the manager's third season we'll be challenging. If you offered me the chance, just once, to win the league with Liverpool before the end of my career, I'd bite your hands off. If you win the league here once, that's worth winning it three or four times at any another club.

"When I say life, I mean it. It's not talk. I want to stay here."

Jamie Carragher is a role model for young Liverpudlians. He's worked hard to get where he is. He's done it the right way. He gives his all for his team every time he pulls on the famous red shirt. On May 25, when he steps out for his 52nd game of the season, the most important of his career so far, I'll be praying he gets his reward.


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