Jamie Carragher makes his 500th appearance for the club tonight, and will make an entrance to a well-deserved guard-of-honour, wearing the captain’s armband for the night in recognition of this achievement. Club captain Steven Gerrard insisted that vice-captain Carragher be given the honour on this special night.
Carra will probably feel a touch embarrassed by it all, just hoping that the ref won’t delay too long before getting the match underway so that he can get on with what he does best: leading from the back, with or without that armband.
In the early days of his career Carra broke the record for England under-21 appearances. The fact he’s not done the same at international level is more a reflection on a succession of failed England managers than on Carra himself. In those early internationals, in front of small crowds at smaller grounds, often the only noise you could hear was Jamie’s high-pitched orders to team mates, screaming at them about what they should be doing.
As a regular member of the team, and later as captain, it was no surprise that he should be barking out those orders. But it wasn’t just at that level – he was sometimes the loudest voice at Anfield as he guided his team-mates instinctively. Unfortunately for Carra, in the earlier days of his career he was used more often than not as a full-back. He came from the reserves as a holding midfielder, sometimes a centre back, but Gerard Houllier decided he’d be better as a full-back – on either side. He made his league debut in midfield, back in the Roy Evans era, scoring a rare goal. That goal wasn’t a sign of things to come.
He played at left-back and at right-back, and was constantly on the verge of being sold, according to the press at the time. Yet he always managed to keep his place in the team, despite some fans disliking the fact he was rarely seen crossing the half-way line. That’s because he wasn’t really a full-back, something Rafa Benitez put right as soon as he arrived.
In fact before Rafa arrived at the club, Carra’s place in the squad had been under threat constantly. He was asked how he felt when Steve Finnan arrived at the club – but answered that he wasn’t going to worry, given that he’d been under threat before. And he was once again a regular throughout that season. But when Rafa got the job, one of the first names he mentioned was Jamie Carragher. His pronunciation of Jamie’s surname sticks in the mind, and he was soon speaking to him as well as Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, the trio out on England duty.
He became the new partner to Sami Hyypia in the centre of defence, and hasn’t looked back.
Rafa explained today that Carragher was a player he’d already had his eye on, even before being approached for the Liverpool job. The manager will be joining in the guard of honour tonight, and explained to the Liverpool Echo how he’d first noticed Carra: “We always knew that he was a good player because when we played against Liverpool with Valencia we were checking on them and it was clear that he was a good player. I saw him playing in a lot of different positions in defence and he did well in all of them, but really you know the players best when you have worked with them because you get to know the mentality and the character and I now know how good Carra is.”
Rafa acknowledged the devotion Carra has shown to the Reds: “To play 500 games in your career is one thing, but to play them for just one team – to whom you give so much passion and so much determination – is even more special. It is really difficult to find players like this in the modern game.”
And there was a message to the club’s youngsters to take note of Carra’s attitude: “In football it is very important for clubs to have people coming through the academy, especially local players, so hopefully the young players at Liverpool will learn from Carra. He is very professional and he always takes care of himself and I think that has made a big difference to him. Sometimes you have players who have a lot of passion but they are not as good professionals as Carra but he can play for a long time because he is always taking care of himself.”
Carragher is a dream player for someone like Rafa. He watched a lot of football and is able to take tactical information on board easily, which he can ensure is understood by his team-mates. Rafa said: “He is still learning as well, especially tactically. He is at that age where he has experience and because of that he analyses everything and because of that he learns more all the time. That is the reason why he is still improving and in one or two years time he will not need to be so physical because he has learned the movements and the positions – maybe he will learn the positions before so he doesn’t need to go and run, he will be there.”
Until yesterday’s revelations confirmed the club’s current owners are a couple of elderly meddlers without much clue how Liverpool Football Club works, there was a strong feeling that Rafa may one day invite Carra onto his coaching staff, with a view to him possibly even becoming manager one day. He’s certainly got all the attributes to do that one day.
Carra himself is of course very proud to have joined the 500 club. Also speaking to the Echo, Carra said: “I’m really proud to reach this landmark. I’ve looked at the names of the players who’ve played 500 games for this club and all the great names are up there so I’m just privileged to join the 500 club.”
Carra’s last contract renewal was intended to see him get towards the end of his best years still wearing the Red shirt, and he says nowadays he can’t imagine playing for any other club. He does remember the season Steve Finnan came in, and reveals it did frustrate him to once again find himself being effectively replaced despite his performances. “I signed a four year contract in the summer and I want to see that out. I don’t see myself playing anywhere else. I’ve never wanted do and I never will do. There was one time when I got a bit frustrated though. It was when Gerard Houllier was in charge and he’d just brought Stevie Finnan in. I felt as if every year I was having to prove myself even though I’d probably been one of the better players.”
He was frustrated, but kept his place as a regular starter by moving across the field: “There was always that question mark hanging over me and it was frustrating, but Finn came in and he turned out to be a great signing for the club and I ended up moving to left back and I never thought anything more of it.”
Every team needs a scapegoat, and for a while Carra was Liverpool’s. It’s more noticeable nowadays thanks to phone-ins and forums, but whenever a team loses, or struggles to turn a draw into a win, there’s usually a player somewhere that a minority will complain about. Of course, as always, you’ll hear it at the ground too, but only from individuals spread around the stands, and clearly not enough for the players to realise. The gripe with Carra used to be that he wasn’t enough of an attacking full-back, but he says he hardly heard anything: “People always say that to me but I never noticed it too much. There was always that criticism that I never got forward enough as a full back, but if you look at most centre backs who switch to full back they very rarely get forward all that much. I don’t want to come across as big headed or anything like that, but I think if you look back at those days there weren’t many full backs who were better than me defensively. I came up against some great wingers, the likes of Beckham and Giggs, and I always felt I held my own or came out on top.”
Carra says the times were changing in the game, and that defensive ability was probably ignored by those who wanted more: “The game was moving into an era of attacking full backs so I don’t think that helped me and Gerard Houllier never really played with wingers either, so we did need width from elsewhere but that was never really going to be something I could do. It was up to the manager. If he picked me he was going to get someone who stopped the opposition winger from playing but you were never going to get someone who is flying forward.”
Of course as Red through-and-through as he is now, prior to joining the club as a schoolboy Carra supported the wrong team from the city. And he remembers one of his idols at the time getting complaints from his fellow fans: “Maybe it was a local thing as well, though. I can remember growing up as an Evertonian and Peter Reid was getting stick and I couldn’t believe it. I still think at every club it is a local club thing and maybe if I’d been a signing from abroad or an Italian I would have been known as a great defender, but then I remember breaking my leg and people were saying ‘We need Carra back’ so I think that was a time when people noticed me more when I was out of the team than when I was in it.”
One thing Carra doesn’t expect to do is become the club’s record-holder for appearances. That’s currently held by Ian Callaghan, a player who made 857 appearances in the end. Carra joked that Cally would never have managed that record under this boss: “No, there’s no chance of me breaking that record. What an unbelievable achievement that is. To go from playing in the second division and going on to win the European Cup and play all those games. But then there was no squad rotation in those days, was there? He would have had no chance if Rafa had been his manager!”
When the referee does blow that whistle to get the game under way, it’s still going to be a tough match if the players don’t concentrate from the off. Luton’s players, the ones they can actually use, will be up for this game both from the point of view that it’s a massive game for a lower league club, but also because they know they are in the shop window. Carra needs to ensure he’s shouting out those orders from the off, to ensure there’s no openings for Kevin Blackwell’s men.