09 March 2008

Jamie Carragher: the red centurion

The Liverpool defender will play his 100th European game on Tuesday, but he’s still a fan at heart

Jonathan Northcroft
When Jamie Carragher came off the pitch in Istanbul he was dying to ask reporters: “What’s it been like in town?” He was as keen to know how Liverpool’s Champions League miracle had been for fans as we were to hear about the players. Jackie Milburn would catch the bus to play for New-castle still in his miner’s clothes and Tom Finney fixed Preston people’s plumbing when he wasn’t representing them in a North End shirt, but in the modern game it’s rare a footballer is as in tune with his public as the one known Scousely as “Carra”.
The Kop has a song that dreams of watching a team of Carraghers but the Kop itself, in a sense, is one big squad of them. Affinity comes from the number of people close to the defender who join its throng, inside Anfield and on tour. A gang of relatives, mates and characters from his native Bootle trail him at every game. “There’s me dad, me two brothers and then there’s about 20 lads who go everywhere, home and away, and it’s not just been with Liverpool,” he explains. “My first games abroad were when I was 16, with England youths. We played Italy and Holland and me dad and all the lads went . . . so my first trip away was Amsterdam, and from their point of view, can you get better than that?” On Tuesday, Carragher, barring the unforeseen, will become the first to play 100 European games for Liverpool. He’s proud.
“Liverpool’s such a big club, it’s hard to make history or do something nobody’s done,” he reflects. But he sees the milestone it terms of the group. “It’s the one thing I’ve always said I’ll miss when I stop playing: Europe. My family and friends have enjoyed it. It’s not just me, everyone’s involved. They’re all going to Inter Milan. When the draw came out I was made up. Others were like, ‘Oh no, it’s Inter’, but I was really pleased. I’ve never played at the San Siro, this may be my only chance.”
When Carragher retires he may join the travellers, and that would mean the whole every-man package: economy flight, nonVIP part of the stadium, shared rooms in barely-starred hotels. “If I’m not still involved in football, I’ll watch the games. I’d have to, just for the craic with the lads and I wouldn’t get away with going first class.” He almost seems to want to be there already. “Well, yeah, I mean, the fans want to do what we do. It’s like when we went to the World Cup and it didn’t go that well, I was thinking to myself I’d have rather been with them.”
The San Siro assignment is awkward, despite Liverpool’s 2-0 victory in the first leg. Inter celebrated their own centenary last night with a 2-0 win over Reggina and will be determined to make things tough for Liverpool. “We’ll have to look for an away goal to kill Inter off,” Carragher says. “They defended brilliantly with 10 men until we scored with five minutes left, so if they thought they were poor at Anfield, God knows what they’ll be like there.” It’s set for the type of evening on which Carragher excels, one where he is asked to hold together a rearguard under ceaseless shelling.
There may be nobody in Europe better at defending deep and repelling final balls with deflections and blocks. When Liverpool beat Chelsea in the 2005 semi-final second leg at Anfield, Eidur Gudjohnsen felt as if there was a team of Carraghers against him. “Carragher seemed to clone himself,” Gudjohnsen said after the defender stopped his last-minute shot. Carragher picks it as the finest of his 99 European performances.
“There was a big rivalry with Chelsea, still is, and if there’s one team we didn’t want to get beaten by, it’s them. They were so much better than us at the time, 37 points above us in the league. I remember the final minutes and Gudjohnsen’s shot. I didn’t know where I was in relation to the goal and I was terrified of putting it in my own net. I just put out my leg and it skimmed off the top. Can you imagine if they’d scored and their celebrations?”
A Uefa Cup stalemate with Celtic in September 1997, playing alongside Paul Ince in midfield, was Carragher’s first European match, Istanbul the toughest. “The first half from AC Milan was as good as anyone has played against us, the movement of [Andriy] Shevchenko, [Hernan] Crespo and Kaka was fantastic. Istanbul was special because people will still talk about that in 50 years, it’s one of maybe five games in history, up there with Real Madrid v Eintra-cht Frankfurt, everybody remembers. I’m desperate to win the league, but I wouldn’t swap Istanbul. It’s not something we can keep dwelling on, though. We can’t keep saying, ‘Yeah, but we won the European Cup’. We can’t keep harking back as if it’s our get out of jail card.”
Why the disparity between Liverpool’s European and domestic potency? “The home crowd’s a big thing. Anfield makes other teams apprehensive and we play on that. Tactically, the manager’s very good, especially with one-off games, and he’s built us on being good defensively, which is hugely important in Europe. The Premier League’s about power and pace and we don’t have huge pace in the team. What we do have is a lot of good thinkers.
“The manager gets stick because we haven’t done that well in the league, but the European Cup is bigger, isn’t it?”
Carragher seems a natural for management himself but retiring to be a fan is a serious possibility. “I love the game but I change my mind all the time. I’ve been going down to the academy to start my coaching badges but sometimes I think how bad I feel after defeat as a player and think it must be 10 times worse as a manager. When I gave away a penalty at West Ham and we lost instead of drawing, I couldn’t sleep until the next game, and you think, ‘Do I really want this?’ It’s stupid, because I love playing football so much, but sometimes I can’t wait until I’m finished and I won’t have those ups and downs any more.”
Waiting game
The winners of Tuesday’s Inter Milan v Liverpool tie will join Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Schalke 04, Roma, Barcelona and Fenerbahce in Friday’s quarter-final draw TV
British Eurosport, Sky Sports News, from 11.30am TV match
Carragher’s landmark
- Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher has played 99 European matches so far, including the 2005 Champions League triumph, inset. David Beckham’s tally of 115 is the most by any English player, followed by Manchester United’s Gary Neville (106) and Paul Scholes (105). Then comes Carragher, with former Liverpool star Ian Callaghan on 89 and Steven Gerrard on 86
- Statistics are on Liverpool’s side for their match in Milan on Tuesday when they will defend a 2-0 advantage against Inter. No team in Champions League history has lost a tie after establishing a 2-0 fi rst-leg lead. Since the inception of the competition in 1994-95, 14 teams have tried and failed to recover from a 2-0 fi rst-leg defeat n Inter have been on the wrong end of a 2-0 fi rst-leg score on two previous occasions, going out of the competition both times – to Manchester United in 1999 and AC Milan in 2005

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