On the 8th of January 1997, Liverpool went out of the League Cup with a whimper, losing 2-1 away at Middlesbrough. Three weeks before his 19th birthday, Jamie Carragher made his Liverpool debut as a substitute that night, ensuring that a forgettable match has subsequently been added a sheen of importance in the history of Liverpool FC.
Fifteen-and-a-half years, plus another 699 appearances against 114 different teams, and the boy from Bootle is now second in the all-time appearance list for England’s most successful football club, and top of the club’s European appearance list with an amazing 140 run-outs. I’m sure no-one at the Riverside on that chilly winter evening would have predicted that.
Not least because even the player himself has acknowledged his limitations as a footballer, whilst emphasizing what he does bring to the side:
“There may be more skillful players in the squad, but no one can ever say I don’t give 100%.”
Carragher’s commitment to the cause is primarily what has endeared him to the punters on the Kop. A local lad will always be viewed favourably at Anfield, but by giving his all when some of those around him in Red were not resulted in the fans ‘dreaming of a team of Carraghers’. A nice idea in theory, but every game would probably end 0-0 (“The best defender I’ve played with at Liverpool and the worst finisher I’ve ever played with!”, as his great friend Steven Gerrard once remarked).
Whilst initially being used in a number of positions, Carragher first truly established a spot at left-back in Gerard Houllier’s treble winning side of 2001. He played in 58 of the team’s 63 matches that season, the first of nine seasons where he played at least fifty games for the Reds.
When thinking about this piece, I realised that one of my major Carragher memories came from the Worthington Cup final of that 2000/01 season; I was convinced he’d miss his penalty in the shootout! Luckily for both of us, he scored what turned out to be the winning spot-kick, and won his first senior medal as a result.
Although he had made himself a fixture in the Liverpool first team having made over 300 appearances, it wasn’t until the arrival of Rafa Benitez that Carragher really stepped up his game. The Spaniard broke up Houllier’s prefered centre-back duo of Hyypia and Henchoz, replacing the latter with Carragher and starting his rise towards the position of being one of the best defenders in Europe. The ice-cool Finn complemented the Scouse fire of Carragher superbly, and they made a formidable duo.
Like virtually every man in red on that balmy, barmy night in May 2005, the defining moment of Carragher’s career came in Istanbul as Liverpool defied football logic to win the Champions League after being 3-0 down at half-time. Who can forget the image of a cramp-riddled Carragher repelling wave after wave of Milan attacks during extra time? That match was probably the archetypal Carra performance; barking out orders to all around him, and throwing himself in front of every ball he could in order to protect the Liverpool goal.
The following season, Carragher captained the Reds in Gerrard’s absence to the European Super Cup, and added another FA Cup to his trophy haul (despite an own goal in the final; Carragher has actually scored more goals against the Reds than for them!).
Another Champions League final followed the year after, and the club’s finest season in the Premier League occurred two years later in 2008/09. Carra was integral to all of this success, and was undoubtedly one of the first names on Benitez’s team sheet during this whole period. Rafa was fulsome with his praise of Carragher in an interview in 2007:
“For me Jamie is one of the best defenders in Europe. He is always focused on the game, always trying to learn. That is the key for me because each season he improves a little bit. He is always listening and that is one of the reasons he can keep improving. He reminds me of a hunting dog, when I want something specific done in defence he is very willing to learn.
He has a strong character. He is always shouting and talking to the others, such a key player for us. He is good for the young players, showing them what to do and how to play. Carra lets them know what is expected. Jamie is playing really well, for the last two seasons he has been a really key player for us.”
Of course, age and injuries catch up with all footballers eventually, and Carragher has been no exception. In the past two campaigns he has missed 27 league matches, after having only missed 28 in the eight seasons prior to that. The number of errors he has made has probably increased along similar lines in recent years too, and some of his off-pitch exploits (such as trying to injure a team mate in training, or negotiating a long-term deal as the Hicks and Gillett era disintegrated) have taken the shine off some fans’ opinion of him.
But for his previous achievements, Carragher has undoubtedly earned his legendary status at Anfield. Where would you rank him in the pantheon of Liverpool defenders?
A lot of people would consider Alan Hansen to be the club’s greatest ever centre-back, yet after Liverpool knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage in 2005, Hansen said:
“Carragher is ten times a better defender than I could ever be. He is a great defender whereas I was not. The way he held Chelsea at bay was unbelievable. I’m sitting there in awe of how many times he intercepted, blocked and covered. I think if we look at Liverpool greats over the years – and there have been a lot of them – Carragher is up there with the best of them.”
High praise indeed. The name of Jamie Carragher will undoubtedly rank highly in the history of the club for the rest of its existence, and whilst he may no longer be a first choice, he reached the seven hundred appearance mark for the Reds against FC Gomel. For a boyhood Blue, that’s quite an achievement!