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Jamie Carragher’s sky-high standards may have cost him his Liverpool dream – Dan Kay

It was a two-footed tackle as brutal as any Jamie Carragher had put in during his career.

“Who are you, Liverpool manager are yer? You were lucky to keep your job at Sky after that Wolves stuff!”

Rather than an opposition forward, it was Sky reporter Andy Burton again on the receiving end of a withering Liverpool put-down barely a year after Kenny Dalglish had also put him firmly in his place in response to badgering transfer questions just weeks after the Anfield icon’s return as caretaker manager.

The exchange took place on the pitch at Wembley in the wake of the Reds’ first visit to the revamped national stadium in February 2012 as, less than 18 months after the club were staring down the barrel of administration, Liverpool lifted silverware again having overcome Cardiff City on penalties to lift the Carling Cup, the club’s first trophy of any kind in six long years.

Carragher had just added the third League Cup medal of his career to his collection, which of course also included those attained after winning two FA Cups, the never-to-be-forgotten Champions League triumph in Istanbul and the subsequent UEFA Super Cup which he himself had lifted as captain.

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Now aged 34, the Bootle-born defender and Reds vice-captain had made sure to make the most of the post-match celebrations, taking his son James Jnr up to the Royal Box to get the trophy with himself and skipper Steven Gerrard and clearly be determined to soak in the kind of special occasion he and Liverpool had been deprived of for too long.

The Scouse defender’s demeanour did not escape Sky reporter Burton who induced the verbal volley he received by asking, “Just looking at you Jamie, you’ve been taking photos and really soaking it all up.. you’re not starting much at the moment.. is this the start of a farewell?”

Carragher had begun the final against the Bluebirds on the bench, replacing Daniel Agger on 86 minutes, and had only started 16 out of the 33 games in all competitions Liverpool had played up to that point.

In the previous campaign, while admittedly hampered by a couple of niggling injuries, he had featured in only 38 of the Reds’ 54 matches, the first time – apart from 2003/04 when he suffered a broken leg – that his season appearance tally had dipped under 50 games since 1999/2000.

Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were increasingly being regarded as Liverpool’s first-choice centre back pairing but Carragher robustly denied Burton’s suggestion the end of his playing days were imminent while adding the comment which with hindsight became quite telling, saying “It’s great that I’ve been involved.”

He made 11 more starts before the end of the campaign including the FA Cup semi-final victory against Everton at Wembley but not the final defeat to Chelsea the following month, and on 7 February 2013 – just under 12 months after his on-pitch denial – and having started only 15 out of 39 matches in all competitions the following season, Carragher announced he was to retire at the end of the current campaign to take up a punditry role with Sky Sports.

It was a decision greeted with some surprise, not least because he had started the last two games which had seen the Reds – having had a difficult first half of the season in Brendan Rodgers’ first campaign at the helm – achieve creditable away draws at Arsenal and Manchester City.

“This will be my last season at Liverpool and my last as a professional footballer”, Carragher said.

“I’m making this announcement now because I don’t want the manager or the club to be answering questions on my future when I’ve already decided what I am going to do.

“I will be fully committed between now and the end of the season to doing the very best for Liverpool Football Club, as I have done my entire career since joining aged just nine years old.

“It has been a privilege and an honour to represent this great club for as long as I have and I am immensely proud to have done so and thankful for all the support I have had.

“There are many memories I want to share and people to thank, but now is not the time for that.

“I won’t be making any further comment on this decision until the end of the season; all our focus and concentration should be on achieving the best possible finish in the league this season and trying to win the last remaining trophy we are competing in.”

Kenny Dalglish led the tributes, tweeting “Sad day for Carra announcing his retirement. He’ll be missed but he can be very proud of everything he’s done for Liverpool” while current boss Brendan Rodgers admitted he would irreplaceable.

“He has been a giant for me since I came in here, an incredible man, he is one of a dying breed,” Rodgers said.

“He is someone who has good real old school values and ethics but, as you can see from his last two performances, he still has the qualities to play at this level.

“He is a real iconic player for this club and, for me, one which will be irreplaceable. I don’t think he can be replaced. I genuinely think he is a player who I would call a pure defender. You see a lot of rash defending nowadays but he defends with great intelligence, he knows when to mark a man and when to mark space and understands the basic principles of defending.

“He is an outstanding leader and organiser in the team and to find someone with all those capabilities and who has the heart the size of a lion is very difficult. That type you won’t find but you have to look for other types with other qualities and that is something we will have to do.

“It is something he has thought long and hard about over the last 18 months.. He had thought about this last summer when I first came in and we had some good conversations and persuaded him to stay on.

“From now until the end of the season he just wants to concentrate on his football – beyond that it is too early to say but in relation to staying on it was always clear it was something I wanted Jamie to do.”

Carragher himself later revealed Rodgers had initially offered him a coaching role when he arrived at the club only to later rescind it.

“I knew a year and a half before I was finishing. [Kenny Dalglish] was the manager then and Rodgers was brought in”, Carragher said.

“The first chat I had with Brendan Rodgers, I had a year to go on my contract. I was very wary of Brendan Rodgers because he was only two or three years older than me.

“I certainly didn’t want him to feel threatened or under pressure by me. I wasn’t Jamie Carragher at his peak. I was 35 and I didn’t want him to feel pressure he had to pick me or I would cause him problems.

“My first chat with him was ‘I’m not your first choice, I’m here to help you and I’ll play Europa League and Carling Cup games. I am finishing at the end of the season, but I’ll try and help you as much as possible’.

“He actually offered me a role on the staff first time I spoke to him. It really excited me because I got a little bit down the year before when I wasn’t playing.

“Not so much down, but for me not playing every week was a massive part of my life and I found it tough.

“That’s why I decided I wanted to finish at the end of my contract. To actually mix the playing with coaching would have been brilliant for 12 months. That was something I wanted to do with [Dalglish] but unfortunately he lost the job.

“The next time I actually spoke to Brendan Rodgers he’d changed his mind and brought Mike Marsh, which was fine. I’d had no coaching experience. But I always wondered where that would have taken me if that decision had stayed. I decided I was going to go.”

Jamie Carragher celebrates Liverpool's European Cup win in 2005 in Istanbul
Jamie Carragher celebrates Liverpool’s European Cup win in 2005 in Istanbul

It was the end of an era for a man who had joined Liverpool’s youth system at the age of 9 and gone on to rack up over 700 appearances for the Reds, his final tally of 737 matches putting him behind only Ian Callaghan with 857 on the club’s all-time list.

After being part of the Reds’ 1996 FA Youth Cup winning side alongside Michael Owen which won the trophy against a West Ham side containing Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, the boyhood Evertonian made a big impression from the moment he made his full first team debut in the January of the following year.

Handed a spot in central midfield – back then initially his regular position having started out in his schoolboy days as a striker – against Aston Villa at Anfield following an injury to Patrik Berger, he picked up a yellow card after just 22 seconds for clattering Andy Townsend and then headed home the opening goal in front of the Kop five minutes after half time to help set up a 3-0 Liverpool win that put Roy Evans’ side top of the league.

He would not start another game until late September, ironically another 3-0 home win against Aston Villa, this time in the central defensive role which he would eventually make his own but not before proving his versatility across the back line.

Having started 20 league games in 1997/98, Carragher would miss only four Premier League matches the following campaign with his aggression, reading of the play, communication skills and defensive nous increasingly making him an invaluable part of the Reds’ rearguard.

The arrival of Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz in the summer of 1999 made them Gerard Houllier’s preferred central defensive partnership but, as would be the case regularly throughout his career, Carragher responded to a challenge put in front of him by underlining how indispensible he was to Liverpool’s stability by excelling in both full back roles, first on the right and then after the arrival of Markus Babbel switching to the left where he was outstanding in the Reds’ 2001 Treble year, missing only five of the 63 matches the club played in all competitions.

Carragher spoke often of the influence Houllier had during those crucial formative years of his career and particular how he instilled the values of professionalism and dedication which would serve the Scouser so well as the years wore on – “Instead of going to a nightclub at 25, buy one at 35”, the Frenchman advised him – but it was the arrival of another foreign manager in Rafa Benitez that would take his game to the next level.

Installing him permanently at centre half alongside Sami Hyypia saw Carragher become widely regarded one of the world’s best defenders, his extraordinary performance while battling the crippling effects of cramp in extra time to keep AC Milan at bay in Istanbul after Liverpool had fought back from three goals down being lauded across the globe and hailed as one of the all-time great defensive performances, with his often under-rated attacking contribution playing a big role in the Reds equaliser that night in Turkey.

His strength of character came to the fore again twelve months later when he shrugged off the disappointment of scoring an own goal in the FA Cup final to help shepherd a shattered Liverpool team whose season had begun the previous July due to Champions League qualifiers over the line to another trophy in Cardiff.

Perhaps more than anything though, he was idolised by supporters because he symbolised many of the attributes they saw in themselves and wanted to see in the red shirts they came to watch every week.

Occasionally he might overstep the mark, like when throwing a coin back into the crowd which had been hurled at him during an FA Cup tie at Arsenal, but from the sheer grit of playing on with a broken rib and punctured lung at Sunderland, to almost coming to blows with his own team mate Alvaro Arbeloa when he felt standards were slipping, Carragher’s no-nonsense style seemed to be a throwback to a bygone age in an era when football and footballers were becoming increasingly anodyne.

His loyalty and devotion to the club he had initially grown up loathing as an Evertonian became even more precious as Liverpudlians despaired at the club’s fortunes on and off the field with the Hicks and Gillett era unravelling, the Scouse heartbeat of Carragher and Gerrard at times appearing the only shining light amid the gloom surrounding the club.

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Speaking ahead of Carragher’s final Merseyside derby in May 2013 (before which he was memorably caught on camera in the tunnel before the teams came out warning referee Michael Oliver to watch out for Fellaini’s elbows) just a few weeks before his impending retirement, fellow one-club man Gerrard – whose Anfield career would come to an end two years later on 710 appearances, leaving him just 27 matches short of his mate’s total – spoke of how his fellow stalwart was dealing with the end of his playing days.

“I think Carra is looking back with a smile on his face rather than being gutted or devastated”, Gerrard said.

“He can be proud of what he’s done and the career he’s had. He’s going out with people wanting a bit more rather than saying: ‘Get him out, he’s making a show of himself.’ He will go out on a high. He’s picked the right time.

Recalling the first time he encountered Carragher and that unmistakable Bootle shrill, Gerrard added, “I was cleaning the dressing room at the old Melwood, mopping the floors, and I got a bit of verbal from him about my haircut.

“It was his little gang, [Jamie] Cassidy, [David] Thompson and Carra, but I’m not telling you what he said because I don’t want it in the paper!

“I still sit next to him on the team bus, speak to him outside of training and do things with him outside of training.

“He’s the first person I look for when I come to work. I have most contact with him in the workplace on a daily basis. It will be a lot different next year when I come in and he’s not here.”

Ahead of his final match against Queens Park Rangers at Anfield, Carragher was made captain for the day with the teams forming a guard of honour for him to walk out alongside his children, James and Mia, as the Kop unveiled a mosaic in his honour.

The Kop plays tribute to Jamie Carragher before his 737th and final Liverpool game against Queens Park Rangers – Anfield, May 19 2013

Fitting the only goal in Liverpool’s 1-0 win was scored in the 23rd minute, the shirt number Carragher had worn throughout his club career, and he nearly brought the house down when coming within inches of adding to his total of five goals for the Reds after thundering a 35-yard drive against the post in the second half.

After being substituted to a prolonged standing ovation five minutes from time and with shout of “one more year” ringing out, Carragher addressed the crowd over the PA system after the match and with typical modesty thanked them for their support over the past 16 years.

“Thanks to everyone here today and the fans who have supported me so magnificently”, he said.

“I scored at the Kop end on my debut and nearly finished it off with another one there.

“I’ve had so many memories in front of this incredible crowd, we’ve had so many great times and they have played a bigger part than anybody – so thank you most of all to the greatest fans there are.

“I’ve had lots of great times and have got lots of great memories and that is down to Liverpool Football Club and the supporters who have dragged us over the line many times. Istanbul, Cardiff; you’ve played your part.”

The tributes from the great and good of the football world inevitably poured in.

Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United side did more than most to ensure Carragher’s decorated career ended without a league winners medal, compared him one of the bedrocks of his own Old Trafford empire.

“He’s absolutely a player I admire”, Ferguson admitted.

“He’s the epitome of a loyal, dedicated player who Liverpool have been lucky to have for more than a decade.

“He’s been a bedrock of their defensive qualities for years and years. I loved him. He’s a fantastic example for any young lad that wants to play the game.

“He’s been a really, really good professional. He’s absolutely the type of player a manager wants. I used to rave about Brucie [Steve Bruce] and the nine years he had with us, and I think Jamie Carragher is that exact same mould – can play with injuries, gets knocked about and gets back up, hardly misses a game.

“You’re lucky to have players like that. I was lucky to have Steve Bruce and he is the same type of player. A fantastic player.”

Thierry Henry, widely regarded as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players, said Carragher deserved to regarded in the same category.

“It’s a sad day for any Liverpool fan or anyone who likes the game. The memory that I have of him is someone who is loyal and committed.

“You will always remember him as a Liverpool player because that’s the only team he played for. I have had incredible battles against him. I lost some and I won some but they were always fair and always hard.

“He’s a competitor. He was hard to pass. He was always rough in the tackle. He was hard but he could play as well. He could pass the ball, but he was very hard – in the right way. He was in your face tackling all the time and throwing his body on the line.

“I enjoyed playing against him. That was the type of battle that you would look forward to. You want to play against the likes of him and other players, who are hard to play against. In my time in the Premier League, I was always looking forward to playing against him.

“What I will say is that in all the games he has played for Liverpool, being at the top for so many years, is very difficult. He has done it right up to the end of his career. So for me, he will stay up there in history, not only the Premier League but in the history of the league since it started.

“For me, he will go down as one of the top five. If you talk about how long he has played for Liverpool and what he won there and what type of player he was, he will go down in history as one of the greatest in the history of the league.”

The man who handed him his Liverpool debut agreed Carragher had been a credit to the game and said he had surpassed the already-high expectations surrounding him when he broke into the side back in 1997.

“Although he played in a variety of positions early-on, we always saw him as centre-back material and always hoped he’d progress the way he did but no one could ever believe he’d be as good as he turned out to be”, admitted Roy Evans.

“He became that good because he listened to a lot of people and he made sure he gave the very best he could in every single game he played whether it was for the first team or training or the reserves or the youth team.

“It’s that dedication that made Jamie such a great player. In his level of professionalism, he’s been a great credit not just to Liverpool Football Club but to the whole of football.”

Steve McManaman paid tribute to Carragher’s down-to-earth nature and how he had become a role model for youngsters in the city he had represented so admirably for many years, saying: “Anybody who speaks to Carra knows he’s a local lad, he’s a family man. He’s still got the same group of friends, he knocks around with the same groups of people that he did 20 years ago when I played with him.

“I still see his dad and I still speak to him. There are no airs and graces about him; he hasn’t changed with the success that he’s achieved. He’s still a great gentleman.

“He’s been a wonderful player, that’s easy to say – a great character. At the latter part of his career, he was a great leader, probably more vocal than Steven. He is huge inspiration, a local lad who has done very well.

“He’s a role model for the people within Liverpool, the younger players who want to become footballers, because Carra came right through the ranks and is as successful as anybody would like to be.”

And Gerard Houllier, who played such a pivotal role in Carragher’s early career, acknowledged his appetite for work, sheer love of the game and trademark Scouse sense of humour.

“Carra epitomised what work is in training and he always gave 110 per cent. His effort is fantastic, he is a competitor and he always liked to have a bit of a race and be better than the other one.

“His work ethic is fantastic and he is as you know a very loyal person – loyal to his friends, loyal to his family, loyal to the fans, loyal to the club which is something that’s not very usual now. He’s also I would say a high professional who looks after himself.

“If you go up to the age of 35 still playing that means you really did the right things for your job and he’s one who lives for his job. On the field and off the field he was a top professional.

“I liked his attitude in terms of living and breathing his football, being focused, which is very important to be focused, and he was so focused that you knew at some stage he would win some trophies. I also like his generosity. I mean not many people know how generous he can be as when he had his testimonial he gave all of the money to charity.

“For the community and for the fans he is someone who is very open and very generous. He achieved a great career and he got the maximum out of himself. He probably pushed himself to the limit with his work in terms of determination and that brought him to a level that even he himself didn’t expect to achieve.

“To me and last but not least his sense of humour because when Carra is around there’s always a laugh and there’s always a joke going round and he had a great sense of humour – a Scouse sense of humour.”

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He would go on to become as successful a pundit as he was a footballer, his link up with former Manchester United rival Gary Neville taking Sky Sports’ coverage to a different dimension and being unmissable television with both them still as partisan as ever about their own clubs yet insightful, knowledgeable and fair in the broader context.

Carragher’s first season with Sky would go on to coincide with Liverpool’s strongest challenge for the league championship since the last time it ended up at Anfield in 1990 and, even now, there are those who wonder whether things might have been different had the lad from Bootle heeded those cries from the Kop and given it ‘”one more year”.

Brendan Rodgers’ side needed just seven points from the final three games to clinch the title before Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip precipitated defeat at home to Chelsea, enabling Manchester City to take advantage and leave Liverpool ultimately two points short of the holy grail.

It’s hard to be overly critical of a side who confounded expectations and produced a season of such exhilaration and excitement that it is still revered by some Liverpudlians more than other campaigns which did end with silverware, yet at the the same time it is difficult not to wonder whether the presence of Carragher – even in a bit-part role – could have helped a central defensive set up which otherwise comprised Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure to eke the extra handful of points which would have got the Reds over the line.

Speaking in 2017, his old ally Steven Gerrard – who played alongside Carragher 383 times for Liverpool – expressed the view that the lad from Bootle had called time on his playing career a year too early.

“I think I was probably aware a couple of months before he made the decision”, Gerrard said.

“Everyone knew we were very close at the time. I respected the decision and knew why he wanted to do it and stuff.

“But there was a part of me that wanted to shake him a bit and say ‘you can give us one more year’.

“I think it maybe was a year too early.

“Sometimes it’s better to go when people want a bit more rather than outstay your welcome and drag it out.”

In the final analysis, it may be that Carragher’s commitment to only giving his absolute best for Liverpool cost him the one thing missing from his stellar career, that elusive league championship medal.

Talking to the Athletic last year, he explained: “I almost knew 18 months to two years before, the time that I wanted to go out. My contract was finishing and I was just starting to not be a regular for Liverpool.

“I had a couple of options in my head: I could be a one-club man, stay at Liverpool and not go anywhere else, knowing that it’s going to be difficult for me to get back fully into the team. Or I could drop down a level in terms of quality, maybe play a bit more regularly and prolong my career into my late 30s.

“The club means so much to you — I didn’t want to embarrass myself or Liverpool by carrying on and becoming so bad you get thrown out instead of walking out.”

As it was, Carragher had to make do with being part of Sky Sports’ coverage when Jurgen Klopp’s side finally ended the thirty-year in wait in 2020 after admitting he had given up hope of ever seeing Liverpool become champions again while he was player and doubting whether the German boss would be capable of bringing the title home to Anfield.

“It was shortly after my last meaningful title bid in 2009 that I started to lose my faith,” Carragher admitted.

“The 2010 season was awful. Xabi Alonso had been sold to Real Madrid, Rafa Benitez’s team was unraveling, and the club was braced for another period of reconstruction.

“Reluctantly, I faced up to the disheartening conclusion a championship victory parade would never happen.

“Throughout the 2000s we headed into every pre-season adamant a couple more signings might be the difference. On a few occasions they nearly were.

“But even when looking back upon my career, the times we came closest – in 2002 under Gerard Houllier and 2009 under Benitez – Arsenal and Manchester United were stronger.

“Once outside the Kop bubble, the more I studied the broader landscape in English football, the more I realised the best Liverpool sides I played in punched above our weight.

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“No matter who the manager, and as much as I considered Fenway Sports Group good owners, I could not see how it was possible to change that without a Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour-style investment.

“That feeling grew after Manchester City lured Pep Guardiola to England. I saw Guardiola v Jose Mourinho as the next great Premier League battle, with Klopp in a fight with Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino to finish in the top four.

“I was not convinced Jurgen Klopp would ever be able to bring it back to Anfield.

“I am ecstatic to be wrong.”

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