Carra looking to the future with both feet in the present

WITH a large chunk of the Liverpool squad away with their national sides it’s been a less intense week of training for those who stayed behind. One of those is Jamie Carragher and the break from the Premier League calendar gave him time to talk to national radio and also to a football conference in London. His quotes drew a lot of attention from the media.

Jamie retired from England duty after the last World Cup in the first stage of winding down his playing days completely. Although his retirement from international football was for a number of reasons one of the key ones was that it should ensure his playing days at club level will go on that bit longer.

Gerard Houllier used to talk about people in football going from “hero to zero” in the eyes of the fans and the press and that often happens to Carragher. Before Rafa Benítez came along and surprised people by not only sticking with Carra but making him a key part of his plans the scapegoat for a poor performance was often Jamie Carragher. He was playing at full back at the time and on any occasion where he crossed the halfway line the word “nosebleed” would be bandied about freely because the “zero” fraternity could only see his faults; his abilities as a defender were ignored, as were the possibilities that he was doing as he was told by the manager – he wasn’t getting forward enough so he just wasn’t good enough.

Benitez saw what Carra could do in the heart of the defence and by the end of that first season Carragher had a Champions League medal and the leeway to make the odd mistake in a game without fear of it being trumped up as proof he had to go. Mistakes were now “uncharacteristic” where previously they might have been “typical”.

The downside to that, in the long term, is that his “hero” status makes him untouchable in the eyes of some. He’s not human, he’s not normal, he’s not only capable of running LFC’s defence for the next 200 years but he should be running football too, if not the country. The stronger that kind of talk becomes the stronger the criticism becomes with some going equally over the top to try to downgrade his hero status and turn him into the scapegoat once more.

Before we know it there will be two groups of supporters – the pro-Carra and the anti-Carra – and phrases like “enemy of the club” will be thrown around alongside ludicrous claims of Everton tattoos and calls for him to be made manager that very afternoon. Maybe one day football will find a way to monetise these side shows, maybe one day we’ll stop getting ourselves drawn into them.

Carragher will stop being a first choice centre-back at Anfield one day and that will probably signal the end of his playing days completely. The likelihood of him playing elsewhere after Liverpool is slim. How his time as a player at Anfield will end remains to be seen but it would be no surprise if it happened at a time that many fans still felt he had a lot to offer.

What no fan wants to see is a player’s career at a club come to a halt after a run of embarrassing performances that sour their memories of him. In fact it’s likely that Carra will be asked to step aside for someone who at least to begin with might not seem any better, a decision that will see the “hero” camp sharpening their pitchforks. Of course it’s not just the “hero” camp with the pitchforks and the longer the player stays the more his game will be under the microscope and the more often his mistakes will stand out – especially the ones that relate to a decision he made that everyone knows was the wrong one. In hindsight.

When asked, more often than not, Carra holds his hands up when he’s made a mistake in a game. And it’s being able to recognise his faults and his mistakes that made him into the player he is. He doesn’t allow it to mess his head up for the next game, he uses it to improve in the next game – and he’s been doing that since he was a fresh-faced academy graduate without a settled position in the side. He’s big enough to take constructive criticism on the chin – if not then who on earth swapped him for the real Carra?

Liverpool were prepared to spend over £20m on a new centre-back in the summer and it’s almost certain that he would have been the long-term replacement for Jamie Carragher. As it was the deal didn’t happen and the club instead signed Sebastian Coates, a player who will be introduced more gradually into the first team if the club can help it. With Daniel Agger’s misfortune with injuries and Martin Skrtel’s ability to have bad games Carra’s place as a first-choice centre back seems secure for the time being – but he knows it won’t be forever.

What he doesn’t know is when his time will be up, but he said it wasn’t up to him anyway: “Ask Kenny,” he told the Leaders in Football conference in London. “He picks the team. It’ll be up to the coaching staff I suppose. You want to try to get as much out of your career and play as long as possible, the time will come in the next 12, 18 months, maybe two years. That won’t be down to myself. It will be down to the people around me, the staff, the manager. They will decide.”

Carra made his own decision about packing international football in and although Kenny might decide when Carra starts to miss Liverpool games the player will make his own decision about retiring from the game completelyl. He’d already semi-retired from international football before that last World Cup because he didn’t see the point in the disruption and the travelling only to find he was missing out on selection. If he finds himself on the bench, or in the stands, on anything like a regular basis he’ll probably not stick around too long. We’ll have to wait and see.

Carragher is already thinking about what happens when that day arrives and was asked if fancied moving into coaching or management: “Yes, I think so, I’ve taken my first steps to coaching and the B licence. We all love the game, you want to stay involved in the game.” To some it’s just a formality that Carra will be Kenny’s replacement one day, to most – no doubt including the player himself – he’s got a long way to go yet before that kind of prediction can be made with any kind of certainty.

Management isn’t just about picking the best 11 and giving them some tactics to play to, or picking the best option from a list the scouts bring for new signings. These days there’s often a political role to play and criticism for the way a manager plays that game is often more stinging than criticism of the way that manager plays the game of football itself. A couple of words will be pulled out of a ten minute interview and used as proof of something that was never there to be proved.

Carragher’s interviews down the years, especially where England are concerned, have got him headlines. This week was no different, the word “cheating” picked out by the headline writers from his discussion of international football. He said: “For me, you shouldn’t have a foreign member of staff [in an international side]. The best doctor in the country should be the England doctor, the best bus driver and so on. It’s not a criticism of Capello, Eriksson or anyone who comes in the future and it’s not anything about foreign coaches or players coming into the Premier League. I just think international football is our best versus their best. Whether that’s our best keepers, centre-forward, right wingers, if we’re short in those areas we have to improve our players, but it’s not just the players. If your manager’s not good enough, that’s your country’s fault, get a better manager, do the coaching qualification better and even if it didn’t go right with him, you can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s all right, we’ll get a foreign manager now. Well, our keeper’s not good enough so we’re going to go and get Buffon from Italy’, or whoever it may be.” It’s unfortunate but you have to go with the next best thing.

“I think it’s a form of cheating at international football and to be honest it’s a little bit embarrassing.”

Maybe Jamie was thinking ahead to the difficulties he might face one day in getting the England manager’s job: “If you’re going to do a coaching course, as I’ve started, you’ve got to aspire to be the best in your country and that would be the England manager. If we’re not up to it in certain areas we have to improve.

“I think Capello’s come into the job with all he’d done at AC Milan, and what he’d done at Real Madrid, and he’s got an aura about him, a presence. Steve McClaren didn’t have any of that. Maybe it’s something in our culture, or because English managers don’t get the chance to win club games at the top. If all the Premier League managers were English then someone would have to win the league, someone would have to win the FA Cup. They’d have to accumulate these trophies and that’s what it was like in the past.”

Speaking to Talksport, Carra said: “Benitez, Houllier, Mourinho – they’ve all got things about them in terms of having won the big trophies. Does that mean English managers don’t get a chance at the Premier League?

“Look at Chelsea with a 33-year-old manager. In years gone by David Moyes would have got that position, or an up-and-coming manager who’s done a great job but that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Moyes is, of course, Scottish – like Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson – and in terms of football that makes him as foreign as Benitez, Houllier or Mourinho. In years gone by the English league was filled with players and staff who weren’t English, Liverpool’s history books are littered with the names of Scottish, Welsh and Irish legends and it didn’t all begin the day Bill Shankly became manager. Clubs in England would often go to a player and his family as soon as he was old enough to be approached and make an offer that was hard for their hometown clubs to match.

Nowadays there’s more chance of a young player being signed from Spain than from Scotland but little else has changed really. Carra wants it to stop: “We talk about players in academies not getting a chance but one of the reasons why they don’t is because players from every other country want to play there. Our academies are not now just full of local players, they’re full of foreign players as well and that’s a bit of a problem for me. I think no foreign players should really leave their country until after 18 or maybe 21. The academy should be for local players.”

Liverpool’s academy had gone for years without producing anyone after Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard had made the first team. Players would leave the academy after failing to make the grade at Anfield and although they would often find new clubs it was unusual for Liverpool to receive a fee. But nowadays it’s important for every club to be self sufficient and to find ways of bringing money in. One of those ways is to improve the quality of the players graduating from the academy – if they’re good enough for the first team it obviously saves money on transfers but if they’re good enough to attract a fee off another club it helps fund more recruitment.

As a city Liverpool is full of history that relates to links with other nations. Look it up. As a club Liverpool is full of history that relates to players or staff from other nations. It’s always been a mixture of local and not so local and all involved learning from each other to get to be even better.

Liverpool’s academy is now run by a mixture of nationalities: Frank McParland and Mike Marsh from Liverpool, Steve Cooper from Wales and Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell from Spain. The players in their charge are a mixture of nationalities too, with a large cluster of local lads included. And all are judged on ability, not nationality.

Unfortunately that isn’t always the case with supporters and pundits, time and again a player is judged with his nationality or locality in mind. To some a player is a “hero” in the making purely because he’s local – and the response to that from some can often be an irrational dislike of that player mainly because he’s local; a feeling that he’s getting praised for being scouse, not for being good.

Carragher was a victim of that attitude himself in his younger days – to some he couldn’t be very good because he was only a local lad, not one of the great players we could sign if we spent some money. To others he was the best player in the world because he was locally produced and it was an insult to even think of buying someone else.

The difficulty at the moment is getting the step from the Academy to the first team right. Players excelling at the Academy will play for the Under 18s, in the NextGen series and in the reserves. If they’re then considered good enough to be part of the first team set-up they can find themselves playing far less. Reserve games aren’t always timed in a way that fits in with the first team’s plans and the youngster spend weeks without a game and often nothing more than a place on the bench. It’s a brave step for a manager to make when he has to choose between a rookie youngster or playing someone more experienced, maybe out of position. More often than not the rookie isn’t given the start – and when he is the criticism received is rarely appropriate for a player still learning his trade.

Carragher knows his playing days are limited but he still has one dream, to win the Premier League. Not that it would ever replace that night in 2005: “I wouldn’t swap that Champions League medal for a Premier League title. The European Cup, as I still call it, is the biggest thing you can win as a club player. And it was a special one – one people will remember for a long time. I wouldn’t swap it for a couple of Premier League titles – no chance.”

Liverpool need to get back into the top four if they want another crack at winning that cup but Carra wants something more: “Right now we’d rather win the League. You’d take the League before anything. Everyone at Liverpool is desperate to win the title.”

However long he has left as a player, it goes without saying that he’ll give his all to achieve that. No criticism of Carra ever refers to a lack of effort and that’s why there shouldn’t be an issue with some constructive criticism now and then. After all, Carra criticises Carra when he thinks he needs it.