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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Mersey-Mersey me: Liverpool's Jamie Carragher looks back, ahead of his last derby ever

Anfield veteran recalls derby blunders' nightmare - "I was so desperate to play I told Rafa Benitez I was fit... I was nowhere near ready"
Jamie Carragher
Jamie Carragher
Jamie Carragher was so distraught at the post-match meal that his mind had gone into a trance and his head was slumping towards his plate.
Down the hotel restaurant table Steven Gerrard could see him teetering on the brink and sent him a text telling him to “forget about it.” But he couldn’t. The embarrassment of his own display had left him feeling sick to the pit of his stomach.
So take a bow Andy Johnson. Reds legend Jamie Carragher has lost Champions League and FA Cup finals, even missed a penalty that saw England knocked out of a World Cup, but nothing beats the pain you inflicted on him by scoring those two goals in Everton’s 3-0 win seven years ago.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever felt after a game because I knew I’d let the team down,” he said. “I’d been injured but was so desperate to play I told Rafa Benitez I was fit.
“I was nowhere near ready and I learned a big lesson that day. You’ve got to be ready for a derby otherwise you’ll get shown up. I’ve always beaten myself up over football but that was on another level.
“I had to put up with the stick from Evertonians for six months. In the next derby I was kicking anything that moved.”
There is no bigger game in football for Carragher than the Merseyside derby and Sunday will be the 30th time he’s pulled on the red shirt to do battle against his first love, Everton. It will also be his last. And he knows he’s going to miss the passion, the pain and the glory, like hell.
“I love the derby and I could play them every week. The nerves, the thinking about it weeks before, the build up in the city, the feeling if you win: it’s just great.”
When the gangly 20-year-old played his first one, at Anfield, in 1998, he was handed the kind of mission James Bond would have baulked at: Mark Duncan Ferguson and don’t let him get a sniff. Ferguson did, scoring in a 1-1 draw, but Carragher gave a good account of himself, as he has done these past 15 years. Only five Liverpool players have played in more derbies than him.
“If I could only win one game every year it would be the derby without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “I totally get the Man United/Liverpool thing but for me playing Everton is bigger. If you get beat by United the fans are 40 minutes down the road, but you can’t get away from Evertonians.
“Also Everton love beating Liverpool more than we do beating them. Knowing how much they want to win makes you even more determined. It was like that when I was a kid. I just wanted to beat Liverpool.”

The Biggest Blue in Bootle...

He didn’t just want Liverpool defeats back then, he ached for them. To the self-confessed Biggest Blue In Bootle, Liverpool were the enemy. When Michael Thomas scored the late winner at Anfield in 1989 to deny Liverpool the title, 11-year-old Jamie celebrated in delirious fashion, applauding lads who scrawled “Thank You Arsenal” on the wall of a local pub.
“It’s just me. I’m passionate about everything I do. I know there were other Reds like Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Michael Owen who were Blues as kids, but I don’t know how passionate they were. Me, I’d argue all day for Everton because they were my life.”
It’s probably why Carragher has never been as big a target for abuse as other Scousers in red. When someone knows more about Everton’s history than you do it’s hard to cut them down in banter.
Does he ever think that Blue passion will be re-ignited once he stops playing for Liverpool in a few weeks? He thinks hard and picks his words.
“When I come out of the intensity of Liverpool, I might say I’d like to see Everton win a cup we’ve been knocked out of, which wouldn’t be the case now. But there’s no way I’ll go back to wanting Everton to beat Liverpool.
“My brothers may go back to supporting Everton, but my dad won’t, I won’t and my son will always been a Liverpudlian.”
What if son James, a promising prospect at the Liverpool Academy, ends up playing for Everton? “Well that’s different,” he answers without hesitation. “As my dad proved, family comes before football.”
Which is one of the reasons why, at 35, Carragher has decided to retire, even though his fitness levels and recent performances show he’s got at least another season left in him.

Why is he calling it a day?

“I’d been thinking for a while: how do you get out? How do you finish with Liverpool? And a quote I’d read years ago from a foreign player stuck with me: ‘Leave the football before football leaves you.’
“I’ve always had that in the back of my mind. Especially as I’ve been at Liverpool all of my life and I never want to let the club or supporters down.”
It’s hard to think of any player who could have let Liverpool down less. He’s made 734 appearances (only Ian Callaghan has worn the Liver Bird more times) and won every meaningful trophy bar the Premier League.
Kopites don’t sing about dreaming of a team of Carraghers because it’s a catchy tune. They know that in his pomp he was one of the best central defenders in the world, as Franco Baresi pointed out after Istanbul.
They know there will be a massive gap in the heart and soul of Anfield when he leaves. They know since his return to the first team in January, during which time he’s figured in a single League defeat, it’s been like a one-man cavalry riding to their defence. And they worry that he’s going too soon.
“It’s nice that people are saying ‘you’re playing well, you should carry on.’ But the more I hear that the more I think I’ve made the right decision to go now,” he says.
“As an Everton fan and Liverpool player I’ve seen too many people get slaughtered when supporters think they’ve gone on too long. I don’t want that.”
Carragher made his mind up last summer and told the club this would be his last season. He wanted to keep it quiet until now but in January the news was leaking.

 “I told the manager after the Norwich game that I wanted to make an announcement but then I saw we had Manchester City and Arsenal away and thought ‘I could be in trouble if I get exposed in those games having said I was retiring.’”
Instead he put in back-to-back man-of-the-match performances and decided afterwards that the timing was perfect. So has he been waking up in cold sweats wondering why he’s doing this when he’s still very much a first-choice player?
“No, I’m not stupid. New players will come in this summer and at my age I could be back on the bench next season. There might even be games where I don’t make the bench. Imagine walking around Anfield in a suit on a match-day when you’re fit to play?” he asks with a horrified grimace.
“Of course there will be things I miss like the great feeling of camaraderie in the dressing room after a good result. But on the flip side I won’t miss the bit were you’ve lost the game and you’re devastated.”
The feeling has always been that his passion for, and knowledge of, the game would ensure a smooth progression into management. And although he’s done his UEFA B coaching licence, he’s planning time away from the training ground, working as a media pundit, to assess his long-term future.
“I look at what the top managers like Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have sacrificed to get where they are. Am I prepared to put that graft in? Right now I’m not sure. I’ve spent all my life thinking about football, hardly going out, not taking my wife out, and I’m wondering whether I want that to carry on.
“There’s always been this assumption I’d go into management and an expectation that I’d be good at it, but I could lose my first four games and be out of a job. What happens then? I don’t want to turn into a bitter old man before my time.”
But that’s for the future. Right now he’s still a Liverpool player, preparing one last time for the biggest game of the season.
“Being my last derby this game is huge to me. I hope I enjoy it but I know the only way I will is if we win it.”
Probably because he knows that if he loses, there’s no next time to put it right.
And he wouldn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a trance with his head slumped over his dinner plate.

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