ADVENT CALENDAR DAY 23: JAMIE CARRAGHER

ADVENT CALENDAR DAY 23: JAMIE CARRAGHER

Simon Hughes talked to Jamie Carragher in a pub just after his testimonial in August of 2010 and ask him questions of his position at the club, his loyalty to his adopted team and whether he now is a real Liverpudlian.

“I’ll always be a Liverpudlian now” resonates from Jamie’s mouth.

An interview by Simon Hughes with Jamie Carragher just after Jamie’s testimonial in 2010.

With a pint of Tennents in hand, teeth like a row of vandalised gravestones and a Scouse accent so thick you could spread it on toast, this particular client of the Salisbury Hotel is surprisingly unmoved by the sight of Jamie Carragher wandering around the streets of Bootle on an average August afternoon.

“Alright Jamie kid,” mumbles the stumbling patron with his ill-fitting Mizuno t-shirt and acid washed jeans. “How’s ye’arld fella?”

Philly, Carragher’s father, was once the landlord of the pub so his face is familiar – even in the midst of a stupor.

“What’s going on lad?” Liverpool’s vice-captain responds. Then whispering over his shoulder, he offers a revelation: “That’s what happens if you spend too much time in The Solly…”

Carragher, who lived his childhood on these streets, classes Bootle as his manor. He grew up in the suburb, five miles north of Liverpool’s city centre, living in a semi-detached house with his parents and two brothers.

While Carragher has since moved to nearby Blundellsands by Crosby beach, he maintains a link with the area. His mother still resides here (in a house called ‘Carra’s Lodge’) and if he ever has a drink (such occasions are rare), he frequents one of the watering holes around Marsh Lane, the thoroughfare that bisects the two places where Carragher first discovered football: the fields of St James’ RC Primary School and the indoor concrete floors of the Brunswick Boys’ Club, universally known in Bootle as ‘The Brunny.’

Today, it’s the school holidays and his daughter Mia (aged 6) is spending her afternoon at the club, just over the road from The Solly, watching films with a group of other kids, most of whom live in the terraced houses on the streets that lead towards Seaforth Docks. Son James (7) would also usually be here having a kick about with his mates but instead is attending a David Campbell Soccer School.

For Carragher, it’s the standard routine of shuttling his children around the borough. Such behaviour characterises him. Fans see the sportsman – the defender with more than 600 appearances for Liverpool – someone who in Istanbul threw a body burning with cramp into a tackle – for the club, for the city. Donating a cheque worth £8,000 to The Brunny last January towards the cost of a new mini bus identifies the man – the father.

“The Brunny and Bootle generally is very important to me,” he says. “I had a modest upbringing with good working class people around, helping me out. I want my kids to have the same and that’s why I bring them here… I think I benefited from having a place like this to go to because it kept me off the street.”

Some footballers might send their children to a more salubrious location during the holidays – a camp in southern France perhaps. Here, in Bootle, though, as you walk through the steel doors of the Brunny, youngsters enjoy sport in a humble but secure and supervised environment. Inside, Carragher’s face is as recognisable to the five to 10-year-olds as it was to The Solly regulars over the road, such is his recurring attendance at the club.

With a group in the middle of a five-a-side game, Carragher asks one lad wearing a full Liverpool kit for a kick. “We’re ‘avin a match ‘ere,” seems to be the attitude, before he eventually relents, offering a pass.

Carragher believes that having a community facility such as the Brunny so close to his home helped him develop as a footballer naturally. Through his 23 Foundation and proceeds from today’s match, other kids might benefit from similar amenities like this around the city in the long-term.

“You’ve got to learn for yourself haven’t you? When you play street football, you learn to express yourself and make your own mistakes. As you get older, understandably, coaching becomes more important, but when you’re a youngster you get an understanding of life by playing sport with other kids from the street. You need to find your own way because there is no set path towards becoming a footballer.”

Carragher, whose testimonial against Everton marks a career at Liverpool now in its 15th season, became a professional at Anfield after supporting the Toffees as a child. He was a regular at Goodison and travelled away with his dad – the staunchest of Blues – along with his brothers. In 1989 when Michael Thomas scored an injury time winner at Anfield to deny Liverpool the title, he celebrated by applauding the lads who daubed “Thank you Arsenal” on a pub wall.

“I was lucky that I followed Everton during one of the best periods in their history,” he says. “They won the league twice, but when Everton weren’t winning it, Liverpool were, so there was a healthy competitive rivalry between both clubs. Ian Rush seemed to score every time he played in the derby and he became a figure that I grew up really disliking because he was so good. I was a Blue and I’m not afraid to say that when I was a kid, I really hated Liverpool.”

Such was the Carragher family’s resentment of all things Red, father Philly once embroiled himself in an argument with Kenny Dalglish.

“I was playing for Bootle Boys against Crosby Boys, who had Kenny’s son, Paul, in their team,” Carragher recalls. “ The scores were level in a two-legged semi-final to go to Goodison Park. Then we got a penalty that was a little bit iffy. Kenny kicked off saying it was a dodgy decision and he was giving the ref a load of stick. So my dad shouted to Kenny, ‘You’d know about dodgy penalties wouldn’t you – you get them all the time.’ The argument went on for what seemed like ages and eventually, someone had to separate them.”

When Carragher joined Liverpool’s centre of excellence as a striker at the beginning of the Nineties, Kenny Dalglish, remembering that exchange with the player’s father a few years earlier, labelled him ‘Sharpy’ after Everton’s Graeme Sharp.

“Everybody at Liverpool knew I was an Evertonian and I wasn’t shy about it. I remember coming back on the bus from a game shouting ‘get in’ when I heard on the radio that Everton had scored a late equaliser. Ronnie Moran marched to the back of the bus to see who’d made the noise and went ballistic.”

More than a year after making his professional debut, Carragher celebrated Everton’s escape from relegation in 1998 in the dressing room after Liverpool lost at Derby County 1-0 on the final day of the season. Everton had scrapped to a decisive 1-1 draw at home to Coventry City. Soon, though, his allegiances would change.

“When you walk into a football club full-time at 16, you are obviously going to change a lot by the time you are 32. I have a family now and kids, which straight away makes you think differently about life. On the football side, all you want to do when you’re a youngster is look after yourself by making sure you’re in the team. You want the team to win, but most of all, you’re a little bit selfish because you want to play well and make sure you carve a career out for yourself. As you get older you take more responsibility and spend time worrying about the team. The major turning point for me was in 1999 when we lost to Man United in the FA Cup after two injury-time goals. I felt sick because we’d played well and surrendered the lead so late on in the game.”

Carragher went to a pub called The Chaucer to unwind. There aren’t many areas in Liverpool that can be identified by either of the city’s football teams. Marsh Lane is, however, one of them.

“Bootle is a bit of an Everton hotbed but I thought that people knew me well enough to leave me alone. I expected some banter but I expected them to leave it at that because they could see that I was totally gutted. Instead, I got a load of abuse and they treated me like any other Red. That was the end for me. The penny dropped. I left my pint and walked out.

“They hadn’t done anything particularly wrong and most of the lads that were there are still my mates. But I’d been defending Liverpool against all of the jibes for quite a while by then and because I’d become so involved at the club, I finished with Everton that day.”

It was Ronnie Moran’s idea to try Jamie Carragher as a centre-back. After breaking all kinds of goalscoring records in the Bootle junior leagues in his early teens, he’d been moved into central midfield at Liverpool. Then an injury crisis in the FA Youth Cup prompted a defensive re-shuffle.

“That team was strong at the back and didn’t concede too many goals,” Carragher remembers. “But when you go on a cup run of any kind, there are always going to be little hurdles that you have to overcome. I felt comfortable playing in midfield but always thought deep down that centre-back might be the position I ended up in because I felt that I could read the game well enough to be a success there.”

Carragher made a goalscoring full debut from midfield in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa in 1997 under Roy Evans. By 1998, though, Gerard Houllier was in charge and the Frenchman decided to use him in another area of the field.

“I won player of the year in 1998/98 as a centre-back,” Carragher continues. “Then Gerard went out and bought Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz so for me, it was a case of finding another position in the team or moving elsewhere because I could never sit on the bench and be happy just picking up a wage for a long period of time. I managed to force myself into Liverpool’s first-team at left-back – a position that I’d never played in before in my life. It was through sheer determination that I made the position my own for a few years because it was the first major challenge of my senior career.”

Success followed. In 2001 Liverpool won the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup, plus the European Super Cup and the Charity Shield. Over the next five years, he would add to that haul, most notably acquiring a Champions League winner’s medal in 2005 with a momentous victory over AC Milan in Istanbul. Despite the silverware, Carragher, though, takes most pride from his longevity as a Liverpool player.

“A few times over the 13-14 years, I think some people have thought that maybe I wasn’t looking good for a long career at the club when we’ve signed this player or that player,” he says. “My mental strength and my ability as a footballer has surprised and maybe frightened these other players. I’ve trained every day as if it was a match and disciplined myself to make sure that every training session and every game counts. It’s hard to do that at Liverpool when you play two or three games a week and the spotlight is on you every time.

“The pressure that goes with being a Liverpool player is immense. We’ve had plenty of good players come here who haven’t been able to deal with that. At other clubs, I get the impression that you can bask in one good performance for two or three weeks but at Liverpool, the games come around so quickly that the latest good performance is forgotten about if you follow it up with a bad one.”

With that in mind, can he relax in between matches?

“The reason why I’ve played for Liverpool and England is not just because of my playing ability, but having the mental strength to overcome the bad times. Some people think that professional footballers just go out and play for 90 minutes then go home and forget about it. There’s a lot more to it than that. You’ve got to get yourself mentally ready before and deal with the comedown afterwards.

“At times, you want to switch off in everyday life with your family by relaxing for a few days. But you can’t be like that if you want to stay at the top. It’s impossible to switch off at any point. I think that commitment has kept me here for so long.”

“I’ve been to lots of testimonials where the players have turned up for a kick around. I really don’t want that to happen.”

He won’t be happy, either, with a diplomatic draw.

“I always want to beat Everton,” he continues. “It’s the most important game of the season. I get so wound up for a derby game because I get so many people around me giving the verbals. Especially at Goodison, you can see how much they want to beat you by the stick so it makes you want to beat them even more.”

The reference to Everton as “them” emphasises again that he shares no allegiance with his boyhood club. Yet he still respects them as an institution.

“I’d be lying now if I said that I hope they do well,” he says. “My dad’s exactly the same. He knows that blood is thicker than water and he’s followed me everywhere. Now he spends a lot of his time setting Evertonians straight – just for the fact that whenever they get a good result they rub our noses in it so much. When they got to the cup final against Chelsea, they were giving us a lot of stick in the build-up so when Saha scored after 20 seconds, I wasn’t happy.

“It might change a little bit when I stop playing because I know how much it helps the city. Now I own part of a restaurant, I know how it’s good for business when Liverpool and Everton are playing well. It’s important to me to see everybody with a few bob in their back pocket.”

It certainly seems like a long time since he followed Everton across Europe and attended so many cup finals in the mid to late 80s that Wembley began to feel like “Alton Towers.”

“If somebody had said to me when I was a kid going to watch Everton that 20 years later, I’d end up having a testimonial after so long as a Liverpool player, I’d have laughed and never believed them,” Carragher maintains. “I was a die-hard Evertonian, but when your career follows the path that mine has, your attitudes are bound to change. It has been great the way everything has turned out. I am very proud and privileged to have been involved at Liverpool, on the other side of the park from where I was as a kid. That’s me. I’ve done too much with my life at Melwood and Anfield.

“I’ll always be a Liverpudlian now.”

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