at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – And so begins the long goodbye. On May 19, Jamie Carragher’s glittering Anfield career will end, a day that many hoped would never come.
There will be no transition to join the ranks of coaches, nor will there be an offer for him to extend his playing career by a further 12 months; an extraordinary journey for the man who is dubbed “Mr Liverpool” by the club’s official website is almost over.
Note the emphasis on ‘almost’. The news may have been greeted with shock, then an outpouring of tributes from colleagues and rivals, but for Carragher, this is no time for reflection or nostalgia. Liverpool’s season remains alive on two fronts, which means business as usual.
So why make the announcement now? Mindful of the questions that have been asked to him and to manager Brendan Rodgers about what happens next, Carragher – for whom a media career beckons – moved swiftly to prevent his future becoming an issue. The club, in his eyes, have to come first.
For the rest of us, though, it is a suitable point to imagine what a Liverpool without Carragher will be like. You can say we have had glimpses this year – he has only played four times in the Premier League – but his role goes beyond being a defender.
Along with Steven Gerrard, Carragher has been an emblem for Liverpool for more than a decade; both men have been ambassadors with a pair of boots. He has always found the right words for the right occasion, just as he has always had the ability to make a tackle when one has been needed.
It is why his decision to call it a day, 16 seasons after bounding on to the scene as a callow youth, will take some getting used to. If Gerrard is Liverpool’s heart, Carragher is their soul. Scouring the transfer market for a like-for-like replacement would be an exercise in futility.
Some will say such words are filled with sentimentality but it is true. All good things must come to an end but the feeling persists that Carragher still has plenty to offer. This is a man who has squeezed every ounce out of his ability to become one of the best defenders in Europe, who has lived the right way, trained relentlessly every day and set an example to those around him.
“He was different, right from the start,” Steve Heighway, Liverpool’s former academy director, told Daily Mail. “He was always able to influence people from an early age. What made him so special was that he was just an ordinary lad. He has been exceptional and had an exceptional career.”
Playing for Liverpool, however, has not been a career; it has been his way of life. To show that, consider this: on Christmas Day, when Rodgers gave his squad a morning off, Carragher left his family opening presents and went on a bike ride to keep in prime physical condition.
Fear has driven Carragher’s achievements; the worry of losing his place or being overtaken has kept him ahead of the game. Past achievements and reputation stand for nothing when there is a new hurdle to clear. “Everyone is different,” he told Daily Mail in March 2011. “When results go bad, it really affects me. But I don’t suppose I’d have had the career I’ve had if I hadn’t been like that.
“There are players with better technical ability than me and I’m not the biggest or the quickest. But my desire is as big as anyone’s. My drive and desire has got me to play for Liverpool. Football is so important to me. Sometimes I look around our dressing room and wonder whether it hurts some of the others enough.”
Remarks such as those show what Liverpool will miss. It would be all well and good to sit here and talk about his great performances, such as the defining one in Istanbul in 2005 when he defied cramp in that astonishing Champions League final, but Carragher goes beyond that.
You do not play 723 times for Liverpool without talent or stay at the club for 19 years – Carragher signed YTS forms in 1994 – if you are not the right type of person and he, like Gerrard, is a throwback to how things used to be in the days of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish.
“I always smile when I hear the Kop singing about dreaming of ‘a team of Carraghers’,” Robbie Fowler once said. “If that is what we’d had during his time at the club, we would have won everything there is twice over. He’s had an amazing career.”
Yet it is one which has not always been appreciated. During his first couple of seasons, notably when he was played as a full back, Carragher was a target for criticism from supporters.
But he emerged to become a club legend, someone whose name sits alongside giants such as Hansen and Souness, Barnes and Rush, Keegan, Hughes and Thompson. If Liverpool are smart, they will find a way of ensuring he is not lost to them for good. While they are at it, they should find an appropriate way to recognise all he has done with a Liver Bird on his chest.
Here is an idea for starters: after that final game on May 19 against QPR, how about retiring his No 23 shirt, too? It would be a fitting gesture and, after all, it is unlikely there will ever be anyone who can fill it in the same way. – Daily Mail