Football: Driven Carr aims to be a model of reliability

Trevor Haylett says a miserable night will have sparked the Spur
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The Independent Online
IF THE "luck of the Irish" was truly a product of fact rather than some whimsical notion, then Stephen Carr would be well advised to check to see if he really is qualified to turn out for the Republic next weekend. After the events of the past few days he can feel no more blessed than would Dennis Bergkamp upon discovering he had won three tickets to fly the world in Arsenal's Christmas raffle.

It was the Swiss international Ciriaco Sforza who they took off on a stretcher after the final whistle sounded the death knell for Tottenham's Uefa Cup hopes in Kaiserslautern on Thursday following a late challenge from Tim Sherwood, and momentarily you wondered if they would need the same means to ferry Carr away from the scene of his heartbreak.

Unable to prevent a hard-driven cross from crashing off his shins and into his own net in the third minute of injury time and little more than 100 seconds after the Germans had finally broken Tottenham's admirable resistance and their first leg advantage, the young right-back was understandably distraught.

He appeared reluctant to try to come to terms with what had just befallen him, refusing to leave the pitch and seek the refuge of the dressing room.

When he did make it, the same players and management team who had celebrated the 30-yard screamer Carr had unleashed against Manchester United last month put a consoling arm around the Dubliner they first nicknamed Fred because of a likeness to Mr Flintstone. With today's north London derby swiftly followed by Ireland's Euro 2000 play-off with Turkey, there was no time to dwell on disappointment.

Not, insists George Graham, that there's any danger Carr will still be distracted by Kaiserslautern catastrophes when this afternoon's big kick- off comes round. The right-back's accelerating improvement has been another positive feature of Graham's time at White Hart Lane and he says: "Stephen is an absolute gem to work with and I am sure there's still a lot more to come from him. It's quite amazing that with all the games we've played in such a short period he's hardly missed one."

Respect is mutual. "George has changed my outlook and given the defence a structure in which our roles are clearly defined and inter-linked," says Carr. "He's emphasised that my number one priority is defence and, once that is achieved, he also wants me to get forward to give the team an additional attacking option."

With his country Carr has had to swallow more than his fair share of last-minute trauma even before a cold Thursday in south-west Germany. Against Croatia and then, more crucially, last month in Macedonia, Ireland's hopes were dented in the closing stages, which compels them now to take on a Turkish side who claimed a victory and then an away draw against the Germans in their qualifying group.

Still an international novice, Carr hopes to win the call-up, but admits he only now feels a part of Mick McCarthy's squad. "Obviously it improves as you become more involved but I am more comfortable now and there are some good lads there who have helped me along."

Both his club manager and Kenny Cunningham, the Wimbledon right-back and his room mate on Irish trips, believe Carr can be the type of totem of dependability for Spurs that has made Denis Irwin so valuable to Manchester United over the years. "I used to watch Stephen playing reserve team football and I would tell people that this kid would come through and emerge as an outstanding player," said Cunningham. "He has all the attributes and the nice thing is that his feet are firmly on the floor."

Words from the 23-year-old himself are a precious commodity. For an Irishman he is a rarity in that, mostly, he prefers to let his football do the talking. David Pleat, Tottenham's director of football, says he is "quiet and unobtrusive" but reticence should never be confused with disinterest.

"Stephen is the first out on to the training ground every morning and he only wants to improve," Pleat said.

"His recovery runs, his sense of responsibility when possession has been lost are superb as he now knows when to attack early, and can see the opportunity to get forward."