It really was a last chance saloon for Andy Carroll on Saturday, because the notion that Kenny Dalglish values the striker is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Liverpool have privately denied that they proposed a swap deal to Manchester City last week – Carroll for Carlos Tevez – but some very specific detail on that offer came to light last night.
The move won't happen, because City covet Carroll as little as they covet the notion of Tevez getting busy scoring goals at Anfield in the next five months. Audacious and imaginative though an approach by Liverpool to City's football administrator, Brian Marwood, might have been, for Tevez the timing was fairly disastrous. Hours earlier, Craig Bellamy had reminded City of the drawbacks attached to selling players to their rivals by eliminating the club from the Carling Cup.
Which brings us back to Carroll, an infinitely weaker force than Tevez in the one year at Anfield which he marks on Wednesday, and a player who is no more contented on Merseyside than Tevez is in the Greater Manchester conurbation. There have certainly been telephone calls from those closest to him in the past month exploring whether the route back to Tyneside might actually be open to him. This explained a story of 20 days ago, suggesting Newcastle would be like minded if the price were £20m.
Liverpool had no hand in that proposition and will not be taking a £15m hit on the money they laid out, which means that Carroll – much like Tevez – will be going nowhere this week. His time on Tyneside will remain limited to the social trips he seeks whenever he can, during which, in his early days, he complained that Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher did not seem interested in him. He maintained a brave face after Saturday's game, though his response to the question of whether it had ever crossed his mind that he might leave for the North-east was not exactly emphatic.
"I'm just here. I've signed a contract here and this is the team I'm playing for," he said.
Carroll was coincidentally watched at close quarters by Roberto Mancini's assistant David Platt, who was at Anfield on Saturday. He has four months to salvage a little of the reputation that came with becoming the most expensive British player of all time and Saturday certainly provided the impression that he is not a lost cause. If he had caught a negative vibe from his club, then he didn't betray as much in a performance which went far beyond leaping way above Jonny Evans to send Dirk Kuyt sprinting in for Saturday's winner, leaving Patrice Evra lost back in the dust.
The ease and mobility Carroll showed when, facing his own goalkeeper on the halfway line, he fended off Chris Smalling to ease a ball into the path of Gerrard – who powered through towards goal and fired waywardly over the bar – recalled his Newcastle pedigree. There was also an Ian Rush trademark of harrying opposition players out of possession when he hustled Paul Scholes a few minutes later. His own distracting presence was integral to Daniel Agger leaping unchallenged to head in Liverpool's opening goal.
Of course, this kind of contribution is considered ancillary to the role of scoring goals, which Carroll has patently failed to do since his £35m arrival last 1 February. But he is waiting for Liverpool to learn how to involve him. If you're going to spend that much on a striker you might as well base an attack around him, though he was a solitary figure again on Saturday and Dalglish's ironic response when he was asked about Carroll's strong performance did not augur too well.
"Well done Andy!" Dalglish said. "He has got to develop ... and work within our framework as well."
It was a curious answer, considering the money Liverpool have invested, and one which contrasted with Sir Alex Ferguson's determination to persist with a troubled young player of his own. The reasons why Ferguson decided a cauldron like this was the best place to give David De Gea his first start of the calendar year were incalculable, though it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is determined to disprove those who since August have been looking for an extension of the narrative about his own indifferent record of signing goalkeepers.
Ferguson had a case when he said that the 21-year-old wasn't entirely culpable when Agger scored. "I think our own players were the problem with the first goal. They didn't give him room to deal with it. We corrected that in the second half and it was much better," he said.
Michael Owen added that "the free header was the problem, not the keeper" though three subsequent fumbles suggested that Anders Lindegaard – so strident in his claim that he joins the substitutes in their warm-ups during games – is the man for the moment. "The lad will be a top keeper, he is only young," Owen said, his use of the future tense being salient.
Liverpool cannot wait for the future with Carroll, though this performance, taken with his contribution as one of the better players in defeat at Bolton, tells them something.
"Yes, you can say that," Carroll agreed on Saturday night, when it was suggested that football was a confidence game. The weekend's revelations won't help much.
A year at liverpool
Wednesday is the first anniversary of Andy Carroll's £35m switch from Newcastle to Liverpool, and though currently enjoying his longest run in the team (11 matches) the England international has struggled for goals, form and consistent game-time throughout the 12 months.
Carroll's Liverpool games 36
Minutes per goal 356.5
Minutes since last goal 303 (v Oldham, FA Cup, 6 January)
Liverpool: REINA; KELLY; SKRTEL; SKRTEL; AGGER; ENRIQUE; DOWNING; HENDERSON; GERRARD; RODRIGUEZ; CARROLL
Manchester United: DE GEA; EVRA; EVANS; SMALLING; RAFAEL; GIGGS; SCHOLES; CARRICK; PARK; WELBECK; VALENCIA
Scorers: Liverpool Agger 21, Kuyt 88. Manchester United Park 39.
Substitutes: Liverpool Kuyt (Carragher, 63), Adam (Rodriguez, 63), Bellamy (Gerrard, 72). Man United Hernandez (Scholes, 76), Berbatov (Giggs, 90).
Booked: Manchester United Rafael.
Man of the match Scholes. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Liverpool 43% Man United 57%.
Attempts on target: Liverpool 9 Man United 3. Referee M Halsey (Lancashire). Attendance 43,952.