Wanderer Carson finally finds a home

He is never allowed to forget his role in Croatia horror show but at least he's happy with Albion
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Told that Scott Carson, late of Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Aston Villa and England and now of West Bromwich Albion, was celebrating a birthday last Thursday, most football fans would surely be surprised to learn that there were only 24 candles on the cake. He seems to have been around for much longer: from a long-ago baptism of Old Trafford fire on debut for Leeds; through a £750,000 transfer to Anfield as a reserve goalkeeper; a Champions' League medal amid the mayhem of Istanbul; selection for the World Cup – most of that while still a teenager – to three subsequent full seasons in the Premier League.

For much of that time, too, he has been regarded as an England goalkeeper in waiting; great expectations so far unfulfilled. So an international week like the current one must seem bittersweet. On the one hand it is a welcome break from an otherwise relentless Championship campaign, West Bromwich having performed their regular yo-yo trick again, suffering relegation last May. On the other there is the acknowledgement that he is slipping down the treacherously greasy England goalkeepers' pole, below David James, Robert Green, Ben Foster, Joe Hart and probably Chris Kirkland, if not Uncle Thomas Cobley.

This week, too, there will be the memories rekindled by a crucial qualifying tie at home to Croatia, reprising that wet Wembley night two years ago when his international career stalled. It is a subject that Carson is understandably reluctant to revisit. "I'm sick to the eyeballs of people bringing it up," the birthday boy said at Albion's well-appointed training ground off the Birmingham Road. "I just hope they can get that final win so that's England guaranteed at the World Cup and people will be doing their best to get into the squad."

Himself included? Well, yes, but: "The goalkeepers that are in the squad now are playing in the Premiership every week. That's the England manager's first look, the Premiership. After that, if there's any injuries or suspensions then hopefully he'd still think about having a look at me even though it is in the Championship."

The passing of time since that ghastly November night for English football has offered no obvious explanation of how he allowed Nico Kranjcar's shot through him so early on in his competitive debut. It proved the first wound in what would become a fatal 3-2 defeat, costing qualification for the European Championship finals.

For Carson, the lesson learnt has been mental rather than technical. "It's part and parcel of the game. That's what you've got to expect. I was always told growing up that you've got to take the rough with the smooth. It always brought a smile to my face thinking about my mum telling me that when I was younger. Players can misplace a pass in midfield or strikers can miss an open goal but the first time a goalkeeper makes a mistake it's a goal. You've just got to deal with it."

Fabio Capello was not brutal enough to discard him immediately, though he has subsequently been given only 45 minutes as a substitute, away to Germany. "There's not a lot I can do apart from trying to have a consistent season and get to the top of the League. If I am to be called on, I'm sure I will be ready. Even the Championship is good experience. It gives me hopefully another 46 games."

Playing games has been the driving motive of his career, with the single exception of accepting a move from Leeds' reserve team to Liverpool, aged 19. Within five months he was an enthralled substitute as Rafa Benitez's team pulled off the fabled miracle of Istanbul. "An unbelievable experience. People ask me what it was like in the dressing-room at half-time, and whether Rafa had some sort of magic team-talk. But there was just a lot of heads down. Milan had torn us apart. I just remember Alex Miller, Rafa's assistant, going, 'We're not out of this, lads, if we get one they'll be panicking and before you know it we'll have a second and third', and everyone must have been thinking what I was thinking, 'Alex, don't be silly'!"

Thrilled as he was by What Happened Next, Carson considered himself to be something of a fraud collecting a medal, his contribution to the campaign having been one appearance against Juventus. At the World Cup in Germany a year later, as a replacement for the injured Robert Green, he felt more a part of things, stripping for each game and lapping up the experience for what he had reason to believe would be future England adventures.

It has not quite worked out that way. Each summer he would go back to Liverpool "hoping to really push for a first-team place" but finding that Benitez had other plans. Pepe Reina was foremost among them, and rather than the soul-destroying life of a second or even third-choice keeper – Jerzy Dudek stuck around for two more years – Carson opted for a series of loans. Valuable as they were in playing time, the disruption to his home life was considerable: "When I first went to Sheffield Wednesday, my little boy [Hayden] was six weeks old. It was back and forward all the time I was there. At Charlton I rented a place, but my wife [Amy] is from Cumbria like me [Carson was born in Whitehaven and grew up in Cleator Moor], and being so far away from our families was a bit of a stressful time."

Amy must be a very understanding woman? "She does like a moan about it sometimes but whatever I've said I want to do career-wise, she's always been there for me. It was a lot of stress but the reason I had to do it was to try and forward my career."

Villa Park was the next stop, and a welcome change from relegation struggles, after which he finally left Liverpool, joining newly promoted Albion for £3.25 million. That meant another full season's football but also another one fighting defensive fires and ending, as with Charlton, in relegation.

The current campaign has been an enjoyable enough experience thanks to Albion's unbeaten start, with an unexpected bonus two weeks ago: "After Jonathan Greening signed for Fulham, the manager pulled me and said how would I feel about being captain. It was something I'd never thought about but I said I'd be delighted. They're a great bunch of lads and I just like getting up in the morning and coming in to work." The wanderer has found a home at last.