James Lawton: Carragher's exemplary attitude makes awards absence simply inexplicable

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Any professional body so slow to condemn in the hardest terms the antics of such members as Rio Ferdinand, Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage is never going to be infallible when judging superior performance and behaviour.

Any professional body so slow to condemn in the hardest terms the antics of such members as Rio Ferdinand, Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage is never going to be infallible when judging superior performance and behaviour.

However, the Professional Footballers' Association stepped beyond criticism when they made John Terry and Frank Lampard front-runners for tomorrow's awarding of the Players' Player of the Year title.

Rarely has the honour been so closely and legitimately contested, and certainly not in 1999 when the gorgeous but somewhat irrelevant David Ginola won it for a virtuoso FA Cup goal against Barnsley while Roy Keane was pistol-whipping Manchester United towards their historic treble.

Terry, for the intensity and near perfection of his contribution to Chelsea's remarkable season, should - just - get the nod, but surely there must be one deep source of regret when the champagne is popped in the West End tomorrow night.

It is that there will be no official acknowledgement of the stupendous effort of will by Liverpool's Jamie Carragher.

Predictably, his Anfield team-mate Steven Gerrard, who in football terms at least is second only to David Beckham in drawing tabloid headlines, is in the frame. So is the masterful goalkeeper Petr Cech, the gutsy young striker Andy Johnson and the eternal Thierry Henry. They are all men of talent and achievement, no doubt, but it is wrong that Carragher is excluded.

Carragher has been the rock on which the new coach, Rafael Benitez, has built his extraordinary push into the semi-finals of the Champions' League.

But this is not just about performance on the field; it has also to do with demeanour and spirit and discipline, a sense that a professional football life is short, and now hugely rewarded, and there is thus a pressing obligation to deliver the best you have for the club, the fans, the game, and, in the end, yourself.

In all these respects Carragher has not had just a great season. It has been epic.

Inevitably, Gerrard has had spectacular moments but has his commitment, either on or off the field, begun to match that of the relentless Carragher? All the senses - and some of the statistics - say no. When Gerrard, and his exceptional ability, have been missing, Liverpool have tended to do better. We know that certain truths can always be buried in statistics, but others are self-evident. One is that not once has Carragher projected himself as anything more than any other of the troops. This cannot be said of Gerrard. Indeed, the charge against him is that right from the start of the season he has in effect put Liverpool on trial. He said that his future was dependent on the club's performance. Could they show themselves to be winners? If they couldn't, the chances were that he would be off. This is not the philosophy of a team man; it is the thinking of someone persuaded that today's football is mostly about opportunism and its first cousin, rampant self-interest.

The Bootle-bred Carragher is a throwback. He is Tommy Smith with healthy knees, Ian Callaghan with a few thousand miles left on the clock, Ian St John with that a rage against the idea of losing which you can be sure is never going to die.

All season Carragher has played unstintingly at the heart of Liverpool's defence. Against Juventus he was immense. Under Gérard Houllier he was given various roles. He was a jobbing defender, left-back one day, right-back another, and then filling in as a central defender. This was nothing so much as an insult to a player, who, with Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, played the most games (47) for England's Under-21. He never whinged about Houllier's team-sheets. He was just glad to be handed a shirt.

You don't need a razor to cut Carragher's Scouse accent - a butter knife will do. A few years ago he had something of a reputation as a trainee "scally," but those who know him best say it was an illusion. He had a little growing up to do and when it was done he was all of a professional piece. The other day he was encountered with his head buried in a book. It was the autobiography of Sir Clive Woodward. Carragher wanted to see what made this eccentric, driven coach a member, with Sir Alf Ramsey, of England's two-man club of World Cup winners.

If Carragher read the assessment of another World Cup winner, fellow defender George Cohen, a few years ago, it didn't turn his head. Cohen, a full-back of great speed and sure defensive instinct, said: "Of all the English defenders playing today I think I like Jamie Carragher best. He seems to me a real pro, a kid who understands why he is on the field... it is not to look good, like so many of them when they come away with the ball... that's a part of the game, of course, but his priority is the right one... he sees himself as a defender, he keeps his position, he makes his tackles... he's not the prettiest of players, maybe, but he warms the heart of an old pro like me because he's obviously taken the time to learn his business."

When you recall those words from one of only 10 living Englishmen who have won the World Cup of football, comparisons are hard to resist.

You have to think of the gifted but erratic Ferdinand, author of another costly mistake at Everton the other night, pushing for an expansion of his vast salary much less than a year after serving an eight-month suspension for walking away from a drugs test. You have to think of Dyer and Bellamy refusing to play in certain positions, and Dyer scrapping with his team-mate Bowyer in front of the long-suffering Toon Army. You cannot forget the caperings of Savage, sneaking away from Birmingham City and generally creating so much ado about so very little.

For anyone who cares about football there will no hardship offering a toast to Terry or Lampard. Still less for raising one to Jamie Carragher, a footballer of pride and dignity and a fighting heart. Such a combination is said not to exist, butwe know now it simply isn't true.