John Carew: Why football will never be more important than life and death

A year after arriving in the last transfer window, John Carew is thriving at Aston Villa. But, the Norwegian striker tells Jason Burt, it is his work for the club's charity that has helped put the game in perspective
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The Independent Online

Alieu. The word is said to mean "strength" in the Gambian homeland of John Carew's father. It is also the proud footballer's middle name. John Alieu Carew. But the day that the imposing Norwegian visits the Acorns Children's Hospice in the Birmingham suburb of Selly Oak the "alieu" is all around him. Acorns is the kind of courageous, humbling and uplifting place that is desperately deserving of such attention and support.

At 6ft 4in, and with an imposing physique Carew is impossible to miss – but is flustered that he is being missed. Admittedly, he is a little late and almost immediately postpones this interview, scheduled to take place upon his arrival, after being ushered into the building. "I have to go meet the children," he says, agitated, just a few minutes into our discussion. Talking to a reporter can wait. And rightly so.

"He turned up late last time," says one of the workers at Acorns. "But he ended up staying later than anyone else. He was here for hours." Carew takes the responsibility seriously. "We can't kid ourselves as to why we are here," he says. "We have to take the time to be with the children, to give them a happy day. It's not pleasant to see children like this but it's very important to be here, here to make them smile. I'm sure they have looked forward to it for a long time and you have to do your best to give them a great day, a day they deserve, and make an impression."

Carew has a naturally stern face but as he wanders into the multi-sensory room, with its bright lights and soft furnishings, and talks to the children and parents, some proudly wearing their Aston Villa shirts, those features soften. He is no longer "The Hulk", "Little John", "El Vikingo" or whatever nickname his 10 years of bruising combat with defenders across Europe has earned him, playing as he has in six different countries, and euphemistically being called a "handful" by such daunting opponents as Fabio Cannavaro.

"You don't know everything about a club when you arrive," he says of the initiative Villa have embraced, committing thousands of pounds directly from the payroll – from directors, manager and players down to office staff. It buys precious days of care at the hospice, which needs £6m a year to keep all three of its centres fully open, with a daunting 80 per cent of that coming from fund-raising.

Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, has been. He mesmerised the children with his enthusiasm, a revelation that comes as little surprise. One boy, in particular, joined in, encouraging O'Neill to buy this player and that, laughter all around them. Not long afterwards, the boy died. But then, on average, every week one of the children Acorns cares for will die. It is the precious respite and end-of-life care that is given that matters so much.

O'Neill had no hesitation in signing Carew, this time last year, in the January transfer window. It was a straight swap deal, with the Czech striker Milan Baros moving to the French champions, Lyons, and vacating the No 10 shirt. In the West Midlands, and in the Rhône, they know who got the better of that bit of business. And, after talking to the children's families, it is eventually time for Carew to turn back to this interview and to talk, a little more easily than before, about football. It may seem incongruous, uncomfortable even, but he is much happier and relaxed. His fear was that he was letting the families down.

"First of all you come to play football," he says. "And then you find out the other work the club does and this is a club that is close to its fans, close to the people. It's a very – I don't know exactly what the word is in English – but a very human club. It's not like it's distinct. It means it's been a good place for me to be, everyone takes care of each other and the fans and the players both feel that."

He's always taken such duties seriously. Aged only 17, Carew worked with an anti-racism group in Norway, which had been set up by his friend Farid Bouras, "working with youths who are supposed to go to jail but who are taken to a place where they can work, study, read". Ten years later he is still involved.

At 28, Carew is a senior player, looked up to in a squad that is young and small in numbers. He wants that responsibility. He wants, perhaps also, to be wanted and for himself be taken care of after a nomadic career. "It was the whole package," he says of why he chose Villa, having spent the past seven years at Rosenborg and then Valencia, Roma and Besiktas before arriving at Lyons. "There is big potential here with exciting months ahead and young, talented players. And a great manager. There is no reason why we can't build on that and reach our goals and be in the top five, six or seven in the short term. We're going in the right way."

Indeed, when they kick off against Reading this afternoon Villa will be occupying the final one of those places, although Carew's own involvement will depend on the state of his troublesome knee. It has been some achievement, so far. "I knew about him," Carew says of O'Neill, something of a force of nature in his drive and will, and who had tracked the striker for some time. "He's a great manager, a great person. He's got all the qualities that a manager needs to succeed. All the things that a footballer needs but also the human qualities as well. He gives us belief, he has great belief in the players."

As Carew has played for, among others, Vicente Del Bosque and, when at Roma, England's new head coach Fabio Capello, this is high praise. "It's very difficult to compare and say who is the best and what is right or wrong," he ponders. "But the most important thing is to succeed and he [O'Neill] is a winner, a real winner and really does not like to lose. The energy he gives, it comes out to the players. And that's his strength."

That's O'Neill's alieu. Carew has shown it also. Born of a Gambian father, a one-time goalkeeper, and a Norwegian mother, he was soon picked up by his hometown football team, Lorenskog, just outside Oslo. His reputation quickly grew and a move to the capital inevitably followed when he signed for Valerenga, a big name in Norwegian football but one that had fallen from grace. In his first season they gained immediate promotion back to the top division and also won the Norwegian Cup, following that with the last eight of the Cup-Winners' Cup. In November 1998, having just turned 19, Carew became the first black player to represent Norway and, much to the consternation of Valerenga's fans moved to their rivals Rosenborg, scoring 19 goals in only 17 games and a further five in the Champions League. It was an extraordinary rise and was capped with a £7m move to Spain, playing in the European Cup final (and scoring in the penalty shoot-out that was eventually lost to Bayern Munich).

Eventually, however, injuries, still a bane for him, a loss of form and a disappointing goals return bit hard. Carew struggled on but he moved around Europe. Given his pace – he reckons he can run faster than any defender he has met, except for Roberto Carlos – and power he seemed destined eventually to turn up in the Premier League. "I had some possibilities along the way," he says. "Fulham, Tottenham, Liverpool, when Gérard Houllier was there, but at that moment it wasn't the right time. The clubs I was at were among the top five or six in Europe so why should I leave?"

Nevertheless, he agrees that England was a natural fit. "I do like the English game," Carew says. "I know people say it's physical, but when you find a way of moving into space, because there is more space than in other football as everyone is attacking, players are often out of position. So if you are smart it's what you need. You just have to get used to the pace and over time I can use more of my strengths. I prefer it here. You have chances, it's better for the spectators and there is more entertainment."

Unsurprisingly, he rates his season's loan in Serie A as the trickiest time he's had. "In Italy," Carew says, "there is no space at all. Nobody is out of position, it's very organised. It's difficult to play, they don't take risks and there are almost no chances. It's good in some ways, especially when they [Italian teams] meet a different style. If there's an attacking team and they score, it's more interesting. That's why you always see good matches between Italian teams and English teams."

It is also why Carew, who is relieved that O'Neill did not pursue the England post, is adamant that Capello will be good, mixing the Italian with the English. "I've been lucky in having him as a coach. They will be much more organised, I'm sure of that. He's a winner and they need a winner. A man who is used to winning has this aura about him and everything just seems to go his way. Sometimes you can't even tell why. It's just the way they are. Capello has just been everywhere and won everywhere. His merit list is unbelievable. From Milan until now he's just a great manager. He's very strict but he has more humour than you think. He smiles much more, it's just in public that you see otherwise."

Capello is certainly not a man to be crossed. But then neither is Carew, who once got into a dispute with John Arne Riise when the two were on international duty with Norway. The Liverpool defender spat on Carew's boots and such was the latter's anger that when the players eventually boarded the team coach he sought out Riise and caught him with a right hook that knocked him out cold. Capello himself has not been averse to the odd bout of fisticuffs, as Paolo Di Canio can testify, and he responded to a tough player such as Carew. Their admiration is mutual, even if the Norwegian did not have the happiest of times in Rome. Indeed, after a Champions League tie last season, in which Carew helped Lyons to earn a 2-2 draw with Capello's Real Madrid, the Italian hailed him as a "great player".

Capello has been seen a lot in public during his first official week in the job. Last Saturday he was at Villa Park to watch the FA Cup tie against Manchester United and, afterwards, there was lavish praise from Carew for the opponents, Wayne Rooney in particular, whom he memorably called "Braveheart" because "he is playing with a big heart".

Still, he rates Arsenal as "the best English team this season". "Arsenal play like a Spanish team," explains Carew, whose goals twice accounted for Arsenal's exit from the Champions League when he played at the Mestalla. "They are playing like Valencia did when I was there, like Real Madrid did. They are very efficient with their movement. There is no comparison with Chelsea, for example. It seems like I have faced maybe one or two teams in my career that are better than Arsenal today. They play the best football, the most entertaining football, the small touches and so on. Real Madrid four years ago were the only team better, maybe Barcelona. But that's it. But Arsenal are top, maybe the top in the world at the moment."

It is some compliment to Arsène Wenger's league leaders and it is a standard that, of course, Villa can only dream of emulating at present. Still, in young tiros such as Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carew believes there is a rich future. "They are all talented players who can be as good as they want to be and I'm just happy to be there to help," says the striker who, 12 months into a three-and-a-half year contract, has already intimated that he would like to extend his deal.

"I aim to be a Villa player for many years," Carew adds. "There will be blows sometimes and things won't go exactly as we want them to go, but the road is open for us to succeed and we have everything we need to succeed. The club, the potential, the players and, most importantly, the manager. Everything is in front of us. We just have to take the chance." And have that alieu.

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