Great reputations can founder on the rock of Carroll

Man in the firing line
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The Independent Football

The Manchester United defence charged with halting Arsenal's runaway train this afternoon comprises two full-backs, two centre-backs and behind them one laid-back.

The Manchester United defence charged with halting Arsenal's runaway train this afternoon comprises two full-backs, two centre-backs and behind them one laid-back.

That is the impression gained from spending half an hour in the company of Roy Carroll, United's 27-year-old goalkeeper, one from which he does not demur. He is relaxed enough to make Rio Ferdinand look hyper and sufficiently down to earth to make Paul Scholes a playboy in comparison.

Nature or nurture? Both, in all probability. Life as a country boy in Enniskillen, 80 miles outside Belfast, was quiet, apart from the dreadful day in 1987 when a Provisional IRA bomb went off on Remembrance Sunday, killing 11 people. Carroll was 10 at the time, spending all his spare time playing his favourite sport and already a goalkeeper like his father before him.

Football, he says, "brought people together". But it took a trip to the capital to bring the teenage Carroll to the outside world's attention. "When I was at school the careers teacher asked what I wanted to be and I said 'a professional footballer'. But there weren't many scouts where I lived and I was lucky enough to play in Belfast one day and got spotted by the brother of Alan Fettis, the Hull City [and Northern Ireland] goalkeeper."

An invitation duly arrived to join the club as a YTS apprentice. No delusions of grandeur, or superstardom, though: when he was introduced to the first team half-way through the 1995-1996 season as an 18-year-old, Hull had won two games out of 23; they won three of the next 23, not a significant enough improvement to avoid finishing nine points clear at the bottom.

Losing team or not, the goalkeeper was kept busy enough to make an impression and before the end of the following season he had been transferred to the upwardly mobile Wigan Athletic for a handsome £350,000. When a move to Leicester City fell through at the last minute, Premiership dreams seemed to have died, until his agent phoned with the scarcely credible news that Manchester United wanted some back-up to Fabien Barthez.

"I thought it was a crank call," Carroll smiled. "It was a big step up coming here. We had a goalkeeper coach at Hull and Wigan maybe once or twice a month and that's not good. So I had to come here and learn a lot."

There were a couple of bonuses in the first two seasons at Old Trafford: a debut away to Aston Villa early on and then a championship medal, earned with the minimum of 10 appearances. Barthez's fall from grace may have looked like the time for a breakthrough but Tim Howard did so well on United's tour of his native USA that he started last season as first choice.

The prospect of a third season as reserve would have deterred or infuriated many goalkeepers. Carroll, equable as ever, knuckled down with a new take on the old cliché of taking each game as it comes: "You have to take each year as it comes. You never know what's round the corner so you have to keep working hard. Tim did well in America and the gaffer stuck with him. That's the trouble with being a goalkeeper, you've only got one position to fight for, not 10 like an outfield player. I'd play in the reserves to keep myself focused and treat it like any other game. You never know who's watching, the gaffer or the coaches, so you have to keep yourself in top form."

His reward was a run of games towards the end of last season that included the 1-1 draw at Highbury and victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. Even then, the suspicion, which proved well founded, was that Howard would return for the final against Millwall, though Sir Alex Ferguson produced an unexpectedly sentimental touch by sending Carroll on as substitute for the last eight minutes.

"I was surprised," he said. "It was good the gaffer putting me on there, as if to say thanks. It was very nice of him because he didn't have to do it." There have been other compliments too from the manager: "Roy is probably the most improved player at the club," was one of them. "He deserves his chance. He's always been a steady and consistent performer," was another.

This season, persistence was rewarded earlier, Carroll replacing his American rival after nine games and subsequently staying in the side without a blemish. Ferdinand's return has given the defence a more solid look and two goalless draws have pleased the defenders, if not the high-fliers at the other end of the pitch. "We've drawn a lot of games and we know we can score with the strikers we've got. When Rio came back you wouldn't have known he'd been away for eight months. He's so strong and quick in and good in the air, he's got everything."

As for today, game of the century it may be for Sky Sports (or was it match of the millennium?) but Carroll and company insist they will take every game, every challenge and every team as they come: "To me they're just football players. I don't take any notice of who they are, Thierry Henry or whatever, I just play my own game. And they're good at counter-attacks but we're good enough to break them down from that position.

"In the semi-final, we worked hard for the full 90 minutes and in the second half I don't think I had a save to make, though they had about five strikers on the pitch. But we're more worried about ourselves and just going out there and getting a good result for ourselves and the supporters.

"If we win, it'll be a great result for us and you never know what might happen with Arsenal, it could go either way for them. We're not worried about unbeaten runs and the like, we are here to win the championship - and that's what we want to do."

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