Jamie Carragher: Everything to play for

In 13 years at Liverpool, he's won everything – except the Premier League. With Manchester United in sight and a European tie with Chelsea this week, Jamie Carragher tells Sam Wallace why 2009 could be a vintage year for his medal collection
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The Independent Football

When Carragher laces up his all-black boots at Craven Cottage this afternoon – he does not believe defenders should wear coloured boots – he will do so knowing that Liverpool have never been closer. Not since 1997 when James Lee Duncan Carragher first broke into Roy Evans' team have they been so close to ending that aching wait for a first title since 1990. One point and one game in hand separates them from leaders Manchester United; beat Fulham and they will be top tonight.

There is no better man to take the temperature of Liverpool's remarkable late burst in the title race than Carragher, who has played every minute of every league game bar one this season. If Steven Gerrard is the heart of Liverpool football club, so the old wisdom goes, then Carragher is its soul. Albeit a restless soul, a man who admits that football took over his life to the extent that he once sought help from Steve McClaren's England team psychologist. But it is an obsession that has turned him into one of the most accomplished defenders in the world and it might yet bag him a Premier League medal.

In his excellent autobiography Carra he admits that he thinks about winning the title "half a dozen times in an afternoon" so the obvious first question is how the hell has he managed to stay calm over the international break after Liverpool took six points out of United's lead last month? "It's hard dealing with your mindset because you don't want to get too excited but you think about it a lot," Carragher says. "You think about it yourself and you realise the impact on the people around you.

"That's why me and Stevie ... we're not just doing it for ourselves. All these people in the city want the title so badly but they, well, they can't do that much about it. So you want to do it for other people. How can I explain? It's like this: you want your kids to have more than you, better than you. You'd give everything for them, and that's the way it feels sometimes with the fans and the League title. It's not really for you, you just want to give them something. You are desperate because you know how much people want to win.

"If it happens it happens. I speak to Stevie about it and probably we talk about it too much and that brings pressure and a bit of anxiety. We are local lads and we will still be around here when we have finished playing. If we don't win it we will still have had decent careers that we can look back on. I read the other day that George Best never won the FA Cup. George Best was a much better player than I am but I have won two FA Cups. Look at the players who haven't won the Champions League. Ronaldo – and I mean the Brazilian Ronaldo – he was, he is, a fabulous player. If it doesn't happen we just have to accept it. We have a few more years to do it but it is something we would love to tick off. I am trying to get myself round to thinking like that so it will soften the blow [if Liverpool don't win the title]. When you are that type, when you are competitive you don't look at what you have done, you look at what you haven't done. There are a lot of people like that, it's probably what gets you to the top."

Carragher is bursting with ideas and theories about the game, a deep thinker on football who has turned over every permutation, every argument in his own head before you even get there. Will it be any consolation to Liverpool, if they finish runners-up, that they have beaten United twice this season? "No, it's nice to beat them but that's a load of shite," he says. "If they win the League they are the best team."

And the mind games between the two managers? "To be honest, I love it. I think it's brilliant. I think most Liverpool fans would respect him [Alex Ferguson], you don't have to like him but you have to respect him. As for the stuff between the managers, I think it's hilarious and I do watch it and I do read it and I try to put myself in their position and think, 'What would I say back if they said that?' It's great entertainment. Maybe it does have an effect, who knows?

"Ferguson said something before we played Real Madrid and I thought it was clever because it was obvious why he was saying it. He said, 'Real Madrid have no chance of winning the European Cup', so obviously he wanted Real Madrid to try that little bit harder against us. Maybe we should say before they play Porto, 'Manchester United are already in the final', so that might push Porto on a bit more."

As for Rafael Benitez's legions of foreign signings, what effect do the exchanges between the two managers have on them? "Half of them probably can't even read the paper. They won't be too bothered."

In four days' time, Carragher will be walking out at Anfield for part five of the Liverpool v Chelsea odyssey in the Champions League. Naturally he played every minute of all eight ties against Chelsea over the previous four seasons and in his autobiography he was scathing about Chelsea's conduct before the 2005 semi-final. He cited the "historical and philosophical differences" between the two clubs and the "cocky interviews" and "idle boasts" of the Chelsea players. It was, in his eyes, "working-class fighters taking on the middle-class toffs". Four years on and Carragher has mellowed slightly. "Then [2005] it was the situation with Stevie, he is our best player, and they just wanted to take him," he says. "That's what upset Liverpool people. I think they have changed it around a bit more now [at Chelsea]."

Chelsea are certainly not as rich as they were in 2005? "Maybe that is the difference. They are trying to make a few friends with the football they are trying to play. We are not knocking what they have achieved. That team is still there, isn't it? They have the same players who got to the Champions League final. There is great respect for what they have achieved because we'd like to win a couple of League titles."

Carragher has admitted that the Liverpool team that won the Champions League in 2005 was not, despite their success, the best team in Europe at the time. Instead that trophy was about the incredible story of that season and their chaotic journey to Istanbul and, ultimately the improbable victory over Milan.

"It sounds strange but even when we lost in 2007 it felt like the manager had by then changed things around and brought his own players in and built a team," he says. "When we won in 2005 it was like a film, like an unbelievable story.

"We all know that team wasn't great and I was in it so I am criticising myself as well. We weren't the best team in Europe. That's probably what made it even better. It was like a film where the underdog comes through. In 2007 it was different, in the group we finished above Chelsea. In 2005 we needed a last-minute goal from Stevie [against Olympiakos] to get us through."

So if Liverpool win the Champions League this year do they have a more serious claim to be the best team in Europe? "It's difficult to say that is the best team in Europe because on any given day the top eight could probably beat each other. We are probably one of the best five or six teams in Europe and one of those who can win it. I always think it is hard to say that unless you win your domestic league that season, because even if you win the European Cup, someone has finished above you."

Carragher has two years left on his contract, he has been an ever-present in the side this season yet he admits he can never relax. He flinches when I mention the one relatively insignificant game he has missed this season – the Carling Cup defeat to Spurs – and when it is pointed out that he has managed a remarkable run in the team he answers briskly, "I haven't missed a single day's training either."

"I have that terror of someone taking my place," he says. "I'm terrified of missing one game. At the start of the season I thought, 'I've got a fight on my hands to keep my place'. [Daniel] Agger had come back from injury, [Martin] Skrtel had done well. To be honest I'm pretty proud of that record and playing every game. At the start of the season when I come back it's not like I think: 'I'll be playing in that first game'. I'm thinking, 'I don't know I'm in the team'. I know people might find that strange.

"I know how I'm seen as a player, I'm seen as 'wholehearted'. 'He'll put his foot in', and stuff like that. I will do but it's not the real picture. I played for Liverpool aged 18, how many players do that? I have never been a [regular] sub for Liverpool. Since the age of 20 I have played every week for Liverpool. People say sometimes, 'Oh, he's versatile'. There have been players here who filled in for people. I never filled in for people. I played 50 games every season. It might be different positions but when everyone was fit I still played."

Point taken. He is 31 years old now and it is still inconceivable to imagine a Liverpool team without No 23 directing things at the back. The international break has given him time to work on his Uefa "B" licence coaching qualification at the Liverpool Academy even though he is not certain he will move into management.

He looks at those top managers "with the bags under their eyes", he thinks about having to move his two children to a new school in another part of the country and wonders whether he could justify it. For now there is one priority.

"This is the best Liverpool team [Carragher has played in] but it doesn't matter. It's about what you win," he says. "If we win nothing then no one will remember this team even though we are probably 10 times better than the team that won the Champions League. When we won the treble in 2001, the team the year later was even better but we never won anything. It's all about what you win and the better your team is the more chance you have of winning, obviously. But people remember teams that win."

Hodgson has other ideas...

Liverpool's season may be developing considerable momentum, but they will not be taking victory for granted at Craven Cottage today following Fulham's defeat of Manchester United prior to the international break. Roy Hodgson (right) expects to field the same XI that defeated the champions 2-0 despite Mark Schwarzer and Clint Dempsey having only returned yesterday from matches in Sydney and Nashville respectively.

He admitted the international break has made preparation difficult: "Liverpool have also had players away but unlike ours coming off back-to-back internationals, they are used to a run of big games because of their Champions League experience. I can only hope the memory of how my players felt after beating United will motivate them to reproduce that. Liverpool are the in-form side, their confidence must be enormously high after recent results. But those can also inspire our players to perform against them."

My Other Life

I've been down to London at the weekend to see the shows 'Billy Elliot' and 'Chicago' (below). Billy Elliot was a lot better. It's something different. Footballers used to go for a pint but I've got a wife and you try to do more things together. The musicals were all right actually, I didn't think I'd be the type to like them. It is good to find something to take your mind off football. But I still found time to watch the England games.

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