Scouse honour

Sam Wallace, who joins 'The Independent' today as our Football Correspondent, finds Jamie Carragher fully committed to Liverpool ... on and off the field
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By late November last year, Jamie Carragher had already spent two months watching sport at home on the television while his broken leg healed. There had been plenty to keep his attention. England's rugby team were in the World Cup final and Liverpool's season, indeed Gérard Houllier's entire reign, had begun to unravel. That morning, Carragher decided to do something that might be considered unusual in the modern Premiership.

By late November last year, Jamie Carragher had already spent two months watching sport at home on the television while his broken leg healed. There had been plenty to keep his attention. England's rugby team were in the World Cup final and Liverpool's season, indeed Gérard Houllier's entire reign, had begun to unravel. That morning, Carragher decided to do something that might be considered unusual in the modern Premiership.

He had originally planned to watch the rugby at home but had been called by his dad, Philly, the night before with an alternative. Philly Carragher watches Liverpool home, away and pre-season - with the honourable exception of trips to Old Trafford - and on that November morning he had a coach booked to take him and his friends up to Middlesbrough. His son had not played since Lucas Neill broke his leg at Ewood Park in September, but would he, Philly asked, fancy coming along with the lads to see the game?

"I wasn't doing anything else so we met up," Carragher says. "We had a few drinks, watched the game and had a bit of a sing-song on the way home." As simple as that. But it meant a great deal more to the supporters around him. A photographer was tipped off and took a picture of Carragher in the crowd, just as engrossed and just as concerned, as the Liverpool fans around him. It finished a 0-0 draw. Liverpool were dawdling in ninth place, but at least the supporters who had sat in the away end could tell their mates that they had watched the match with Jamie Carragher.

That is the first reason they like Carragher so much at Liverpool. Along with Steven Gerrard, whose future at the club looks ever more doubtful, the 26-year-old from Bootle is that most precious commodity: an original scouse footballer. The Kop doesn't care that he grew up watching Everton with Philly at Goodison Park because he was brought over to the other side when he joined Liverpool as a nine-year-old and felt Saturday's derby defeat as keenly as anyone else.

Through that game, and another lead abandoned to Portsmouth on Tuesday, Carragher has never been less than honest about his team who, he says, are not good enough to challenge for the title yet. "I think we've done well considering the problems we've had," he says. "I don't think you can say it's like last year. I think if we had been in the Champions' League a year ago we wouldn't have gone through to the group stage. And I know that the fans have enjoyed going to Anfield a lot more than they did last season."

The second reason Liverpool like him so much has more to do with the player he has become. With the possible exception of Gerrard, Carragher will face Newcastle tomorrow as Liverpool's best player of the season. Rafael Benitez has deployed him at full-back just once and the rest of the time he has been impressive at centre-back. The Spanish coach started referring to Carragher by his nickname "Carra" within a week of arriving at Anfield. The implication was clear: he trusts him.

"No one really had a sense that Gérard would be leaving," Carragher says, "people really thought he was going to get one more year. It was a bit of a shock, we were away in Sardinia with England and it came on Sky News that he had left. We were sort of guessing at who would be manager because we were away from home. Of course we were getting reports on what was happening but it was a week until we heard about Benitez being a possibility.

"It bolstered us. You look at the side he has produced at Valencia. We were disappointed for Gérard. We had a lot to thank him for, but also there is a lot of excitement at working with a manager who has just won the best football league in the world. He was the manager of Valencia - he left Valencia. It wasn't as if he was sacked, he left the champions to come here, which does us great credit."

As Liverpool's longest-serving player, Carragher takes some persuasion to explore the distinctions between Houllier, a manager to whom he is deeply grateful, and Benitez. The difference, he explains, is the tactical preparation of the two sides: "Set-pieces, 11-a-side stuff and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition - where we can hurt them". He is clear on one thing, though. The momentous defeat of Arsenal on 28 November can be traced right back to the formation that Benitez settled upon.

"Not many people would have picked the team he picked, or even thought of it," Carragher says. "I was a little bit surprised when I saw it. I don't think Flo [Sinama-Pongolle] has ever played right wing before, but he [Benitez] just felt that was the way to go. Playing Stevie behind the forwards in that role was a great idea because I think he could become a top player for us in that position. In Xabi [Alonso] and Didi [Dietmar Hamann] we have another two great midfielders and two into three doesn't go."

Out on the pitch Carragher remembers the moment it clicked. Gerrard burst in behind Kolo Touré and was clipped by the defender but was denied the penalty. "I just thought the fact that he got there was important," Carragher says, "I knew that the position was working for him." But the use of Gerrard has not been the only thing that Benitez has changed at Anfield.

He visited Carragher, Gerrard and Michael Owen at England's Euro 2004 camp at the Solplay Hotel in Lisbon to explain "his philosophy on football and his training methods" to the three. Carragher keeps joking that Benitez was only really there to persuade "Stevie to stay, not to see me". That battle has not been won yet but Benitez has made changes beyond the formation. He has asked players to room with different team-mates in order to break down cliques and build relationships that have a tactical relevance. Carragher, who had always shared with Owen, now rooms with his defensive partner, Sami Hyypia.

The Liverpool manager also tells him that he "reads the papers too much" and if you are ever at WH Smith in Liverpool John Lennon airport after the team has come back from Europe you might just find yourself standing next to Carragher. He'll be the one at the newspaper stand absorbed by the Liverpool Echo's match report. "You have to read the Echo," Carragher says, "everyone does in Liverpool. They always seem to have the team right the night before."

Carragher admits to being a football obsessive who devours information on the game. Occasionally in our chat we have to pause while he remembers the exact date of a match and he'll recount the team line-up or whether "Michael was on the bench for that one". That would be his old pal Owen, who left this summer for Real Madrid, but managed to move into his new house outside the capital just in time for a visit from Carragher last month. He was in town for the England friendly against Spain.

"He'd just moved in and got Sky installed so he feels he can keep up with what is going on," Carragher says. "He said a few words in Spanish when we were in the Bernabeu, quite impressive. He knows the gatemen and the people in the changing-room. I think they're helping him learn the swear words. He seems to be doing all right."

Carragher is supportive of Owen's move to Madrid - "who could turn that down?" - but he is doubtful that he would ever do the same himself. In fact, he clarifies that, he would be "devastated" if he ever had to leave. He has a young daughter and a son who is just about to be enrolled at Merton Villa. That's Carragher's old youth team from Bootle's Marsh Lane, a road that runs all the way down to the Hornby and Branch docks in north Liverpool. "All the kids from Marsh Lane played for Merton Villa," he says, and the next Carragher generation will be no different.

He was spotted by Liverpool playing for the representative side, Bootle Boys, and invited to train at the old Vernon Sangster sports centre which stands on the site in Stanley Park where the new £115m Anfield stadium will, perhaps, one day be built. From there he went to the Football Association's now defunct school of excellence at Lilleshall, the only two years of his life that he has spent away from Liverpool. "I loved it. I would have recommended it to anyone," he says. "The chance to go training every day with 32 other lads. And all the laughing and joking in that big building."

He was a contemporary of Gavin McCann and Steven Clemence, and Jody Morris was one year junior, but he waited the least time of all of them to make his debut. It came in the then Coca-Cola Cup against Middlesbrough more than a month before his 19th birthday in January 1997. He played three times that month, scoring one of two career goals against Aston Villa, before having to wait until the following season for his next chance. Within a few months he had established himself as a regular.

Carragher has seen the genesis of today's Liverpool and in eight seasons he has only finished outside of the top four twice, albeit at a club where expectations are great. He sighs and pauses when he remembers what proved to be the beginning of the end for the Houllier regime. "When anyone talks about Gérard's reign," Carragher says, "they mention that game." On 9 November 2002, Liverpool visited Middlesbrough as the leaders of the Premiership and unbeaten after finishing second above Manchester United the previous season.

"I don't think we will ever start a season like it again - winning nine and drawing three," Carragher says. "If we had drawn or won that day we would have set the Premiership's unbeaten run record. Before Arsenal's run it was only 12 and I have to tell you we were a little bit too negative that day. We were maybe thinking about that record. We were only playing one up front. From then on, well... unbelievable."

From then on Liverpool went 10 Premiership games without winning and were denied a Champions' League place by Chelsea on the last day of the season. Houllier's team never recovered that form of the autumn of 2002 and a year after the end of that season he was sacked. No one has felt the effect of the disappointment in Liverpool more than Carragher. He knows the city well, a place where, he says, "everyone is a manager. They all have their own opinions. What they would do, who they would get rid of.

"Everyone is desperate to win the League," he continues. "The supporters are so used to it but once it's gone it is so hard to get back. I think they realise now. They appreciate what the club did a few years ago even more. They are desperate to win the championship - it's all anyone talks about. It does get people down. They get a lift with the wins. If it says in the paper we're buying someone, then everyone gets a buzz."

It comes back to the question of the city and the expectations it has of its most successful club. Benitez has talked in recent weeks about gradually assembling a side of Liverpudlians, a team that has a greater connection with its supporters. "Oh, I'd love that," Carragher says. "There is something about this club that the people on the street like to see one of their own in the team. It's hard to explain." And on the subject of the Liverpool academy he is passionately defensive.

It was no secret around the Melwood training ground that Houllier despaired at the dearth of young players that came out of the Liverpool academy down the road in the Kirkby district. After Carragher, Owen and Gerrard the supply had simply dried up. "We get criticism for the academy but for a player to come through now they need to be Champions' League level," Carragher says. "You are asking a lot of a young lad to play at that level - who has come through at Chelsea, United, Arsenal? No one. They buy players from abroad, but with actual local lads it's very difficult."

Carragher's chance came eight years ago, before Liverpool played Champions' League football and when it arrived he took it. He's been there, with his dad in the stands, ever since, although Philly never makes it to Old Trafford. Was that, I ask, a legacy of the two own goals he once scored there in October 1999? "I think it may have something to do with that," he says with a grin. "I have a son now and I am not sure I would be able to watch. Anyway, the main thing is Liverpool - always has been and always will be."