It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Jamie Carragher – playing out his last Merseyside derby at Anfield tomorrow when all that stands at stake is the right to say: “We finished sixth in the Premier League.” Steven Gerrard can hardly disguise his contempt for the euphoria he expects Everton’s fans to feel if they secure those questionable bragging rights, but the unspoken sorrow as he talks about the departure of his old friend from the big stage is that they never did win that elusive league title together.
When he and Carragher first kicked a ball together at Melwood – Gerrard on a work experience placement organised by academy director Steve Heighway, and Carragher the young YTS pro whom the club initially fancied far more – title legends Barnes and Molby were in their number. “I was 16 and passing the ball to John Barnes and Jan Molby!” Gerrard reflected years later. Little did either of those teenagers, whose lives would be inextricably bound to the task of making Liverpool great again, imagine that the English championship would elude one of them, and probably both.
Their Merseyside status will be no less because of it. Each will certainly preserve some memories of the role the other has played and it is perhaps because Carragher is the character he is that Gerrard’s memories of him are the more vivid.
Gerrard tells a good story of Carragher’s decisive penalty kick in the 2001 Worthington Cup final shoot-out against Birmingham City in Cardiff, that year when it was raining trophies at Anfield. “The run-up was so long they should have had an athletics track there,” Gerrard recalled a few years later. “It looked about 100 metres. I didn’t want to watch because I was worried a good friend would stick the ball in the stand, but I had to. It was hilarious. I said out loud: ‘Carra, what are you doing?’ I tried desperately to keep a straight face because if somebody took a snap of me laughing I’d be in serious trouble.” Then the run-up started – “more giraffe than gazelle,” as Gerrard remembered it. And then the kick. Smack. Top corner.
These and other moments – Carragher’s colossal display in the victorious 2005 Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea; him stretching his calf against the goalpost to take the sting out of his cramp in the Istanbul final a few weeks later – are what Gerrard will miss, though it is the more prosaic things which will make most difference, he says. “I sit next to him on the team bus, do things with him out of training. He’s the first person I look for when I come to work. Coming in next year and he’s not here will be a lot different for me…”
It is perhaps a measure of those very different personalities – 35-year-old Carragher so assured, 32-year-old Gerrard wearing that furrowed brow – that only one of them heeded the other’s plea not to say goodbye to Anfield. It’s nine years this summer since Carragher told Gerrard that signing for Chelsea would be a grave mistake, because “you’ll never be able to come home and have the respect of the Liverpool fans,” as he put it. And Gerrard, for his part, told Carragher not to retire. “I tried to convince him to give it another year,” he says. “It wasn’t an argument, more of a case of ‘don’t make a decision just yet, wait until the end of the season and see how you feel then because things change really quickly’.”
Those were wise words from an old mate. Carragher, desperate at languishing outside the first XI, was duly recalled by Brendan Rodgers to a side woefully short on fight. But you imagine that Carragher was wracked with less angst and introspection than Gerrard was when Carragher urged him to stay in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Those exhortations prompted rumours – always strenuously denied by both – of a falling-out between the pair, during England’s 2004 European Championship campaign. “He made his debut in ’97, me in ’98, so over 15 years or so you will not agree on everything. You’re bound to have a few,” Gerrard now says to the notion that they’ve had their fall-outs.
There is no sense on Merseyside that Carragher’s decision is wrong, however. “I think he’s looking back with a smile on his face rather than gutted or devastated at what he’s done,” Gerrard says. “He’s going out when people want a bit more rather than saying, ‘Get him out, he’s making a show of himself’. He will go out on a high. He’s picked the right time.”
The dynamics between the two of them never seem to have changed. From the day they first met, Carragher was the one dishing out more of the banter.
“I was cleaning the dressing room at the old Melwood, mopping the floors, and I got a bit of verbal about my haircut,” Gerrard recalls. “It was his little gang: [Jamie] Cassidy, [David] Thompson and Carra: that was the trio.” So what did he say? “Don’t be nosy. I’m not telling you, so it’s in all the papers!” Gerrard replies, grinning.
He recalls in his autobiography how, after he had broken into the first team, Carragher caught him in conversation with Paul Joyce, a journalist who knows both players well, at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane. “F***ing hell, Stevie, one game and you’re doing big-time interviews already!” Carragher cracked. There’s never any mercy from the Marsh Lane boy, though Gerrard could have been forgiven for a little insecurity, all those years ago. He was devastated to have been turned down for one of the places at the FA youth academy at Lilleshall that Carragher and Cassidy had won.
The mellowing of Gerrard ahead of days like tomorrow is another characteristic he has not shared with Carragher, in the years since the departures from Anfield of Michael Owen and Danny Murphy left them as the last of their generation and bound them closer. “I don’t get wound up for derbies,” Gerrard says. “I used to, when I was younger, and I probably found myself watching half of them from the dressing room. Winding yourself up for football matches is not good. I learnt that quite a few years ago.”
There are far rawer derby emotions for Carragher, the boyhood Everton fan, who has made no bones about what he thinks of the vile chants which that club’s fans have dished out to Gerrard over the years. “It’s personal, vindictive and disgusting,” he has reflected. “I’d never go so far as to say I hate Everton, but I hate losing to them more than any other side in the world.” He has always viewed the Everton vitriol as a product of their own fall from the higher echelons. “Yes, I think we’ve all been on the end of his passion at times,” Gerrard says of him. “That’s the person he is. He loves his football. He still shows the same amount of passion now. In the dressing room at Newcastle [last weekend] he was as vocal as ever. That’s going to be missed and what the manager will have to fill. Good luck, because it will be hard.”
The two of them have charted almost identical courses through this weekend’s fixture since they first played in a Merseyside derby together, in September 1999 – the last one Everton won at Anfield. Carragher has played 30 derbies to Gerrard’s 28, won 17 to his friend’s 16 and they have lost only five when in Liverpool’s side together. Gerrard says people forget that he is the younger of the two by two and a half years. But Carragher’s final bow “lets you know where you are in your career, you’re in the final stages”. The age difference “tells you probably how long I have left”.
This summer’s contract talks will see an extension to Gerrard’s deal which expires at the end of next season, though how long the extension runs is the uncertain part, he says. “I’m not too sure yet. That’s under discussion at the moment.” But the prospect of life beyond the game weighs on his mind. He has inquired about coaching badges, will probably embark on them after the 2014 World Cup, and is already in the process of calculating what his life after football will look like. “Yeah it crosses your mind all the time but you change,” he says. “You have days and weeks when you think, ‘I’d quite like a go at the coaching and the management side of it’ and then certain things happen. A bad result or a player will wind you up, then you think, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’d be able to handle it.’ So you change from week to week.”
So one day quite soon Liverpool’s quest for the title will go on without either Carragher or Gerrard and an incalculably more difficult one it will be because of that. How will the club push on without this heartbeat?
“I don’t know,” Gerrard says. “People will all have different opinions on that but you have to have the confidence and the belief in the people at the Academy that they can produce good players. The talent is certainly there.” For all that, it feels like a very hard road ahead. All the more reason to savour, for one last time, Gerrard and Carragher in tandem tomorrow against their most inveterate foe.