He has led one of the best defences in the world for the last three years. In that time, he has won a Champions League, an FA Cup and been to another Champions League final. He has also been instrumental in his team having its best domestic season, and tightest defence, for 16 years. Before that, he was played largely away from his best position, but even then he was an integral part of a team which won the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and two League Cups.
When his current club manager took charge of Liverpool, he soon declared him the equal of his previous prized charge, Roberto Ayala, then considered one of the finest defenders in the world. He has twice been voted into the Champions League team of the year, and two years ago was voted in the top 30 world players of the year, a higher position than any other British defender. Franco Baresi, the greatest defender of modern times, has called him the best defender in Europe, and he has received lavish praise as he led his team to clean sheet after clean sheet across Europe.
He has a solid number of international caps, and was until recently the record holder for Under-21 caps for his country.
This tells the tale of a bright young talent, who fulfilled his potential with a trophy-laden career, gaining all of the plaudits along the way.
And yet, and yet... No-one has really taken any notice of Jamie Carragher as an international footballer. It was not until this week, as he announces his probable departure from the international scene, that anyone has written about him as an England defender.
Three years ago, as Rio Ferdinand was suspended for failing to attend a routine drugs test, England went into Euro 2004 with a first choice central defensive partnership of Sol Campbell and John Terry. A very strong duo. Campbell suffered an injury shortly before the game, and for a week or so all of the speculation was about who would replace him, with it generally seen to be a straight fight between Ledley King and Carragher. On that occasion, King won out, and it was probably the right decision. Carragher had only just started playing centre back again regularly for Liverpool, and his one achilles heel was leading the French attack that night; Thierry Henry.
In the three years since, while those on the continent have been falling over themselves to praise him, not a lot has changed in the public perception of Jamie Carragher in this country. Some say that it was his misfortune to be part of the same generation as the admittedly strong Terry and Rio Ferdinand. That may be true, but since Euro 2004 the following players have also been picked ahead of Jamie Carragher at one time or another: Jonathan Woodgate, Ledley King, a half-fit ageing Sol Campbell, Wes Brown, Phil Neville, and Matthew Upson, all to no great public disbelief. I defy anybody to tell me why they deserved to be picked ahead of Jamie in that time.
If he had been born Italian, he would have contested a World Cup final last summer (I hesitate to say won the World Cup, as he lacks the goalscoring ability of the matrix). If he were German, their defence would have been built around him. The Brazilians would love a player like him. Even the French, very strong in this area, would surely have been glad to see the back of the hapless Mikel Silvestre if Carragher were born in Bordeaux instead of Bootle. A team of Carragher’s would probably not be very good, but there are not many teams who wouldn’t benefit from one Carragher.
Here though, we have damned him with faint praise; ‘A local lad lending a (shrill) scouse voice to Liverpool.’ ‘Prepared to die for the cause.’ ‘Makes the most of his ability.’ He does all these things, but it does not recognise the absolute top drawer quality that he brings to any table. He is obsessed with football, and better than anyone else this allowed him to adapt to Rafa Benitez’s much maligned zonal marking system (much maligned, but also statistically the best defence from set pieces for the last two seasons, incidentally). It was this knowledge of the game that allowed him to remain a key player despite Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz, Markus Babbel, John Arne Riise and Steve Finnan being brought into the club to play the position that Carragher had made his own the season before.
It is also this footballing intelligence that means he reads the game better than any other defender currently playing in the Premiership. Regular interceptions, last ditch tackles to cover other’s mistakes, and never being caught out for his famed lack of pace (save one or two Henry specials, but then who isn’t susceptible to them), suggest a man whose positional sense is second to none. It also enabled him to run a defence, often including Djimi Traore, which was tighter than any other assembled in the country two seasons ago.
The image of Carragher in the popular psyche is of a man who looks a little out of his depth, uncomfortable on the ball, red faced and bent double. That is my picture too. But what I know is that I would not swap him for any other defender in the world at Liverpool, even if some others are more athletic, are more of a danger from set pieces, and look a bit silkier on the ball.
Jamie; don’t cry for you country. The truth is, it never loved you. I do appreciate you though. Not for your workmanlike qualities, though you have them, or for your commitment, though even for an Evertonian that cannot be questioned. I appreciate you for your sheer quality. For your skill, for your brain, and for your ability. It’s just a shame that most of your country didn’t notice your brilliance.