Jamie Carragher is to retire from professional football at the end of the season. I am genuinely sad about this.
Obviously, as befits someone who grew up in Oxford to parents from Cheshire and Cambridge, I am a Liverpool FC fan. I can’t pretend to be the greatest supporter – I’ve only been to Anfield a handful of times, and to see them away once; I didn’t really think of myself as a committed fan at all until I was about 17 – but I watch them every week, and I find my satisfaction with any given weekend hangs in part on whether Liverpool won or lost. And, for the last 16 years, almost ever-present, Jamie Carragher has been there.
Big Jamie, big, uncomplicated, red-faced, shouting Jamie: Barney Ronay recently described him as having “carved a brilliant career out of basically playing football with his hands, like an energetic junior supply teacher trying to break up a game of classroom head tennis”. Jamie, who steams into tackles and puts his big head straight into the ball when defending free kicks and clearly feels uncomfortable anywhere near the half-way line. Jamie, who in an illustrious, trophy-strewn career, has scored as many own goals for Tottenham alone as he has at the right end for Liverpool. Jamie, who speaks in a wonderful Scouse squawk, that one-octave-up register that only true Scousers can do for extended periods without twanging a vocal cord.
The paeans to one-club men have all been written, to Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and, as his own career inches into its later stages, Steven Gerrard. Gerrard, incidentally, is of course another club legend and worshipful hero, but I think, if you asked Liverpool fans which of the two Scousers more represents the heart and soul of the club, most would say Carragher. That’s partly because Gerrard flirted briefly with Chelsea in 2004-2005, when it was becoming clear that he was one of the best players in the world, and no relationship can ever be the same after one partner gets their head turned, however long ago. But it’s also because Gerrard is a wonderfully naturally talented player, one who scores 30-yard screamers, who can beat a man or play a subtle pass through the defence. Jamie, by comparison, is not.
The great Jamie Carragher moments are not him dancing up the wing or playing deft little one-twos. They’re him heading away a cross, the cords in his neck sticking out; hoofing the ball to anywhere but This End Of The Pitch, shades of the Peter Kay “‘ave it!”; and, of course, crippled by cramp at the end of extra time in the 2005 Champions League final, somehow sticking one final boot out to nick the ball off the toes of Shevchenko or Crespo or Kaka, desperate for victory by any means. Fans love those players, the Dirk Kuyts and Gary Nevilles, who run and run and run and make the most of the limited gifts they have and sweat and bleed and die, but will fall on their faces if they ever try to do a stepover.
And there was the story in his autobiography, of him, having missed a penalty in the 2006 World Cup against Portugal, texting Kenny Dalglish: “at least it wasn’t for Liverpool”. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about England: “I wasn’t uncaring or indifferent,” he wrote. “I simply didn’t put England’s fortunes at the top of my priority list.” The press got on his back about it, but Liverpool fans – most of whom think of themselves as citizens of the People’s Republic of Merseyside – loved it.
I haven’t got anything clever or important or new to say, really. (Some may say this is an ongoing problem for me.) But part of the reason that Jamie Carragher retiring particularly hurts is that I remember him as a young player starting out, and have watched the slightly coltish right-back develop into the slablike seasoned pro. He’s only three years older than I am, and yet he’s a veteran, an old-timer, a grizzled old greybeard at the very end of his playing career. It’s a reminder of how much older I am than I was when I first saw him in the late 1990s, for a start, a little reminder of ageing and mortality. And it’s also a reminder that at this stage of my own career I really ought to be angling for that big club move.
But mainly it’s just because a seeming fixture of my life is going to disappear. No doubt he’ll crop up in management or something, and that reassuring Scouse chirp will be heard on Match of the Day. But from May onwards, we won’t see him turn any more forwards upside-down with a crunching tackle or furiously berate a team-mate for standing two yards too far to the left. And we will all be slightly poorer for it. Bye, Jamie. I’m going to miss you.