Archive | February, 2014

Britain’s Got Carragher

24 Feb

Consistency can be both a blessing and a burden.  Take, for instance, the classic game show Family Fortunes hosted by Les Dennis.  Each week, when a wildly unlikely answer was blurted out by an excitable guest, Dennis would turn to the camera and snort: “If that’s one of the answers … I’ll give you the money meself!”  (Les was of sufficient means to make such a promise sound believable, as well as simply patronising).  The crowd would go wild every time Dennis delivered the line.  It was funny last week.  It was funny this week.  And, as sure as Neil Morrissey was knocking the back clean out of Les’ missus during filming hours, it would be funny the next week.

Except, of course, eventually it stopped being funny.  Eventually, like Morrissey himself, the audience began to tire of the repetition.  “Naomi Campbell” was never going to be one of the answers for “A bird with a long neck” and Les was never going to have to put his hand in his pocket.  The very consistency of the punchline that had been so soothing for so long eventually began to grate.

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Jamie Carragher is similarly both enriched and encumbered by the double-edged sword of consistency.  Except, with Carragher, it isn’t dogged reliance on a hackneyed early evening punchline that operates as both the feather in his cap and the thorn in his side.  It’s the consistency of his haste.

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It’s easy to forget that James Lee Duncan Carragher actually played a number of positions before eventually settling into his career-defining centre-back role.  The boy from Bootle was nearly 26 by the time he found a permanent home in the middle of the back four.  There are a number of styles of centre-back play and it was easy to pick out which style Carragher was.  Defending the “Carragher Way” was break-neck, seat-of-the-pants stuff.  Danger was never far away and Carragher was always on hand to play the hero.  He was the Scouse Indiana Jones; last ditch tackles in the penalty area while being chased by an improbably large boulder.  It was hair-raising stuff and it looked fantastic on the extended highlights.

The natural contrast in style might be Rio Ferdinand.  Ferdinand is almost never on Match of the Day because nothing much ever happens in his part of the pitch.  Watching Ferdinand defend is like watching a film where the bomb is deactivated several hours before its scheduled detonation.  It’s just not very good television.

Carragher, on the other hand, could regularly be seen scrabbling at the wires with seconds to go before half the city was blown away.  Cut the red wire, or cut the green wire?  If Rio Ferdinand gave the impression of someone locked in a game of chess on the pitch, Carragher looked more like he was on Noel’s House Party playing Grab A Grand.  Each blocked shot and frantic clearance providing another clip for the ex-professionals in the studio to extol Carragher’s virtues.  “What Liverpool’s rivals wouldn’t give to have a last line of defence like Carragher”, they would wonder.

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Carragher has almost certainly never heard of the Superior Pilot Syndrome.  A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills.  Whereas players like Ferdinand, Ricardo Carvalho and Vincent Kompany use vision and pre-emptive strategies to snuff out threats at source, it is entirely possible that Carragher views foresight as a kind of gamesmanship.  Not out and out cheating perhaps, but certainly not something we want to see in the English game.  Plus it’s harder to rally the crowd with a careful interception forty yards from goal.

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But haste isn’t just a style of play for Carragher.  It’s an ethos.  A way of life, even.  Carragher’s single biggest fear might be failing to strike while the iron is hot.  A fan throws a coin at you during a game?  Hurl the coin back into the crowd with force.  A radio show host calls you a “bottler” for contemplating international retirement at the tender age of 29?  Ring the guy up and have it out with him on air. 

When it transpired that his then teammate Rigobert Song had been expressing a certain mirthy surprise at Carragher receiving an international call-up, there was only one manner in which Carragher felt able to respond.  Instantly.  Carragher did his best to cripple Song in the ensuing training session and, having achieved this aim, cheerfully remarked “You’re not f***ing laughing now are you, you soft twat?” 

Carragher’s characteristic speed of thought and decisive response provided concern for us all.  The entire nation had expressed a certain mirthy surprise at Carragher’s call-up.  Would he engage all 53 million of us in a small-sided training game and clatter the lot of us?  Where would he get all the bibs?  Perhaps he would outsource the hit to his mates, as he had bragged about doing in a tale of retribution against Lucas Neill in his autobiography (Neill had broken Carragher’s leg during an ugly encounter in 2003). 

Carragher “boys” were apparently ready and willing to “hunt Neill down”.  Indeed, they very nearly exacted a bloody revenge on behalf of their man in that well know gladiatorial arena, the Trafford Centre, were it not for a merciful Carragher calling off his troops at the last moment.  Pretending to be a bit of a Merseyside mafiosa figure probably seemed like a good idea at the time of writing his book.  However, again, you have to wonder if Don Carragher had thought very far ahead in making such proclamations when a potentially lucrative career in television was waiting just around the corner once his playing days were over…

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Punditry was supposed to be a new chapter in Carragher’s life.  Being a player was just the opening act – an “amuse-bouche” that would be bettered by studio analysis, coaching, management.  Director of Football, even?  Nothing was impossible.

What’s more, the microphone would provide the world with an opportunity to see a more considered and thoughtful side to Jamie’s personality.  Parachuted straight into the prime slot on Sky Sports, too. It was all teed up for him.  If they thought Gary Neville was good, wait until they got a bit of 23 Carra-gold.  He’d be Andy Gray without the sexism.

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Carragher sat down in his chair on Day 1 like he was king of the playground.  There was a sense of unearned entitlement in his posture that screamed “I’m the man here, now.  And if you think I’m not having the last word in at least three out of every five conversations, you’ve got another thing coming”.

Alas, in the studio, as on the pitch before it, Carragher still retained the demeanour of a fireman rushing off to the wrong fire.

Despite having exchanged boots for brogues, Carragher would still flail his arms around and gesticulate excitedly, as though participating in an enthusiastic game of Pictionary.  Nobody doubted the man’s exuberance, but it was all very apparently off the cuff.  One of his earliest oratorical gambits was to dismiss Papisse Cisse’s religious beliefs live on air as “all that crap over the summer”.  Words you have to assume he hadn’t crafted carefully in advance.  Later into the season he claimed he expected Manchester City to pick up 30 points from the next six games. By the time he had broken out a wildly confused analogy comparing diving to how you would react to being punched in front of your wife, it was like Jamie was back on the field of play once more, last ditch tackling the ball into his own net.

Maybe Carragher didn’t realise that Neville the Pundit had actually been doing what Neville the Player had also been doing for an entire career.  Research.  Planning.  The sort of hard miles that gets you 85 England caps and eight league titles.  If it looked easy, it was because Neville was still putting in all the same effort and endeavour that he had used to compensate for his fairly limited footballing ability.  Except now he was the one with the talent.  Neville had a natural flair for talking about football.  Couple this with the work ethic and diligence that had helped him keep up with Giggs, Scholes and Beckham on the field of play, and it made for excellent punditry off it. 

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Jamie Carragher is still a relatively young man.  He can take comfort from the fact that the wisdom accrued from advancing years often begets patience.  This is just as well, as a career in management inevitably beckons for the whole-hearted Liverpudlian.  And a spell in the technical area is going to be a sobering experience for Jamie unless he acquires a little forbearance.  He must learn to think before he speaks, or it’ll be death by a thousand cuts from dressing room bust-ups, touchline bans and lost mind games.

Perhaps the cure is to teach Carragher self-restraint as you would a four year old.  Put a sweet in front of him and tell him, if he can leave it alone for five minutes, he can have the whole bag.  Or challenge him to go second in the analysis for every question of an entire episode of Monday Night Football.  One way or another, he needs to learn to stop barging down doors instead of using the bloody handle.  Carragher’s career is moving ever more towards situations where thought is required before action.  If he can’t make the necessary changes in mindset, he’s very quickly going to find out that those who fail to prepare must, inevitably, prepare to fail.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Neville refused to be overawed by his new challenger.

Neville refused to be overawed by his new rival.

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Wide of the mark

6 Feb

The Ministry of Defence recently announced that £5,800 of Viagra has gone missing from their supplies.  Quite why the army is using Viagra remains a mystery.  Suffice to say, if I was an Afghan insurgent, I’d be nervous.  There’s fighting dirty, and then there’s a passionate brand of “chemical warfare” that goes way beyond the pale.

Potency is critical, though; in all walks of life.  Whether you’re bearing down on goal or staring into the eyes of a terrified farmer with a hand rifle, you can’t be afraid to be the one that pulls the trigger first.  He who isn’t decisive risks his own mortality or, worse still, three points dropped.

Understanding this truism makes one type of footballer all the more curious.  For one genus of player is the very definition self-mollifying impotence.  The sort of unfortunate creation that, like the atomic bomb or Sally Bercow, we wish we could un-invent.  I speak, of course, of the Non-Scoring Striker.

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The closest equivalent to the Non-Scoring Striker in zoological terms might be the mule.  An evolutionary dead-end.  Or, for those of faith, one of God’s mistakes.  Either way, one thing is certain: while content to live out its own existence, the Non-Scoring Striker will not spawn any progeny.  No child in the land tells his father he’s going to be the next Cameron Jerome.

For clarity, I have nothing but love for this unexpected creature.  Sport, famously, is about the taking part.  The Non-Scoring Striker has just as much right to be out there as any other type of footballer.  But it is nevertheless the case that, like candy floss and women called Gretchen, there’s just no explaining their existence.  What is the point of the Non-Scoring Striker?  If Jamie Mackie falls in the woods, would it affect the scoreline?  One suspects not.  Does David N’Gog matter?  I couldn’t swear to you, hand on heart, that any result in the history of football would be any different if Mr and Mrs Altidore hadn’t engaged in one particular knee-trembler during the Spring of ’89.

Yet the game is awash with them.  Kevin Davies.  Carlton Cole.  Jon Walters. Victor Anichebe.  Alan Smith.  Luke Moore.  Anyone with the surname Ameobi.  These are players who couldn’t sort out their feet in front of goal any sooner than they could sort out the Middle East.  Each one of them a millionaire.

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There’s no doubting who was the doyenne of the floundering front-men.  That would be Emile Ivanhoe Heskey.  Truly, Heskey was the magnum opus of misaligned marksmen.  A man who reached exalted status among the Non-Scoring Striker fraternity by amassing 62 full international caps.  Just the one cap less than Alan Shearer.  Nobody couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net quite like Heskey couldn’t.

Heskey was a curate’s egg of hold-up play, knock-downs and fifty-fifty challenges.  Crucially, though, never any end product.  Ever.  It was like playing an enthusiastic Catholic girl up top.  An “everything but” scenario that was lively but, ultimately, gave rise to frustration and a nagging feeling that everyone was wasting their time.

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The barn-door is always open for new members at the Non-Scoring Strikers’ Convention.  Danny Welbeck recently had a narrow escape from this most regrettable of clubs.  A measly two goals in forty games last year playing up front for the runaway champions was ominous stuff.  Welbz was about to be branded with the cruellest of hot pokers.  One can only imagine the sheer terror the poor lad must have felt; mentally tethered to a “cow’s arse” while the death laser slowly moved up towards his misfiring “banjo”.  The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when young Danny rediscovered what the French would call his raison d’être.  Nine priceless goals this season have saved his soul and with it, undoubtedly, his sanity.

The strange thing in Welbeck’s instance is he only needs to peer across the training ground for a perfect case study on how the job is supposed to be done.  Javier Hernandez has the instincts of a born killer.  A man who, the very moment his team gains possession of the football, charges unthinkingly into the opponent’s penalty area.  No “ifs”.  No “buts”.  Like Ryan Giggs when he pays a visit to his brother’s house, there’s only one thing on his mind.  Get in there and do the bloody business.  Welbeck really ought to have been taking notes.

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So what happened to these godforsaken souls?  Did something get wrongly emphasised at a critical stage of their development?  Too much of a weighting placed on the team, perhaps, rather than the score-sheet? And is there a cure for NSS?

If I had my way, I would sit all of these Non-Scoring Strikers down and show them a tape of every single one of Filippo Inzaghi’s 219 senior goals.  Alex Ferguson once described Inzaghi as being “born offside”.  I find it strange that, of all people, Ferguson – a man who hand-picked some of the best strikers of the last 25 years – could so badly misunderstand Inzaghi.  Did he not grasp that, after getting caught offside for the sixth time, on the seventh time around Inzaghi would spring the trap with such precision and beauty that he would find himself in absolutely acres of space and a one-on-one with the keeper (something of not inconsiderable assistance for a gentleman with no discernible pace)?  Could he not see that Inzaghi had a level of conviction in front of goal that would see him gladly locked up for the sins of scoring a brace away at Livorno?

A few years ago now, Super Pippo scored perhaps the most beautiful goal I have ever seen.  He had received the ball deep into the penalty area and was immediately confronted by two defenders in close proximity.  With little time to react and no momentum in his favour, Inzaghi flicked the ball against the thigh of one of the defenders, and then jumped between the two of them (there was about a yard gap) into an area he roughly predicted the ball may ricochet into.  Having gotten suitably close to the ball with his two-footed leap, he was just about able to then attach his shin to the ball coming up on the half volley in order to propel it goal-wards.  As you might imagine, such an attempt on goal did not carry a great deal of force.  However, the effort was just about sufficient to beat a thoroughly foxed goalkeeper and, magnificently, crossed the goal-line without even having enough pace to go on to touch the net.

There are a number of ways one could try to describe the single-minded brilliance and the level of desire required to score a goal like that.  However, it might just be simpler to conclude that it was not one you would anticipate Jeremie Aliadiere scoring any time soon.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

A challenging proposition.

A challenging proposition.