‘I was terrified of life without football when I first stopped playing’
Jamie Carragher talks to Paul Hayward about his chances of coaching at Liverpool, becoming a top pundit, why the game needs leaders, and joining The Daily Telegraph
English footballers are often accused of not wanting to know anything about the mechanics of their game. Jamie Carragher wants to know everything: an obsession that began in childhood, drove him through an illustrious one-club career and shapes his punditry. If the game appointed a professor of analysis, they would interview him first.
Carragher, who this week joins The Daily Telegraph as a football columnist, connects an older Premier League era, in which strong characters and club loyalty were to the fore, with the digital age of mass opinion, in which superstars move around for £100million-plus transfer fees. All the while he is staying true to his experience and deep knowledge of the game, accrued not only from 508 top-flight appearances for Liverpool and 38 England caps but a fiercely academic interest in what he sees.
The inquisitiveness was there from the start. “When I was a kid I would always be thinking like a manager, who we should buy, who we should sell – as an Everton fan or a Liverpool player,” he says. “I was listening to managers a lot. And in my twenties I was one hundred per cent going to be a manager. One hundred per cent. I started getting my coaching badges at 31 or 32 when I retired from England.”
This smooth path to management veered off in another direction, to the benefit of Sky TV’S football audience and now readers of Telegraph Sport.
Carragher, 39, says he “dipped his toes” into broadcasting with ITV’S coverage of Euro 2012 and then jumped in after the possibility of an assistant manager’s role with Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool fizzled out.
Only Anfield could tempt him away from his current media work. “Maybe being asked to be involved with the first team at Liverpool and helping a manager. Steven Gerrard – who knows. And even then it’s not guaranteed I would do it, because I really love what I’ve got at this moment.”
What he has is an indefatigable urge to watch, understand and explain the game as he sees it.
“I love the detail of football, because I think there’s a lot more to it than 22 players kicking a ball around a pitch,” he says.
“Detail fascinated me when I was a kid; I must say I watched every football show even when I was a player and I always felt I could add a little bit more than just saying ‘that’s a great goal’ – well, where did it come from? Where did it start?
“I read almost every paper in the morning, watch every game on TV. Having social media makes you feel like football just keeps getting bigger and bigger. When I was a kid, I could tell you who the best tennis players were, the best golfers, Olympians, whereas now it feels like everything is about football.”
Sport is peppered with former players seeking purpose, meaning, once the lights have dimmed, but Carragher never waited for boredom and isolation to claim him.
An intense, committed and highly verbal defender who won the Champions League, two FA Cups and three League Cups in 17 years at Liverpool, he has found in punditry and column-writing a way to maintain his passion without the extremes of winning and losing that sometimes took him to “the gutter”.
He says: “The best feeling for me with football was getting back to the dressing room when you’ve just won. You’re with your manager and the players and you’re thinking about what you’ve achieved.
“I miss those moments, but football is full of ups and downs and now my life is much more like that [he makes a straight line gesture with hand] and that’s something I like. When I played poorly, and there was a lot of that, I’ll never forget it. That could take me to the gutter sometimes. That was a hard place for three or four days then. Especially being a local player at your own club, it was hard, so that’s definitely something I don’t miss.”
Managing the distress of losing or playing badly became no easier with time. “I spoke to a sports psychologist about it and said:
‘When I was a kid I was always thinking like a manager, who should we buy, who we should sell’
‘How can I stop feeling like this constantly if things aren’t going well?’ Not even just personally but if the team wasn’t performing well. And it’s only really when I thought – well, I can’t change it, so in some ways I’m going to have to embrace it and think, ‘that’s actually what’s made me the player I am’. I had such a fear of failure it just drove me on, even though it would take me to some dark places at times.”
The dark places were outnumbered by sunlit uplands, even if the Premier League title eluded the great Gerrard-carragher local hero duo, who can count the astonishing Champions League final comeback in Istanbul in 2005 as a comforter. Rafael Benitez’s 2008-2009 side were the best Carragher played in.
“I think that could be one of the best teams that never won the league,” he says. “You think of that team, the spine of the team. I think we were a bit short in the wide areas compared to Manchester United. They had [Cristiano] Ronaldo, we had Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera. Kuyt did a great job over the years but we just didn’t have a Ronaldo. But you think about what we had going through the middle. Pepe Reina – great keeper, [Fernando] Torres, Gerrard, [Xabi] Alonso. We were a top, top side but unfortunately we came up against a United side of [Sir Alex] Ferguson and Ronaldo.”
Recalling Carragher’s playing days, the interviewer’s memory conjures images of a type seldom seen these days in the Premier League. So the temptation is always to ask him about the supposed leadership deficit in today’s game.
There is a drop-off, he agrees. “And that’s not me trying to blow my own trumpet, it’s a John Terry or a Roy Keane we’re missing,” he says. “And I think it might be across society. When you see kids playing now, you don’t see it. When I see my son play I say ‘talk’ because you’ll have such a head start on everyone else because no one does it any more.
“And it’s not that you’re trying to tell people what to do. There’s an element of that, but you’re also talking to them to help yourself. If someone else is in the right position, then I get to do less. I don’t want to be exposed or caught out between different players, or on my own. Just make sure we’re all where we need to be and we’re switched on.
“When I watch Liverpool now, I wish someone would just talk, organise. Lapses in concentration are just nipped in the bud.”
Carragher agrees however that some lead by example, and picks out Harry Kane. “What I love about Harry,” he says, “is not even what I see on the pitch. It’s
‘When I watch Liverpool now I just wish someone would talk, organise’
‘We’ve always criticised Wenger for saying top four is an achievement but it is now’
the mentality in the eyes. You know that lad is so focused, nothing is going to get in the way of him breaking records and doing things. And I think he’s the kind of player who will look at milestones and really obsess [about them]. Is he the top scorer in the league? And I think that focus and determination gets you places.
“Ability-wise, he’s a top player. But there are many top strikers in the Premier League. What that lad has done, though, coming from Tottenham and people not thinking he was quite good enough, going on loan, I think he’s an example we should be using, and will be using, in academies for 10, 20, 30 years, because I think he’s going to go a long way and end up somewhere great.”
Carragher admits to still gravitating past artistry sometimes to “a great defensive performance”, and wishes there were more of them. And he is not prone to stuck-in-the-past syndrome. With the extra spending power and competitiveness at the pinnacle, he is more tolerant of a top-four place being a target in itself. “We’ve always criticised [Arsene] Wenger for saying top four is an achievement, but I think it is now,” he says.
“Certainly for Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal. They’re probably going for position rather than the title. Maybe not Tottenham, I’m probably doing them a disservice saying that. But it was always a top four when we played and you knew in a standard season you’d make the Champions League. It would be Manchester United and Arsenal going for the league and it would be us and Chelsea or us and Newcastle or Leeds going for the other two positions. So now there’s more of a top six, if you finish outside of those top four places, it’s going to feel like a nightmare season. “And with these superstar managers we now have, I think if you offered them one league win in three or four seasons of being here, I think they would probably take that.”
No longer terrified of “sitting in the house all day and watching daytime TV” when his career finished, Carragher has found a fresh raison d’être for the second half of his life. He says: “I’d never want to not be obsessed with football – because that’s when I’d start worrying.”
Triumphant: Jamie Carragher in Istanbul in 2005 (left) and in his England days (right)