When news spread on Thursday of Jamie Carragher's announcement that he would be hanging up his Liverpool boots for good at the end of this season, the sense of deflation I experienced surprised even this most devoted of Reds fans. That he was retiring was no great shock in itself; the realisation that his exit belied a potentially greater psychological blow to those of us clinging to the disappearing era of one-club man football struck a far deeper chord.
Carragher is perhaps widely known best as being one half of the team's old Scouser guard, having come up through the Anfield ranks from his early days at Liverpool's Academy alongside fellow hometown hero and current captain Steven Gerrard. Carragher has not had to bear the same kind of cross as Gerrard, who through times good and bad has shouldered much of Liverpool's expectational burden, but he has been equally integral to the consolidation of the club into an institution that perhaps defines the city more than anything else.
If Gerrard is the homegrown star who has propelled Liverpool to the height of its modern day international prominence, Carragher is the local boy done good who has ensured the club has retained its unique hometown appeal. Liverpool and her supporters could never get too big for their boots with the likes of Carragher steadying the ship. He embodies and epitomises the working class diehard fans who represent the soul of Anfield. Young boys may have grown up aspiring to reach Gerrard's elite level, but it is Carragher most local Reds supporters would say they identify with most - ironic given the well-known tale of the forsaking of his childhood love for Everton to become a reborn Liverpool diehard himself. The one-time self-styled "Biggest Blue in Bootle" readily admits -proudly proclaims even- that his passion has gone full circle, and it is perhaps this unconventional path that has helped accrue Carragher's living legend status at Anfield.
Week in, week out, he has quietly and steadily become Liverpool's bread and butter, having become the club's second all-time leader in appearances behind another stalwart of old Ian Callaghan. Gerrard's career, blighted in recent years by extended injury spells, has come in bursts of brilliance. Carragher, the seasoned veteran whose presence we have come to rely on -perhaps even take for granted- has rarely let us down where putting in the hours is concerned.
While Gerrard has been able to extend his career well into its twilight with the aid of a mind-blowing long range free kick ability (not unlike another attacking midfielder by the name of David Beckham), Carragher's role as a defender has not afforded him the same luxury. Even after being liberated by Rafa Benitez from the attacking requirements of fullback and moved to his more natural positioning at centre back, the gritty unglamorous realities of life at the back took their toll on workhorse Carragher. Glory was in comparatively shorter supply and when his fitness started to wane, it showed.
Naturally a player who looked coming off the pitch as if he had given his all, every passing game where he limped off red-faced and wheezing led to perhaps unfairly premature questions over whether he had given too much of his all to keep going. The truth of the matter is that no team wants a defender who does not regularly bear the battle scars of relishing every 50-50 tackle in the way that the gloriously physical Carragher has throughout his entire career. But his scrappy style of play against the refined skills of attacking fullbacks like Glen Johnson meant that his relevance was increasingly held under the microscope at Liverpool.
If people are at all surprised by his mid-season announcement, they should reflect on the selfless approach that has served Carragher well both on and off the pitch. He knew the questions about his future would continue unabated, and he took the decision now he said to spare his manager any added distraction during the remaining games. Neither will he be commenting on his retirement until the last match has been played, owing to his simple philosophy of team before all else, and certainly before the individual.
In an era where individual brand recognition has become not just a reality but much of what underpins modern day football, this approach is sadly on the decline. And so we cling to players like Jamie Carragher as the last bastion of a dying breed against the irrepressible march of time. To some extent both he and what he represents are casualties of progress in the sport of today. His so-thick-you-sometimes-need-subtitles Scouse accent illustrates why Reds fans will be desperately sad to see him go, and also perhaps why others won't quite understand what all the fuss is about. One hopes that the feeling is mutual enough to the extent that he will continue on at Liverpool in some form or other, perhaps helping to spot and hone local talent at Anfield's Academy. One thing is certain: for better or worse, there will never be another quite like Carra.
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