OF all the days in the club’s recent memory, the 30th of January, 2011 — or, as it’s known to keen Jim White fans: ‘THE MADDEST TRANSFER DEADLINE DAY’ — represents a strange turning point in Liverpool’s history, writes KIERAN MORRIS.
The club was in the midst of a dizzying high — buoyant with the return of Kenny Dalglish after half a season of Hodgeball — when Chelsea finally made a move they had long threatened to do: bidding for Fernando Torres, and doing everything within their powers to get their man.
Out were the Kopite dreams of Torres, adopted son of the city and club icon, being managed and nurtured by the man who embodied the club most. Yet in its place came a position Liverpool had not been in since the 1980s: club-record money in the coffers, and an immediate desire to replace a superstar.
Gerard Houllier had not been afforded this duty, save for the £11m addition of Emile Heskey to Liverpool’s already-stellar frontline in March 2000, and nor had Rafa Benitez, who unfortunately had won everything he could as manager before getting his big-name striker on board.
Chelsea had put £50million down for the lad from sunny Spain which was, even to the most ardent Nando devotee (and there were many), a staggeringly high sum for a player who had played within himself that season. Liverpool accepted.
The club’s transfer record had already been broken that day with the completion of a long-mooted deal for Ajax forward Luis Suarez, and with money burning in the pockets of Dalglish and transfer-making cohort Damien Comolli, the hunt for a partner began.
Long-time target Mario Gomez was suggested, having already rejected a loan deal to Roy Hodgson’s Tricky Reds the summer previously, as was Atletico Madrid’s young Argentine prodigy, Sergio Aguero, who had also attracted a bid of £32.5m from Tottenham Hotspur that day. And yet neither of those two strikers signed for Liverpool. Instead, the club, manager and Director of Football opted to place their bets on the continuing rise of the Premier League’s newest breakthrough, paying a record sum of £35 million for Newcastle’s second saviour: Andy Carroll. And the rest, as we’re so often reminded, is history.
The signing of Andy Carroll has become a punchline in English football. Even from day one, there seemed a collective sense of expectant schaudenfreude from the fans and media alike. Stories were quick to emerge in the wake of the move; of forced transfer requests, incomplete psychological scout reports, and picaresque stories of Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias laughing as they held Liverpool to ransom.
The spotlight was foisted upon a 22-year-old from Gateshead, who had only six months’ first-team experience in the top flight, and who, within that time, had seen himself inherit two of the most symbolic and significant shirts in England: the black-and-white nine of Shearer, Milburn and MacDonald, and the red nine of Hunt, Rush and, of course, Fernando Torres. Carroll had scored 11 goals in 19 Premier League games that season and had only made his full England debut in the November.
“Toshack and Keegan reborn!” shouted the fans, the fanzines and the ever-duplicitous media, who watched on wryly, waiting to seize upon any tough settling-in period.
A pre-existing injury delayed his eventual debut, stirring up a frenzy of curiosity among supporters desperate to see their new man in action. In that vaccum, expectations soared. The explosion of Suarez onto the scene — he scored on his debut as a substitute against Stoke at Anfield — had given fresh cause for optimism, which was galvanised by Liverpool’s form in a late-season resurgence.
The introduction of Carroll, who had, for Newcastle, appeared to be the English Batistuta, was intended to roll back the years for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. Except he never kicked on. You know that, I know that, and all of football knows that.
People continue to laugh at Liverpool for Andy Carroll to this day, and on account of that, Big Andy remains almost an embarrassing figure for most fans of a red persuasion to discuss. To many, he represents a wayward time; when our new and inexperienced owners bought new and inexperienced players for large sums of money in a misguided attempt to apply baseball analytics to transfer valuations.
He is lumped in with Super Stewie Downing and Chubby Alonso, lunking long-balls to each other from either side of Melwood. To the more hyperbolic, he’s even known as the worst signing in either Liverpool’s history, or football’s history — depending on which cab driver you ask.
Andy Carroll should not be remembered like that. Andy Carroll should have been a Liverpool legend.
It’s easy to forget how much of a splash Carroll had made before his move to Liverpool. The brightest star within Newcastle’s famed youth academy, Carroll had been perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the club’s relegation in 2009.
Mark Viduka, Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins all made their exits before they faced second-tier football, and the club was left with only Carroll and the erstwhile Shola Ameobi to lead their promotion push. By the end of the season, bolstered by the re-addition of Peter Lovenkrands, Newcastle saw themselves promoted once more to the Premier League with 102 points, having secured automatic promotion by Easter, and with their new talisman weighing in with 19 goals.
It only takes one look at some of Carroll’s Championship goals to realise why they were so excited by him. He was an incredible physical specimen, capable of outmuscling alehouse centre-halfs at will, as well as embarrassing goalkeepers both with set pieces and in open play. No matter how meticulously sides had planned their corner routines, Carroll could surge and soar and wrap his head around the ball with astonishing power, putting it firmly in the back of the net with a force that said “FUCK OFF” to the opposition fans.
That raw power is evident in Carroll’s first full season. He could hit a ball, he could head a ball, he could chest it down and volley a ball, and he could do it with an exuberance that sent fans singing his name all the way home.
Comparisons to Robbie Fowler start and end here when I say that Carroll shared a similar role for the clubs they loved: he wasn’t just a fan from the stands in the black-and-white shirt, he was a fan who just so happened to be dead good at football. He had already won the ‘Wor Jackie Milburn Trophy’ for the most promising player in the North-East, and had also received effusive praise from Gianluigi Buffon after a pre-season friendly against Juventus.
And yet he was a Geordie lad through and through, who had come through the school football system, into the academy, into the first team, and now, back into the Premier League. And what an impression he gave, netting 11 as Newcastle set about re-establishing themselves, and earning plaudits along the way at every turn.
Much like the celebration of Harry Kane last season, Carroll was venerated by pundits, managers and commentators, earning comparisons to Alan Shearer, Christian Vieri, Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his barnstorming performances as Newcastle’s number nine.
All the while, Liverpool were languishing, hamstrung by the continued employment of a certain current international manager, watching on as this bright talent made mincemeat of sides that Liverpool could not manage to. The club then was in freefall, and upon opening its doors to the brisk winds of change, the decision to target Andy Carroll cannot be seen as an entirely illogical one. After all, he was attainable, and in the form he was in, a desirable prospect to have in the side.
The club, no doubt, would have been looking into long-term successors for Fernando Torres, and, while 11 in 19 may only look a fairly impressive return, Carroll’s genuinely unique style of play could have been seen as a way to purchase a striker who simply has no other European alternative, in much the same way that Suarez was a style of player in himself.
In essence, the only player in the world who played like Andy Carroll was Andy Carroll, and that, in the face of a struggle to attract true top-class forwards, may have went some way to justifying the decision to sign him.
Critics, armed with the benefits of hindsight and the drawbacks of received wisdom, would argue that Carroll failed at Liverpool because he never managed to replicate that form again. However, there was a top player in there and we saw fairly extensive glimpses of it in a red shirt.
Despite seemingly never nailing down a set place in a set formation for any significant length of time under Dalglish, Carroll was able to show some of what made him such a unique and sought-after footballer, forming one of the stranger partnerships the club has ever seen in Kenny’s full season in charge.
The strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll saw both players battling to justify one another’s hype, with Suarez struggling with profligacy — as well as the incident with Patrice Evra — and Carroll struggling with consistency, as well as off-the-pitch professionalism.
And yet, if you watch back a few compilations, you will see the some of the neat interlinking between these two stylistically opposed players, taking on each other’s skill sets to run defenders ragged with brains and brawn.
Go back to Carroll’s first two goals against City and say he wasn’t a talent. Look back to Blackburn when he delivered with a last-minute winner in one of the bleakest games in recent memory, and say he didn’t do it when it mattered. Look to all the saved shots, headers, volleys and thunderbolts Carroll attempted in a season when keepers turned up to have worldies against us every week, and say that there’s no way he could have found consistency in a red shirt.
Look to his outstanding performances in the FA Cup, both against Everton and Chelsea, when by rights he should have dragged us kicking and screaming to a domestic cup double, and say he was the worst signing in Liverpool’s history.
Yes, we paid a pretty penny for Andy, but other clubs have bought players who never showed a bit of what Carroll managed for Liverpool, and who came in earning higher wages with bigger reputations.
Unfortunately, time has shown itself to be the ultimate victor in the Andy Carroll saga, and at 26, he already seems a case of fallen talent; the last left in the Big Sam Bargain Bin, set to warm the bench of the Olympic Stadium until Newcastle eventually bring him home — to serve more as a cautionary tale than a second saviour.
And yet, Carroll could have been so much more at Liverpool. It is perhaps the greatest tragedy for him that, upon his arrival as manager, Brendan Rodgers had a choice between which inconsistent, tumultuous striker they wanted to make into the club’s new hero, and that the man they chose went on to be the most talented footballer to ever wear the shirt.
With patience, time and hard work, Andy Carroll could have been an icon at Liverpool, and yet, we took the country’s jokes and bungled him off to West Ham for as much money as we could get.
We should not take those jokes, and tar Andy Carroll with the same brush of received wisdom that has people calling Heskey useless, Milner boring and Hazard the best player in the league.
We should recognise Carroll’s contribution, appreciate his ability and mourn the fact that it never quite came off for him here. With Newcastle having moved on and with West Ham quickly forgetting him, someone has to still spare a thought for Andy Carroll, and the player he could have been.
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