England’s Loss is Liverpool’s Gain

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If anyone wondered whether or not Jamie Carragher would regret his decision to end his international career, the answer came from the man himself this past week when he explained just how much he was enjoying himself without the distraction of the Euro qualifiers. For some players, it’s a series of injuries that force them into a decision to retire from international football. For some others, it’s a series of insults that make them decide to call an end to their international career. For Jamie Carragher, it was definitely the latter.

When you consider that Jamie’s total number of England appearances (34) is less than current England players like Phil Neville (59), Rio Ferdinand (64), or Ashley Cole (61), then you have to question the wisdom of the manager(s) who selected each squad. The supposed managerial wisdom is even more in question when considering recently retired players like Gareth Southgate (57), Sol Campbell (72), or Graeme Le Saux (36). Even then, that’s not the end of the mysterious reasoning. For all of those 34 appearances for his country, only 12 of them have been for a full ninety minutes. If that isn’t an insult to the man’s playing ability, then I don’t know what is.

Jamie Carragher began his England International career with an appearance as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against Hungary in a 1999 friendly. It should have marked the beginning of a memorable career, following a record number of caps at the Under-21 level (27, which was only recently broken by Liverpool team-mate Scott Carson). His full debut came two years later against Holland in another friendly. It should have been an easy choice for him to be selected for the squad to travel to Japan/Korea for the 2002 World Cup, but an injury forced him out of contention (along with Steven Gerrard among others). A series of appearances in even more friendlies followed, and he rightly earned a place on the squad for Euro 2004 in Portugal.

But, he did not see any playing time as other players such as Ledley King were chosen ahead of him. The story was almost repeated for the 2006 World Cup, but injuries to other players enabled him to finally see some playing time in a World Cup Final competition. His last appearance for Erikkson was as a substitute in the quarter-final against Portugal, brought on in the 118th minute with the match heading for penalties to decide the winner. Obviously Sven-Goran Erikkson had that in mind when he made the change, and sure enough Carra confidently stepped up to take one of the deciding kicks. He was so confident that he powered it easily past Pereira, but the referee insisted that he had not yet blown his whistle for the kick, and so it must be taken again. The re-taken kick was then saved, allowing Portugal to win on the next one.

carra_england.jpgIt might have been purely coincidental, but Jamie seriously considered his retirement from international duty shortly after that disappointing result. However, after giving it some serious thought, he decided to continue at least for a while and to be available for the Euro 2008 qualifiers. It was thought that new manager Steve McCLaren might see the value in a player of Carragher’s abilities more than Erikkson did, but then again as McClaren was Erikkson’s assistant for six years or so, it wasn’t surprising that the same attitude continued. Finally this July, various reports stated that Jamie Carragher had decided that he would be retiring from the England squad permanently, but would talk with the manager before making it official.

The mere hint that a player would effectively refuse to do his duty for his country set off a string of accusations over Carra’s commitment, with one pundit (Adrian Durham of TalkSport Radio) accusing him of ‘œbottling it.’ He went on to claim that he would have no problem saying precisely that to Jamie face-to-face when a caller asked him if he would, only to be shocked when Jamie himself called in to the show and suggested that he come around to Melwood to follow through with it. Mr. Durham politely declined the invitation.

To say that Carra is anything less than fully committed to the cause is ridiculous. He has shown time and time again that he is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Just thinking back to the finals at the end of each of the last three seasons, he could be seen playing through the pain of cramp without ever giving in and asking to be taken off. He gives it everything he has, and then gives some more.

When we say that Jamie Carragher is one of the best central defenders in Europe, we can say it confidently with the knowledge that as a key member of Liverpool’s back line he has achieved among the lowest goals against for the last two Premier League seasons. When you also consider that under two different Liverpool managers over the last seven years (both of which are fewer than in his international career) he has earned winners medals in a European Cup, two FA Cups, two League cups, a UEFA Cup, two UEFA Super Cups, and two Charity Shields, as well as runners-up medals in a European Cup, a League Cup, and a Charity Shield, then there must be something in his ability that lets him keep his place in the side. If nothing else, he knows all about winning. In fact, his importance is underlined even more when we see that in spite of Rafa’s rotation policy, his name is one of the first on every team sheet for every game. He really is that important. The mystery is why neither Erikkson nor McClaren could see what was clearly obvious to Houllier and Benitez.

There were some pundits who suggested that he should continue to fight for a place in the squad, rather that walk away. But what they don’t seem to realise is that the battle has already been lost and it’s futile to continue. Jamie Carragher may well be the world’s best in our opinion, but in Steve McClaren’s mind he was always ranked behind John Terry and Rio Ferdinand as centre-halves, and now has been pushed even further down the list behind Jonathon Woodgate and Ledley King. In the last match against Brazil, he started at right-back, but was replaced with Wes Brown (who is nothing more than a squad player with Manchester United). No matter how many times McClaren may have said that he respects and highly regards Jamie Carragher, his actions tell a different tale. It was only with an injury crisis on his hands that McClaren talked about how, ‘œJamie has been a fantastic servant for England.’ That’s simply too little too late, and not convincing given the recent choices made by the England manager.

Jamie finds himself in the company of a long list of Liverpool players who were eligible to play for England but not considered good enough for one reason or another. When Alf Ramsey became England manager prior to the 1966 World Cup, he selected left-back Gerry Byrne but did not give him any playing time in the finals. He earned a total of 2 caps. At the same time, Chris Lawler was a right-back who knew when to push forward into attack and score goals, but could only achieve four caps. Ian Callaghan was also selected for the 1966 World Cup Finals, but only played in one game. Ramsey was not inclined to use wingers, and so Callaghan was limited to four caps in his entire career. Later England managers were equally as bad or even worse in their failure to select Liverpool players. Among the limited number of appearances were those of Tommy Smith (1), Paul Walsh (3), Alan Kennedy (2), Alec Lindsay (4), Larry Lloyd (4), and amazingly Jimmy Case (0).

carragherThere comes a time in every player’s career when he has to look ahead to how many more years he can continue to perform at his highest level. That might mean playing a few less games in a season, or for players who are also members of a national team it may mean retiring from international play in order to concentrate on their club football. Jamie Carragher decided that at age 29 the time was right for him. With no real prospect of being given a place after being snubbed so many times, it makes sense to walk away, with head held high, rather than continue to be disappointed.

One of Jamie’s stated reasons for choosing to leave when he did was that he wanted to concentrate on his Liverpool career, reasoning that retiring from England duty will likely extend his time at club level. This was also criticised by some commentators who were of the opinion that he should keep working toward that elusive place for his country before stepping down. To do so any earlier would be to leave without dignity, and considered unpatriotic to put club before country. That may be their opinion, but it just doesn’t make sense. Other players have called a supposedly early end to their international careers precisely out of the same sense of loyalty to their club. Alan Shearer retired at age 30 after Euro 2000 and continued to play for Newcastle until 2006. David Platt retired from England in 1996, and continued to play until 2001. Paul Scholes left after Euro 2004, and continues to contribute week in and week out for Manchester United. In comparison with those, Jamie is choosing precisely the right time – especially with his recent signing of a contract extension which will keep him at Anfield for years to come – and we’ll see the benefit of his decision to give his best performances for us.

Steve McClaren made one last appeal for Jamie to reconsider his decision a few months ago with a visit to Melwood for a face-to-face meeting. It was rumoured that there may be another appeal from Mclaren before the crucial final round of Euro qualifying, but there was no last minute change of mind, and so that’s definitely it for Jamie Carragher’s England career. What a waste of talent. It’s too late for McClaren to say how valuable he is now, and just seems to be a desperate move by a manager who has very few options left. It’s easy to talk now about his value to his country, but the insults of the past selection decisions cannot be reversed.

Jamie told the Daily Post this week that he has no regrets and is enjoying this couple of weeks of the international break, having more time with his family and having a few light training sessions with the four or five others not on international duty. As he puts it, ‘œHopefully I’ll be fresher than most of the lads by the time Newcastle comes around. The whole idea was to help my Liverpool form. Hopefully it’s doing that.’ Well said, and nice to see that he has his priorities straight. We may all dream of a team of Carraghers, but obviously England managers don’t.

Keith Perkins