Andy Carroll’s career is fading meekly

Words By Alex Hess Image by Offside
November 27, 2017
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Here’s a faintly startling fact: Andy Carroll is 29 in a couple of months. English football’s eternal source of just-wait-till-he-gets-a-run-of-games-under-his-belt optimism is approaching what we could conceivably call the later stages of his career – certainly well past the halfway mark – having made an astonishingly minimal impression on the sport.

A striker once legitimately heralded as the heir to Alan Shearer is fast becoming the heir to Joey Barton: a player who inspires an amount of conversation and column inches wildly at odds with his impact on the tangible, grass-and-goalposts business of Actual Football.

The received wisdom with Carroll is that his career has been thwarted by injury. This is only true to an extent. He has indeed had 18 separate injuries since bursting on to the scene with Newcastle back in 2010. Yet he is also closing in on 300 senior appearances – 192 of them in the starting lineup – which, while certainly on the modest side, hardly tells the story of a footballer who would be a red-hot goal machine if only he could himself on the pitch.

Besides, the most grimly inadequate spells of his career have tended to come when he has been injury-free, fit and not firing. In his second season at Liverpool – that bleak year when the Adam-Downing-Carroll masterplan was proving far less devastating in practice than it had in Kenny Dalglish’s eager imagination – he played 47 times, scoring only nine and largely displaying all the grace and dextrousness of a wild buffalo. Injuries were not the problem then.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t other mitigating factors (being hurriedly helicoptered out of your boyhood club and slapped with a patently absurd transfer fee would be daunting for any 21-year-old player) but mitigation is one thing, absolution another – especially when you’re reaching nadirs were as shambolically bad as he was.

And yet that season wasn’t without its moments of dazzling promise. In amongst the boomeranging first touches and bewildered attempts to locate the opposition goal was a smattering of heroic back-post headers, predatory finishes and even the odd moment of exquisite technical deftness – many coming in big games. His final appearance of the season, in the FA Cup final, encapsulated all the best of Carroll when in a half-hour cameo from the bench he managed to score one hip-twizzling goal with his left foot, have another thumping header harshly disallowed and generally look like a sumptuously talented £35m bargain against the soon-to-be European champions.

A striker once legitimately heralded as the heir to Alan Shearer is fast becoming the heir to Joey Barton: a player who inspires an amount of conversation and column inches wildly at odds with his impact on the tangible, grass-and-goalposts business of Actual Football.

It wasn’t enough to prevent him being frogmarched off to West Ham that summer, but it was enough to get him a spot in England squad for Euros, where he was one of the brighter performers, scoring a header of signature murderousness in a crucial game. English football’s Carroll fixation has come in for scathing criticism from some, supposedly symptomatic of the retrograde, wheezing, sharp-elbowed approach to football which has seen us become a speck in the wing mirror of other more sophisticated nations. But this is to do the player himself an injustice, because the simple fact is that he is an unstoppable and deceptively multitalented force of nature on the rare occasions he is on top of his game, fearsome enough for any country to get excited about.

It may be cliched to describe something in terms of its contradictions but in Carroll’s case it’s pretty much impossible to avoid. He’s a galumphing lummox whose biggest goal was born of fleet-footed wizardry; a man weighed down by the pressure of his price tag yet able to rise to the biggest occasions; a player debilitated by injury yet capable of the sort of absurd contortionism that saw him provide last season’s most thunderously visceral moment.

Perhaps the starkest fact regarding Carroll, though, is that he has not once managed a double-figure goal tally – across all competitions –since leaving Newcastle in January 2011. His total haul in the Premier League during that period currently stands at 36, or five more than Rickie Lambert. Or five fewer than Steven Fletcher.

It is an underappreciated fact of a sportsperson’s life that their careers – the focal point of their lives – are fleetingly brief. Their peak years even more so. At the sort of age where most of us might start to think about getting serious, kicking on for that promotion or whatever else, a footballer is hurtling terrifyingly towards retirement. Carroll isn’t quite contemplating the pipe and slippers just yet, but he will surely be afflicted more than most by the notion that his career will not go on forever.

Last week his substitution, which capped a dire outing at Watford, was greeted with jeers, West Ham fans chanting that he wasn’t fit to wear the suit and calling for him to be dropped. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that once upon a time he was unplayable in a good way. If he doesn’t emulate that glorious past, he could be spending his future in the Championship.

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