x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Carragher on the brink of landmark

The boyhood Evertonian stands on the brink of a landmark: with 599 games for Liverpool, he is set to become the ninth member of the Reds 600 club.

Jamie Carragher will reach 600 games today.
Jamie Carragher will reach 600 games today.

It all began in rather forgettable fashion, but since then indelible memories have been forged. In January 1997 a teenager from Bootle appeared for the last 15 minutes of a 2-1 defeat to Middlesbrough in the League Cup. Almost 13 years later, the boyhood Evertonian stands on the brink of a landmark: with 599 games for Liverpool, he is set to become the ninth member of an elite club to play 600 games for the Reds, at Portsmouth today.

Along the way, Jamie Carragher has been responsible for more own goals than strikes at the right end and gone from unappreciated utility player to the cornerstone of the defence and the embodiment of Liverpool Football Club. The Kop, his father Phil often among them, regularly sing: "We all dream of a team of Carraghers." Eleven such competitors may struggle to score, but they would be hard to beat.

Today's game comes with Liverpool and their vice-captain at a low ebb. Following Sunday's defeat to Arsenal, he talked of praying for an end to their troubles. During an undistinguished start to the season, the notion gained credence that Carragher was in decline. But his peak contained an enviable brand of homegrown defiance, encapsulated when he was the outstanding defender in the Champions League in 2005. Elegance was never on his agenda and Carragher seems to be sweating moments into any match, but he has proved indefatigable. Cramp could not halt him in extra-time in the final in Istanbul, when his mastery of the last-ditch tackle or the desperate block was evident. Chelsea were thwarted by a similarly colossal performance in the semi-final.

It cemented his status at Anfield. "He is one of the legends of Liverpool Football Club," said Javier Mascherano. "We know how Carra fills the Liverpool shirt. It is really good have him in the squad because you can see how important he is for the club and the team." That significance extends to a vocal contribution which, despite the strong Scouse accent that many of Liverpool's foreign contingent struggle to understand, Mascherano appreciates from his position in the midfield. He added: "It is very important to have someone behind who can talk to you all the time and organise the team and it is always really positive."

That organisational prowess has led some to tip Carragher for a career in management. Before then, however, the 31-year-old has one clear aim. While the league title that has eluded him throughout his career will not be secured this season, he can climb the list of Liverpool's most dedicated servants. Ian Callaghan's club record of 857 appearances looks unbeatable but within a couple of years, Carragher could stand second behind the winger who featured in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is all the greater an achievement because, whereas Liverpool used to be a byword for continuity, one-club men are all the rarer now. Each of the other men to reach 600 games debuted under Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley. Carragher first appeared under Roy Evans, but became established under Gerard Houllier. Beginning the 2000-1 season on the bench, he ended it having appeared 58 times, invariably at left-back, and winning the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Uefa Cup.

A run in his preferred position in the middle of defence only came after Rafa Benitez's appointment in 2004. With a central role, he became fundamental to Liverpool. Mascherano captains Argentina, but he recognises that at Anfield, Steven Gerrard and Carragher personify the club. Paying tribute, he said: "He is a leader. Carra and Stevie are the most important players for this team because they were born in Liverpool and they are representative of Liverpool Football Club."

A fortnight ago, Gerrard made his 500th Liverpool appearance and Benitez added: "It's like I said with Stevie recently - to be at one club for such a long time and to play 600 games is absolutely amazing and shows the passion and commitment." Injury may deprive Glen Johnson of a reunion with his former club today while Benitez is likely to restore Fernando Torres to the starting line-up. It would be enough, normally, to make the Spaniard the focus of attention but today should provide a celebration of the dedication of Liverpool's No 23 instead.

rjolly@thenational.ae Portsmouth v Liverpool, KO 4.45pm, Showsports 2