Carragher: An underestimated talent
As defenders know, especially in an era when tackling is increasingly precarious, timing is everything. Jamie Carragher's has proved perfect to the last. As he announced his retirement, it ensured he will leave the stage with calls for an encore ringing in his ears. Rather than fading away, as seemed his destiny in the year after he lost his regular berth in the centre of defence, Carragher, with trademark determination, clawed his way back into the side, proved his worth and then announced his decision.
It came via a brief statement on the club website. No flourish, no frills: typical Carragher. Yet after back-to-back displays of defiance within the space of five days against Arsenal and Manchester City, Liverpool will miss him, not merely for what he represents - a Liverpudlian and a one-club man, a throwback to the days of Roy Evans and thus, perhaps, the last link to the days of the Boot Room - but for what he remains: a pure defender, equipped with superb positioning, excellent judgment and an unyielding spirit, forever cajoling colleagues and talking younger team-mates through the game.
His powers of communication, that strong Scouse accent notwithstanding, were a reason Brendan Rodgers restored him to the team. So, too, his character, which is perhaps his greatest quality. "The main reason I have played for Liverpool and England is having the mental strength," he once said. Carragher's talent can be underestimated, and he has enough ability to operate in midfield for club and country, but his career-defining achievements were triumphs of willpower.
In particular, the night of May 3, 2005, when he mounted a magnificent rearguard action to repel wave after wave of Chelsea attack and propel Liverpool to the Champions League final. "We survived because of one man - Carra," Steven Gerrard later recalled. "I looked at him and saw a man hell-bent on not letting a lead slip. He was prepared to offer the last drop of sweat and blood in his body to get us to Istanbul." He was almost as heroic in Turkey, too.
But if Istanbul was Gerrard's masterpiece, Anfield was Carragher's. Twice, in fact, because he staged a repeat in the 2007 semi-final. If he was unappreciated outside Anfield for too long, his European excellence rectified that. In both 2005 and 2007, there was no finer defender in the Champions League.
In Liverpool's treble-winning season of 2001, Carragher's favourite side of his career, there was no more reliable or regular presence. The great competitor was the constant then, making 58 appearances, just as, with 329 games over Rafa Benitez's six-year reign, his name was stencilled onto the teamsheet.
For a reluctant left-back, he was a highly effective one. But efficiency always trumped elegance for Carragher. There have been more stylish, skilful and speedy defenders - although at his peak, only Thierry Henry really beat him for pace - but few who have proved more dependable. It is why, despite the claims of Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson and his finest partner, Sami Hyypia, Carragher belongs alongside Alan Hansen in the centre of the defence of Liverpool's all-time XI. The Scot would bring the grace, the Scouser the grit.
He is the boyhood Evertonian who became a symbol of Liverpool. In many a chorus, the Kop dreamed of a team of Carraghers. While he scored on a rather deceptive full debut, that would pose certain logistical difficulties; a willingness to throw himself in the way of shots meant he actually chalked up more goals against Liverpool than for them. Yet 11 men equipped with Carragher's commitment would make a formidable side.
While only Ian Callaghan has played more for Liverpool, none have sweated more in the cause. He is a player who can seem to be sweating profusely 90 seconds into a game while still putting his body on the line 90 minutes later. Thomas Edison famously defined genius as 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration; Carragher was a guarantee of the 99%. Apart from the example he set, he left it to his blood brother to provide the inspiration.
Indeed, it was a sign of Carragher's humility that he was always willing to defer to Gerrard, the greater talent and the man with the armband. If Gerrard has been Liverpool's heart, Carragher has supplied their soul in the 21st century.
That, as much as the mediocre efforts of Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates, is why he is irreplaceable. At a time when Liverpool are trying to reinvent themselves and reposition themselves for the future, they will be bidding farewell to a man who connects them with their past and yet who remains as relevant as ever. Perhaps punditry beckons, maybe management or possibly an ambassadorial role.
Whichever, his 723 (and counting) games mean legendary status at Anfield is ensured. Liverpool have had no greater vice-captain and no more resolute defender and, even in their glorious history, they have had few nights like the semi-final second leg against Chelsea in 2005. As much as it is also Gerrard's, their fifth Champions League crown is his legacy to Liverpool.