Carragher bows out on a high
It all started for Jamie Carragher, more or less, with a goal in front of the Kop. But for the width of a post, it might have finished that way too. Instead, he had to make do with a win, a clean sheet, a standing ovation and multiple tributes ringing in his ears.
"A world-class player," said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. "A great pro," added QPR boss Harry Redknapp. "A fantastic guy," said Ian Callaghan, the only man to have managed more than the 737 appearances Carragher has made for Liverpool. Those in the stands chanted for their local hero to be given an extra year's contract. Rodgers would love to do just that. But this, after 16 years as a first-team player, was farewell.
And it was so nearly a goodbye that came with the perfect symmetry of a goal. Back in January 1997, on his full debut against Aston Villa, Carragher struck in front of the Kop in a 3-0 Premier League victory. Every time he touched the ball in his final game before retirement, he was greeted from the stands with cries of 'Shoot!' Seventeen minutes into the second half, he did. A 25-yard thunderbolt crashed against the post. "Some strike, wasn't it?" Rodgers said. "It would have been a lovely touch for that to go in."
Goalscoring, though, was never the centre-back's strong point. In all those hundreds of games, he scored for Liverpool just five times. The only Carragher to find the net here was his young son, James, who fired a penalty past keeper Pepe Reina during the warm-up to great cheers. Maybe he could teach his dad a thing or two.
James and his sister Mia entered the field with their father to a guard of honour from players and staff before kick-off. QPR seemed in little mood to disrupt the celebrations; and that allowed Liverpool's young players to shine.
Philippe Coutinho, still only 20, has settled into Premier League life quickly following his January move from Inter Milan, and his creative spark promises much for next season. So too does an impressive debut from winger Jordon Ibe, who was only 15 months old when Carragher made his first-team bow. The 17-year-old, signed from Wycombe 18 months ago, was positive in possession, and his mazy run past three opponents set up Coutinho to drill in a first-half winner. It was just reward for the Brazilian, whose early header from a Stewart Downing corner looked to have crossed the line, but was not given.
For Ibe, the seventh member of Liverpool's Academy set-up to make a debut for the club this season, it was a fine start. "He's got real good potential, and you can see he's a footballer," Rodgers said. "I think all of the young players will see from this season that there's hope for them here."
But if the performances of Coutinho and Ibe give reason for hope, it is a qualified optimism. Rodgers, having led the club to seventh in his first season, has problems to solve. The long-term future of Luis Suarez depends not only on the striker's loyalty - which appears to be sound - but also on his ability to stay out of trouble when he completes a 10-match suspension in September. In addition, Rodgers has still to convince the Anfield faithful that he knows his best team.
And then there is the issue of replacing Carragher. Liverpool lost only one of the 16 Premier League games in which he played after being restored to the team in mid-January. That statistic is not a coincidence. "It's our job to find a way to replace him, and we need to find a good one to come in and support the group," Rodgers said, with a hint of wistfulness. "It certainly won't be easy."
If he stays in charge at QPR - which is by no means guaranteed - Redknapp's problems are rather greater, but there was an indication that youth may be the way forward at Loftus Road too. Jose Bosingwa, a one-man conveyor belt of mishaps this season, was left out of the squad altogether. In his place, 20-year-old Michael Harriman, the club's Young Player of the Year, made a solid debut at right-back. Elsewhere, few emerged with much credit, although goalkeeper Rob Green produced a series of excellent second-half saves to deny Glen Johnson, Fabio Borini and Jose Enrique, while the commitment of centre-backs Clint Hill and Nedum Onuoha went some way to keeping the score down.
Afterwards, Redknapp first insisted that he would continue to manage the club in the Championship, then gave every indication that he would rather not.
"I want to put a group together that makes you look forward to coming into work every day," he said. "That's all I ask.
"I don't need all that aggro every day of people coming in late, and having to fine players every day. One player was fined more for being late this month than he earns in wages. And he earns plenty of money. It's sad, really. I wouldn't want to come back if I couldn't get some good lads in here."
Indeed, for all that the Liverpool fans chanted about dreaming of a team of Carraghers, it's Rangers who are in far greater need of that kind of spirit. Something has to change. As Wolves can testify, life in the Championship can be unforgiving for those who drop out of the Premier League.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jordon Ibe - A meaningless end-of-season game against the worst team in the Premier League may not be the most stressful introduction to top-flight football, but the teenager's creative spark on the left wing suggests he is more than worthy of opportunities next term.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Even without Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, Liverpool were comfortably the better side, and did not need to reach top gear to secure the victory. A wider margin of victory would have been theirs but for a regular inability to deliver a telling final ball.
QPR VERDICT: An abysmal season ended with a 21st Premier League defeat for a side who will not be missed in the top flight. This loss was far from being Rangers' biggest humiliation of the campaign - but they looked far too willing to accept their fate.