So far have expectations plummeted that when Andy Carroll met the airborne ball with his head on Tuesday night, knocking it into indiscriminate space, Anfield erupted in appreciation. That this action took place equidistant from both ends meant little: he was bought to head, and head he did.
There has been a change at Liverpool in recent weeks. Two late goals at Ewood Park and Wembley washed the Kop of its doubters, and Carroll became an instant hero. Yet the predominant drawback of being an instant hero is that, time being the fluid concept that it is, instants are momentary. Now, that the immediate minutes after have come and gone, and the glory has cleared, we can begin to remember why it was that we so derided this lumbering streak of misery in the first place.
Having watched him compulsively over the course of the season, as all people so unfortunate as to have chosen to support Liverpool have done, it is easy to string Carroll up and tear him apart (metaphorically, of course: his dimensions suggest it would be altogether more difficult to actually lift him from the ground). He alone has made the past nine months intolerably painful. It is not so much his ethic as his ability: indeed, Carroll will run, building up momentum slowly like a 100-tonne steam engine, only to just miss the ball slip past him – or rather, he slips past it, such is his incapability to slow down when required, and his poor sense of balance.
His skill in possession is something to behold. What is remarkable is the amount of effort it often takes him to find himself with the ball at his feet, in “control”. Barney Ronay of the Guardian noted how he “addresses the ball with the finesse of a man booting an old hubcap along a motorway verge”. It is an unfortunately brilliant comparison. His attempted bicycle kick against Fulham was, whilst an example of his growing confidence, a summation of his ability: he might have held the ball for an oncoming midfielder, but instead chose to knock it ahead of him, away from goal, and attempt an overhead kick. If the Ronaldinho of 2005 had scored from the same move, it would have been passed off as a fluke. It was depressingly laughable.
The shame of it all is that it really isn’t Carroll’s fault. It is unfair to call him a ‘bad’ footballer. Damien Comolli, who had so revolutionised Tottenham, decided that he was worth the frenzied spend, and Liverpool paid Newcastle United £35m in what will go down as arguably the worst transfer in English football – though the Newcastle boardroom would beg to differ. There could be few who would argue otherwise: even the most ardent Liverpool supporter would have difficulty justifying his place in the side, if they could ignore the FA Cup semi-final winning goal.
Much was spent, though not necessarily on very little. Carroll was a revelation as he took his first steps in the Premier League, and only foolish restlessness saw the biggest transfer fee for a British player paid out. Some must have forgotten altogether that he earned a call-up to the national side. Far from being a complete stumbling drunk of a footballer (on the pitch, at least), he is an anachronism.
At the head of Liverpool’s forward line, Carroll serves as a reminder of the past. Cristiano Ronaldo might not have thrived when matches were played under three feet of snow, or in endless pools of mud. It is not so difficult to see Andy Carroll in sepia-drenched red, blood pouring from his face, playing in an FA Cup sixth-round replay which has drawn the attention of all of Britain. Here, in this time, he is not the nostalgic purchase that his manager hoped would revive the long-dead memories of a better side. Indeed, his manager might as well be playing alongside him, so long gone is his era.
He is the last of his kind, and it is almost fitting that he should exist alone ahead of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, leading Liverpool, all the while pulling them back. His height dictates that he can head the ball, so cross after cross after pointless, execrable cross is swung towards his lonely figure. He’ll rise; heaving his considerable mass from the earth, straining his neck muscles in a final attempt to keep the ball from dribbling pathetically out of play. More often than not, it does. The goal kick is taken, and he looks hopefully up at the ball passing over him. It is a poignant pattern.
Watching Barcelona is, David Winner suggests, comparable to a bullfight: “Languid phases of poise and stillness give way to darting swoops and thrusts. One side is giving an exhibition of intelligence and fluidity; the other can muster only a kind of sullen physical threat. The quick passing serves to establish mastery and wear down the resistance of the dangerous opponent.”
Football has moved past Andy Carroll, yet he remains stuck in the wrong era of the game, as the impossible triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi taunt him from afar. All four play the same game: it is the same ball, the same rules, and the same field. They, however, are players that have defined modern football, and extinguished the notion of the hulking, all-conquering targetman. Carroll’s kind is near to extinct.
Writes Winner: “Even the biggest, dumbest, slowest footballers are sentient creatures who feel pain”. As excruciating as it has been to watch Andy Carroll this season; to see him frustrate the crosses, perhaps we should stop to sympathise. On Saturday, if he takes to the field, the ball will likely skip just beyond his reach again. He’ll look to the sky for an answer, the 25,000 Liverpool supporters who have travelled to London will groan, and millions more will project their abuse towards a television set. Watching Carroll has been painful. Being him, as the football passes him by, must be infinitely more so.