2011/2012: A pivotal season for Andy Carroll

by Ciaran Kelly

England have always had a history of testing out imposing and bustling number nines – be it Tommy Lawton, Derek Kevan, Nat Lofthouse, Mark Hateley, Steve Bull, Chris Sutton, Dean Ashton, Peter Crouch, Kevin Davies or Emile Heskey – but the merits of Andy Carroll, with the possibility of a mouth-watering partnership with Wayne Rooney playing behind Carroll in a 4-2-3-1, continue to be debated due to Fabio Capello’s belief that “we need to help Andy’s drinking habit.”

Remarkably, just over 48 months ago, the 20 year old Carroll was a gangly, quiet and out of favour Gateshead lad who had scored just four senior goals in 41 appearances (one of which came on loan at Preston) and had made just six starts under Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer – who all favoured the proven, yet brutally out of form, Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins. 30 goals in 52 games later, Carroll became the most expensive British footballer of all-time after moving to Liverpool for £35 million in January. However, just like Fernando Torres and possibly to a greater extent, given Torres’ energy, obvious determination to prove his doubters wrong and his improved form, Carroll has struggled to assimilate into his new club’s system. Liverpool play a lot faster than Newcastle with more ground balls, but have often just hopelessly punted it to Carroll and have expected him to do more than simply hold the ball up, and this as much as is the pressure of his inflated transfer fee is one of the reasons why Carroll has struggled.

A love of lager, which has been incredibly exaggerated, and his Tyneside ‘retreats’ have seen Carroll’s fitness and attitude scrutinised as he looks to evolve from hometown hero to national star. However, after netting the opening goal in the Merseyside Derby and his first Premier League goal for 11 hours and 21 minutes, as well as showing the mobility, sprawling frame, ‘Angel of the North’ swagger and hold-up play, in the second half, that led to Kenny Dalglish’s £35 million splurge, everything may soon click into place for Carroll to become a permanent fixture under both Dalglish and Capello. However, like with most English footballers, Carroll has a history of misdemeanours, outside of his ‘alcohol abuse’, and for him to fulfil his undoubted potential, he has to put football first.

Even though Carroll made his debut for Newcastle at the age of 17 and 300 days against Palermo in the UEFA Cup on 26 November, 2006 , becoming one of Newcastle’s youngest ever first-team debutants and their youngest ever in Europe, this was down to Carroll doing the ‘simple’ things, be it lay-offs, heading and ground shots, well rather than being blessed with what players often stand out at the youth team level: mesmerising dribbling, a cultured left foot or composure beyond their years. From this, credit must be given to Carroll’s mentality over the years and the Duncan Ferguson-like, rather than the lazy Alan Shearer comparisons, edge, strength and traits that have been taken up to a new level by Carroll were growing month-by-month – regardless of his initially lanky and slender frame. By the end of the 2006/2007 season, Carroll had won the ‘Wor Jackie Milburn Trophy’. This is a prestigious honour that recognises the best under-18 player on Tyneside and capped off a decent introduction to first team football for Carroll: making 7 appearances, including a dominant and mature substitute appearance against John Terry and Chelsea, in 2006/2007.

The pre-season of 2007 was prophetic for Carroll. On 29 July, he led Newcastle’s line in a pre-season friendly against Juventus and after a stellar performance, including a powerful left footed strike into the bottom right hand corner, Gianluigi Buffon, a man who usually shies away from the media, paid tribute to Carroll’s “great awareness” and gave him the welcome nickname of “paintbrush striker.” Despite being backed for first-team football by the then undisputed greatest goalkeeper in the world, Carroll was immediately sent on a six-month loan to Preston by Sam Allardyce (who was replaced by Keegan upon Carroll’s return). It was, along with Carroll’s subsequent call-up to the England Under-19s which was marred by breaking a curfew and being subsequently sent home, a mixed spell with Carroll sent-off for an off the ball incident against Scunthorpe in September and managing just one goal, his first ever senior goal which came against Leicester in November, in 12 appearances for the Lilywhites. He returned to Newcastle in the New Year and made six appearances, all as a substitute, as the Magpies finished the season in  12th place.

The start of the 2008/2009 season was a sign of things to come for the wrong reasons, with Carroll arrested and cautioned for assaulting a woman in Pudding Chare on September 10 – which came just a week after Keegan’s acrimonious fall-out with Mike Ashley and subsequent departure from Tyneside. Keegan’s replacement, Joe Kinnear, had high hopes, typically given his playing style at Wimbledon, for the 20 year old Carroll and it proved a fruitful season for the striker: starting 4 games under Kinnear and 1 under Shearer, making a total of 16 appearances and scoring 3 goals. With the upheaval, but what turned out to be a blessing for Carroll, that occurred at Newcastle in the summer of 2009, including the departures of Viduka, Owen and Martins and Shearer as manager, Chris Hughton and Carroll both began the 2009/2010 Championship season as upcoming figures who would have a huge influence on how Newcastle’s 2009/2010 campaign panned out.

Carroll returned to pre-season in 2009 and impressed Hughton with a new look to reflect his status as one of Newcastle’s only first-team strikers, alongside the experienced Shola Ameobi andPeter Løvenkrands, with a noticeably bulkier physique, a newly acquired contract with Adidas and their sensible rather than flashy World Cup boots, and his bizarre cornrows were replaced by neck-long tossed locks complete with an alice band. Carroll, regardless of the alice band, had clearly readied himself for his breakthrough season and some bruising encounters with journeyman defenders. The striker won himself a call-up to Stuart Pearce’s Under-21 squad and alongside Løvenkrands, in particular, Carroll starred: the partnership accounting for half of Newcastle’s goals in 2010, with Carroll netting 19 goals (17 in the Championship) in all competitions in the 2009/2010 season as Newcastle brilliantly bounced back under Hughton.

Having become a father in the same season, it was a near-perfect year for Carroll but, predictably, there was a blot on his fine campaign with Carroll arrested on 7 December for, accidentally, smashing a glass on the eyebrow of Sunday League footballer Michael Cook in a nightclub. With Gateshead and the whole of Newcastle synonymous for its laddish and working man’s culture, Carroll had drank nine pints of lager before the incident and after Cook spilt Carroll’s lady friend’s drink, which led to a near-comic swapping of pints between the woman and Cook, Carroll threw the contents of his glass on Cook – cutting him above his right eye. Carroll was charged for common assault for the crime in October 2010, was fined £1,000 and paid £2,500 to Cook in compensation. This incident would not be the last of what was to be a controversial upcoming twelve months for Carroll.

Regardless of finishing as Newcastle’s top scorer in 2009/2010, it was clear that Capello was sceptical of Carroll’s achievements – given that he plucked for the barren goalscoring exploits of the veteran Kevin Davies for the September, 2010 qualifier against Montenegro.  However, Carroll, who had been handed Newcastle’s iconic number nine shirt, soon proved his top-level quality: overpowering ‘monsters’ like Richard Dunne, Christopher Samba and John Terry as he netted 11 goals for Newcastle before his move to Liverpool. Considering the quality of opposition and the importance of these goals, the winner at the Emirates against Arsenal on 7 November for example, it eventually came as no surprise when Capello called Carroll up for the 10 November friendly against France.

Again, though, up to that point, Carroll struggled with his temper. First, there was a training ground incident with Steven Taylor, which was one of the reasons that nearly led to Newcastle’s vice-captain quitting the club, where Carroll broke Taylor’s jaw after he discovered that Taylor had received texts from Carroll’s ex-girlfriend. Then, in October, Carroll was charged with assaulting the same ex-girlfriend, which led to him being ordered to live with teammate Kevin Nolan as part of his bail conditions, and although the charges were later dropped over a lack of evidence, Carroll’s car was daubed with graffiti and burnt out while he lived with Nolan. Regardless of these incidents, however, Carroll started against France after passing a late fitness test. The striker proved his credentials, despite lousy service, with his link-up play and strong running, and he troubled the proven international class of Philippe Mexès to such a degree that the defender was often bouncing off Carroll.

It was an impressive debut from Carroll, with pundit Kevin Keegan commenting that he was the best header of the ball that he had ever seen, and while there was reported interest from the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea, the signing of a five-year contract extension with Newcastle in October suggested that the 22 year old had loyalty as well as wisdom in his locker. After all, 2010/2011 was Carroll’s first season at the top-level as a starter and it was clear that he was thriving in following in the footsteps of the likes of Jackie Millburn, Malcolm MacDonald, Andy Cole and Alan Shearer in becoming a brilliant Newcastle number nine. However, had it not been for Fernando Torres moving to Chelsea in January, Carroll would surely have remained at Newcastle for at least another six months – given that they had dismissed tangible overtures from Tottenham. However, cynically, given Mike Ashley’s prudence with contract extensions, one could argue that Carroll’s £35 million valuation and inevitable sale was calculated and boosted by having so many years left on his contract – regardless of his impressive form.

A thigh injury hindered Carroll’s Liverpool introduction, which came two months after his arrival as a late substitute against Manchester United on 6 March, and he grabbed his first goals in his brace in Liverpool’s impressive 3-0 win over Manchester City on 11 April. Both of the goals against Manchester City reflected why Liverpool expended such a huge amount of money, with Carroll showcasing two trademarks: a towering header and a 25 yard ‘through the laces’ and low-driven thunderbolt. Sandwiched in between those two appearances was a goal for England against Ghana, but rather than congratulating Carroll for a decent performance and a well-taken goal, Capello warned Carroll that he needed to curb his drinking habits. Club wise, however, the hope that many Liverpool fans had of an instantly reciprocal John Toshack/Kevin Keegan-like big man/small man partnership between Carroll and Luis Suárez, synonymous for his selfish play, in a 4-4-2 soon evaporated. Even though Dalglish has vehemently defended Carroll, it has been the remarkably cheaper Suárez who has adjusted quicker to Liverpool’s set-up, the full rigors and the need for consistency (it is worth noting that Carroll had only six months of Premier League experience as a starter) in Premier League football.

Carroll has lacked match sharpness and his trademark dominance in his time at Liverpool and given that he has made just 17 appearances in eight months of competitive football, perhaps this should not be as surprising as it seems to fans and pundits alike. With a call-up for England’s crucial Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro, Carroll’s England career has already come full circle – having been omitted for the same game just two years previously. Coupled with this faith from Capello, given the brilliant attacking options England have, and with the tutelage of Dalglish, it surely will not be long before Carroll ‘grows out’ of his well-documented lifestyle.

With a stable relationship and an embracing of fatherhood, Carroll’s on the field form and confidence will improve, showcase his revived commitment to football and reflect the belief that he knows that this is a pivotal 2011/2012 campaign in proving his worth as England’s potential number nine.

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