Club Focus – Liverpool – 666, the number of the best

Fernando Torres scored the winner on his 100th Liverpool appearance in midweek, a goal that was as welcome as any of the 61 that the Spaniard has scored in a Red shirt.

The Reds will hope to celebrate another milestone with victory at Fratton Park tomorrow, when a club legend will reach a landmark that many thought he would never see. It is nearly 13 years since a wiry 18-year-old from Bootle came on for Rob Jones at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough, and played the final quarter of an hour of a 2-1 League Cup defeat at right back. Ten days later he started a Premier League game at home to Aston Villa at Anfield in the centre of the Reds’ midfield. He earned a yellow card within seconds of kick off for clattering Andy Townsend, then stooping to head the opening goal of a 3-0 win from a Stig Inge Bjornebye corner.

If the Kop didn’t know who Jamie Carragher was before that afternoon, then they certainly did after those 90 minutes. Today the defender is on the eve of his 600th appearance for Liverpool, a club that he’s represented with great distinction for the previous 599. It was Roy Evans who had given the youngster his debut, the first of three wise men that Carragher has played under at Anfield. Each of the trio has had a profound effect on a man who has identified with the Reds’ support like few others in the club’s history. It was Evans who set him out on the road to club legend status, passing on the advice from generations of greats past, and ensuring that the defender remains the last lingering link with the famous old bootroom philosophy in the current squad.

It was Gerard Houllier who instilled a previously questionable professionalism in Carragher. Stories of regular drinking and a laddish lifestyle were frequent in his youthful days, but Houllier’s strict, rewarding regime ensured that the scouser (a left back during the Frenchman’s dream 2000/01 season) took more pride in his position. Rafael Benitez turned Liverpool’s Mr. Versatility into one of the finest central defenders in Europe. He immediately identified that the centre of defence was his best position and slotted him in there alongside Sami Hyypia. This would turn out to be a partnership that would take player, manager and club on the most extraordinary journey in the Spaniard’s first season.

The campaign that Carragher will surely end up being remembered for is 2004/5. His stunning performance in the Champions League semi-final victory over Chelsea was only surpassed by his heroic display in the final itself. Carragher, who was riddled with cramp in extra time, threw himself in front of every white AC Milan shirt that came close to goal in Istanbul. His jubilant celebrations after Jerzy Dudek’s penalty save from Andriy Shevchenko (Carragher had told the striker to ‘do a Bruce Grobbelaar’ in a bid to put the Milan penalty takers off) were being copied all over Merseyside. No-one deserved the success against the odds more than Liverpool’s lion-hearted defender. If Gerrard was the talisman, Carragher was the field marshal in the trenches.

Ian Callaghan’s astonishing club record 857 appearances will never be beaten, but as Carragher surpasses 600, he has got the runners-up spot in his sights. “When you’re a Liverpool player,” he said, “you never look too far ahead because if you do that you’ll end up not focusing on what is immediately in front of you. I’ve got another 18 months left on my contract so I’d like to be playing regularly next season. That means potentially, I could finish this season on 620-625 then play another 40-odd games next season – taking me into second position in the all-time appearance list.”

That second position is currently held by goalkeeping great Ray Clemence on 665, meaning that if Carragher was to eventually reach 666 it would be a beast of an achievement that many thought wouldn’t ever be possible. While fingers may have been pointed at the central defender at times during this most disjointed of Liverpool seasons, you will not find many Reds supporters ready to swap the defender for anyone else. He is one of their own, and a modern legend of his only football club, a club he has played for with commitment, quality and style. 600 times.

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