As they look towards a glittering future, Liverpool must first confront a ghost from their recent past.
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds travel to West Ham on Monday evening looking to restore their five-point advantage at the top of the Premier League. After victories for Tottenham on Saturday and Manchester City on Sunday, the pressure will be right back on the league leaders at the London Stadium.
These are heady times for the men from Anfield, who have their eyes on a 19th league crown, and a first since 1990. Rarely since then have they found themselves in a better position at this time of year.
Their success has been built on stability, on consistency, on sound recruitment and strong management. It’s taken them a while, but Fenway Sports Group, the club’s owners, appear to have found the winning formula. They have the manager they want, the players they want, and they’re getting the results they want.
Apt, then, that on Monday night they could run into Andy Carroll, a weathered, robust reminder of the way things used to be at Liverpool.
Carroll, it is fair to say, represents a different Anfield era; an era of gambles and mistakes, of muddled thinking and expensive missteps. He’s the sixth most expensive player in the club’s history, whose 11 goals came at a cost of more than £3 million each. He’s the man who scored in an FA Cup final, who settled a Goodison derby and a Wembley derby, and yet he’s still, at £35m, one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory.
Who could forget the excitement when Carroll arrived at Melwood on the final day of January 2011? It was the day Fernando Torres left for Chelsea, the day Luis Suarez joined from Ajax. Carroll, though, was the story. Amid a sea of flashbulbs and supporters eager to catch a glimpse of their new hero, the grinning Geordie with the ponytail and the prodigious leap became the costliest English footballer of all time.
It was, by any measure, a remarkable transfer. Carroll’s form at Newcastle had been good, but he was in the middle of his first full Premier League season, and his off-field reputation on Tyneside was far from perfect. There had been scrapes in bars and clubs, a fight with team-mate Steven Taylor and an assault charge which had seen him ordered to move in with club captain Kevin Nolan as part of his bail conditions.
The signs were there early on that this was not a marriage made in heaven. Carroll had not wanted to leave Newcastle, and admitted later that he had spent the helicopter journey to Liverpool Googling some of his new team-mates. He arrived on Merseyside injured, having not played in over a month. It would be five more weeks before he took to the field.
That, as much as anything, helps sum up Carroll. A career that could have been defined by goals has instead been about pulls and strains, aches and pains. In the seven full seasons since his move to Liverpool, only twice has he managed to play 20 or more games. Not once has he reached double figures in terms of scoring.
“I honestly don’t know what I’ve done in my life to get the sh*t I get,” Carroll said recently, opening up admirably about the struggles of being injured for long spells. The ‘crock’ tag clearly irks him, though he has also been honest enough to admit that he contributed to his own problems earlier in his career, when his drinking was excessive and his approach to training far from perfect. “That is the old me,” he says. “I have regrets looking back.”
Carroll played regularly for Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish – the pair shared a relationship good enough to justify them once attending a Boyzone concert together – and helped Liverpool win the League Cup in 2012. He scored the winner against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, and grabbed his side’s goal as they lost to Chelsea in the final. Had it not been for Petr Cech and one of the great cup final saves, he may well have written his name into Anfield folklore.
But Brendan Rodgers, Dalglish’s replacement, was never convinced. “Not a Liverpool player,” was his initial assessment of Carroll, relayed to local journalists in an off-record briefing soon after his appointment. A month later, Liverpool’s record signing was heading to West Ham on loan, admitting he “could never get a grip” on Merseyside. Rodgers, he said, gave him mixed messages, telling him one minute that he was part of his plans, then offering him the chance to leave. "I lost respect for him," Carroll said.
There have been highs since – a hat-trick against Arsenal at Upton Park sticks out, as does a spectacular overhead kick against Crystal Palace – but 95 starts in six-and-a-half years tells its own story. Carroll has lost 142 games to injury – be it hamstring, groin, ankle, foot, knee or heel – since moving to East London.
For now, he’s fit, although he is likely to start on the bench on Monday if Marko Arnautovic shakes off a foot problem.
Liverpool, whose defence has looked shakier than usual in recent games, will certainly be wary of the threat he will pose, though the Reds have bigger things to concern themselves with than their former striker. Klopp’s men are going for glory this season, their team is evolving into one of Europe's finest and the club is better run now than it has been for years. Aberrations like Carroll, or Stewart Downing or Charlie Adam, or even Lazar Markovic, who left for Fulham last week, belong in the past.
A win in Stratford will give them their 20th league win of the campaign, only one fewer than they managed in the whole of last season. Their progress is unarguable.
You’ll see it on Monday night, in fact. From Carroll to Mohamed Salah, that’s how far Liverpool have come. Beat West Ham, and they will take another huge step towards that glittering future.