Monday 18 February 2019

Carr shines a light in dark days for football

SO the old game is a basket case. Just a lizard world of rampant young men pursuing cave impulses. Wealthy beyond reason, arrogant beyond words. A rabble with the keys to the safe.

Outrage is anecdotal now. Even the vocabulary is tilting. At the carousel in Basel airport on Thursday, the expression "roasting" slipped breezily into the dilatory banter. Of journalists that is. Our humour isn't often high-brow.

The players? We figure they need to defrost a little. Slap a few backs and gather up those jaw muscles. Mirrors may be showing football all the things it doesn't want to see right now, but - hey - the sun still comes up in the morning.

Professional footballers make an interesting case-study at the best of times. But this week, they might as well exist on a petri dish. Everyone gapes and wonders. Is this their world?

Well, let us introduce you to somebody. You won't know him that well because fame and Stephen Carr are not especially friendly. He's just a good pro. Twice voted the best right-back in the Premiership, but armed with all the hubris of a bellboy.

Half-an-hour in his company brings a wash, rinse and tumble-dry to your prejudices. He is 27, current captain of Tottenham Hotspur and just about the sanest human being you could encounter in a high-performance domain.

Carr is a certainty to start in the St Jakob Park Stadium today. He is one of those players whose excellence you can presume upon. Johnny Fallon, the scout who recommended him to White Hart Lane 11 years ago, rekindles a favourite phrase of Brian Kerr's. Says Carr has "an inherent decency" about him.

Fallon is also Umbro's liaison officer with the Irish team. In 18 years as a Tottenham scout, Carr is the jewel in Johnny's crown. He remembers the day they signed him. Sitting out in the Airport Hotel in Dublin with John Moncur, the club's development officer, Tom Kavanagh of Stella Maris, Stephen and his da, Joe.

And Kavanagh scribbling the details on the back of a Major cigarette packet. The simplicity of the day. Kavanagh had always been adamant that Carr would make it big. So too Joe. That day, they knew Spurs had got a good one. From the earliest time, Stephen Carr had a certainty about his carriage.

Nothing extravagant, you understand. Nothing extrovert. Just solidity and calmness. And a shot that could puncture holes in concrete.

He sits to the table and soon you are utterly disarmed. There's an overt toughness about Carr too. He is aggressive on the field and routinely taciturn off it. Interviews are rationed. So you've come to the table with a stereotype in your head. Of a man with Teflon sensibilities. And next thing, he's talking about fatherhood and the child that saved his mind.

You see, Carr missed last summer's World Cup with a long-term knee injury. Actually, he missed 15 months of his career. But the World Cup was the head-breaker.

When Ireland were playing in Niigata, Ibaraki, Yokohama and Suwon, Carr was busy avoiding the TV. He couldn't bear to watch.

"What you have to understand," he says, "is that I missed out on one of the biggest things in my life. Something I may never get the opportunity to be part of again.

"Hopefully, I will. But there's no guarantee I'll ever play at a World Cup now. So, for me, that was a tough time. I wanted the lads to do so well but, to watch it, would have just reminded me of what I was missing out on.

"I'm not a great watcher of football anyway. So I just switched off. Just concentrated on getting fit and blocked everything else out. It probably helped that I was in London. I could just go out for a walk during the games. Pretend it wasn't happening."

That's where the kid comes in.

You see, Anthony is 17 months now. Was born to himself and Karen at the sweetest time imaginable. When he needed to put football in perspective.

Carr had been almost 10 years at Tottenham and injury-free. Considered himself almost immune to breakdowns. Then the pain arrived. Muffled at first, but climbing inexorably with each game. After a while, his warm-ups were taking longer. And, when each game ended, he found himself limping to the players' lounge.

Team-mates grinned. Looked at him like he was playing some kind of old soldier. After all, Stephen Carr was playing the best football of his life. But each game was compounding the damage. Agitating the tendon. Pulling away the knee-cap. In the end, they found the problem and sent him to the US for surgery. And Stephen came home to a different life.

"I don't know if you fear for your career," he recalls now. "But you fear for your ability just to kick a ball again. Right back to when you were a kid, running out on the street to play, you took that ability for granted. Now you're watching others train and, all of a sudden, you're not in control anymore.

"And you realise it's not just football, it's your life. Because you're a forgotten man. You're nothing. Overnight, you've gone from being something to nothing. And that's fair enough. I understand it now. In all lines of jobs, if you're not doing well, you're not thought of.

"And football's just a job. So, if you're not performing, people forget about you. And you just have to find the strength to get yourself back up. People don't see that side. The hours in the gym. They only see the pretty side."

He continues: "Anthony took my mind off things. Big-time. I mean I thought I'd be a lot moodier with the injury. Even Karen said it. Because it's a shock to the system when you haven't been injured before. But having a kid gave me something to look forward to. It helped me see the other side.

"I mean, at the end of the day, you go out and work for your kids. That's what life's about for me anyway. To give them the best chance in life. Like I was given by my Mam and Dad. And Anthony just puts a smile on my face every day I come in from training. He's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Maybe you need a time-out here. Maybe, after the week football's had, you didn't think there were any love stories in the game. If so, you're wrong. Stephen Carr is living proof.

Brought up in Donaghmede, played for Trinity Boys and St Kevin's before spending two years at Stella Maris. Never played full-back in his life until after maybe a year at Tottenham. Always a midfielder. One who loved Bryan Robson's style. The ruthlessness, the fearlessness. "Like Roy Keane really.

"He (Keane) would die for it, that type of attitude. Nothing affected him. And I think that's the best way to approach football."

But Tottenham saw the Dubliner as a full-back.

On Tuesday last, Chris Hughton gave us a glimpse of Carr's soaring status at White Hart Lane. Hughton, apart from being Brian Kerr's international assistant is now Tottenham's first-team coach. He described Carr as "an obvious choice" for the club captaincy once Jamie Redknapp had been injured.

"Deep down, I think Stephen's always been considered captaincy material at Tottenham," said Hughton.

"So it was actually an easy choice. Everyone at the club has so much respect for him."

As if to disprove that theory on Tuesday night, Robbie Keane captured Carr's attention from a lift door. "Go on captain, go on new captain," screamed Robbie at the top of his lungs. And Carr's face lit up like a sunrise.

Robbie not giving his captain due respect Stephen?

"No, he's paying me no respect at all," he chuckled. "I think he forgets I'm wearing the arm-band."

Actually, Carr is effusive about few people. But, for Robbie Keane, he makes an exception. He says the Tallaght man is "becoming the main player" at Tottenham. That the crowd has taken to him in the way they once warmed to David Ginola and Jurgen Klinsmann. Except, of course, Ginola and Klinsmann were senior pros. Robbie Keane is still a frisky colt.

"Actually, I've a lot of time for Robbie," stresses Carr. "I get on really well with him. Because I see what he's doing and how he's still working so hard. And that's nice. I mean he's grown up very quickly in the game. Been involved in some huge transfers. But his head is still on his shoulders. He still wants to improve.

"You have to remind yourself he's still only 23, which is scary. I said when Spurs bought him that we were buying a great player who would only get better for us. And he's doing that. He's been brilliant for the team. The other players love it when he's playing. 'Cos he lifts the crowd, brings a buzz. If he stays at Spurs for a good few years, I think people will remember him as one of the club's greatest ever players."

The other Irish player that makes his pulse race? Easy. Duffer.

"Damien Duff is a superstar," says Carr. "He doesn't behave like a superstar, but that doesn't mean he isn't one. I think he's been Chelsea's best buy. People may say I'm biased because he's Irish. And maybe I am. But any time I see him play, he's invariably man-of-the-match. He changes games for them. He's living up to his price-tag."

Keane and Duff will worry Switzerland today, no question.

The Swiss have brought this game to Basel for the tightness of the pitch and the electricity the stadium generates when full. It is a kind of architectural curiosity, a football field lobbed, slap, bang in the middle of a shopping centre. So you stroll to your seat past cosmetic shops and elegant restaurants.

Carr wonders about the local mindset.

"For Switzerland, in a way, this is awkward," he says. "I mean we're coming here really hungry. And it's good that we have to go for the win. Because it's quite hard to play with the mentality of knowing that a draw is good enough.

"Almost subconsciously, you slip back. And here we are, having lost our first two games, still in with a chance of qualifying. We could ruin it for them. I mean there's still a lot to do. Because, if we win this one, we're probably in the play-offs. And we know what we're like in play-offs (laughing). Haven't got the best record in the world. But maybe we turned that corner against Iran.

"So we haven't even got one foot there yet. But we've got a chance."

Pumped up then?

"Impossible not to be," he stresses. "I mean to play in the European Championship finals would be the highlight of my career. I missed the World Cup and maybe that'll forever haunt me. But I remember being almost relieved when I was told I wouldn't make it.

"Because it was just hanging over me at the time. It was a pain in the arse in the end . . . It just became too much. So it was almost a weight off my shoulders when the specialist told me to forget it. And I think the experience has made me stronger. I appreciate what I have more.

"I've more respect for injured players now. For people who don't make it and have to head back home after rejection. I try not to moan anymore and usually fail (chuckling). But when you go out there and the sun is shining and you're running around kicking a ball for your wages, Jesus what better job is there?

"So I missed the World Cup. To be fair, if that's all I have to put up with in life, it won't be too bad, will it? People go through a hell of a lot more than that."

He gets to his feet and, as he does so, you wonder about the players' prevailing attitude towards football's curdling reputation. And the answer is in keeping with the interview.

"Look," sighs Stephen Carr. "If you're a footballer, a bloke who works in a hotel, a reporter, Joe Soap or anybody, it doesn't matter. If what they're saying happened did actually happen, then people should be punished. But, unfortunately, we all get tarnished with the same brush. And that's ridiculous.

"It's something that's happening out there in many different walks of life. But how many footballers are in the country? It's ludicrous to generalise."

Sound like Attila the Hun to you? Nope, me neither.

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