About the Author

Jamie Carragher was born on 28 January 1978 and after making his way through Liverpool’s youth ranks, winning the FA Youth Cup with the Reds in 1996, made his debut for the first team before his nineteenth birthday. He has now racked up more than 500 appearances for his hometown club, playing in every position across the back line as well as in midfield before becoming the first-choice central defender under Rafa Benitez.

Carra was part of the Liverpool team that won the treble of the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup in 2001, won another League Cup in 2003 and the FA Cup again in 2006. His greatest success came as a Champions League winner in 2005, when Carra also captained the Reds to European Super Cup success and was named Liverpool’s Player of the Year. He won thirty-four caps for England before retiring from international football.

About the Book

For the Anfield faithful, Jamie Carragher represents everything that is great about Liverpool Football Club, prompting the Kop to sing ‘we all dream of a team of Carraghers’. The club’s vice-captain, longest-serving player and one of a select band of players to have made more than 500 appearances for the Reds, Carra is the embodiment of old-fashioned football values – honest and uncompromising.

In Carra: My Autobiography, the Liverpool defender takes us deep into the heart of Anfield, into the club’s past glories and its uncertain future. Full of sensational stories and controversial opinions, of triumph and heartbreak on and off the pitch, it is a football book unlike any other. The authentic voice of Anfield, Carra is one of the Bootroom Boys in true Liverpool tradition, and is as committed on the page as in every game he has played.

Acknowledgements

I was determined to ensure when the time came for me to tell my story it reflected how I play: completely honest. That’s why I imagined I’d wait until I’d played my last game before putting pen to paper. In normal circumstances it’s difficult for players to express how they really feel until they’ve retired. But as I approached my thirtieth birthday I suppose I hit that age where I had so much to get off my chest I couldn’t keep it in any more. My wife, Nicola, thinks I’ve got grumpy old man syndrome forty years too early, so with so much to be said about my life, career and Liverpool FC there was no way I could have waited another four or five years to do this book. Besides, no one might be so interested after I pack it in!

As an avid reader of sporting autobiographies, I couldn’t wait to get started. On the Liverpool coach heading to an away game, on a flight to Europe or just lounging around a hotel awaiting kick-off, I’m usually hiding behind the latest football book to hit the shelves, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. I’ve often felt I had more of interest to say than those I was reading about; and in some cases I was so impressed by the story I felt inspired to follow suit.

I had a fair idea in my mind what makes a good read. Without wishing to sound big-headed at all, I often find myself inundated by interview requests during the course of a season. It made sense for me to present my story and my views in my own way rather than see myself plastered across different newspapers from one week to the next, with little or no control over how I come across. That’s why I instructed my agent of the past ten years, Struan Marshall, to accept an offer from the publishers Transworld, and work on Carra began.

As well as my family and close friends, to whom I’ve dedicated this book, I’d like to thank Struan, his assistant Kathryn Taylor and Andy Sterling for all their help with this autobiography and throughout my career. Thanks also to the Transworld team, including Giles Elliott and copy-editor Daniel Balado, and finally thanks to writer Chris Bascombe for piecing together my story and putting up with my attention to detail and constant changes. Jamie Carragher, July 2008

In the summer of 2007, Jamie and I met in the reception of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Hong Kong to begin work on this book.

Pre-season is a time when the line between optimism and delusion is unavoidably blurred. Liverpool’s Far East summer tour was enhancing the same expectations we’d both grown accustomed to across the previous decade – Jamie as a player and me as a Kop season ticket holder and LFC newspaper correspondent. As Jamie handed me his notes, mapping the journey he’d take through his memories, he left suitable gaps for the successes in the months to come.

A year in the writing, Carra was intended to conclude triumphantly in May 2008 with Liverpool’s elusive nineteenth League title or sixth Champions League win. But just ten minutes after our first meeting I conducted my second interview of the day, this time on behalf of my former employers at the Liverpool Echo, and assistant manager Pako Ayesteran succeeded in bursting the bubbles I’d been inflating moments earlier, painting the picture of a football club in turmoil behind the scenes which was still far from ready to capture its ‘holy grail’.

‘This club is not ready to win the title,’ Ayesteran stated.

His words were scarily prophetic, but I doubt even he foresaw the extent of the imminent disturbance. Within three months Ayesteran had left Liverpool, Rafa Benitez’s position was under threat, and the recent American takeover was creating one dramatic headline after another. As Carra reviewed plans for the book, there was a growing realization the finale would not be one of triumph but of painful reflection on a traumatic season.

Jamie always intended this to be far more than a traditional, clichéd footballer’s autobiography, and the background against which it has been written underlines why. It’s a record of a turbulent yet triumphant time in the club’s history, as the modern Liverpool Football Club has fought a continuous battle with the ghosts of its past. The paradox is, while Liverpool has been gripped by uncertainty and instability, Jamie has been a permanent symbol of what it used to be, what through players like him it quite often still is, and what it eternally aspires to be. Without him, Anfield would have been a far grimmer place over the last ten years. It’s his efforts as much as any which have ensured regular honours for Liverpool, and safeguarded a place among the European elite.

Liverpool has been blessed with great servants over the course of its illustrious history, but none has managed to represent the aspirations of the club and its city more than Jamie Carragher. Helping him to tell his story has been my writing equivalent of winning the Champions League, a cup treble and the Premier League, all within the space of twelve months.

I’d like to thank the Bascombes, the Wooseys, the Connollys and the Boileaus for their constant support; Paul Joyce of the Daily Express, whose assistance and advice was, as always, invaluable; LFC statistician Ged Rea; and Roddy Frame for providing the eternally inspirational soundtrack to all my writing efforts.

Most of all, I’d like to thank my wife, Paula, for her proofreading expertise, and Jamie for keeping his long-term promise to resist the temptation to allow one of the Sunday supplement crew to muscle in and grab the ghost-writing gig.

Chris Bascombe, July 2008

Career Record

Liverpool appearances/goals (to end 2007–08)

  Appearances Goals

League 360 3 
FA Cup 29 0 
League Cup 26 0 
Champions League 74 1 
UEFA Cup 28 0 
European Super Cup 2 0 
World Club Championship 2 0 
Charity Shield 2 0 
Total 523 4 

Honours

FA Cup 2001, 2006
League Cup 2001, 2003
Champions League 2005
UEFA Cup 2001
European Super Cup 2001, 2005
Charity Shield 2001, 2006
FA Youth Cup 1996

International caps

England (full caps) 34
Under-21s 27

Debuts

Liverpool: 8 January 1997 v Middlesbrough (away), League Cup (sub)

England (full): 28 April 1999 v Hungary (away), friendly (sub)

First goal

Liverpool: 18 January 1997 v Aston Villa (home), Premier League

1

Marsh Lane

I WAS LYING on my bed crying.

A pair of football boots was scattered across the floor, and I was still in my soaking schoolboy strip, trying to figure out how within thirty minutes I’d gone from avoiding bruises on the pitch, in a game which ought to have underlined my growing potential, to receiving a good hiding from my dad. I’d been handed a lesson in football and in life I’d never forget. At the age of seven, my destiny was being shaped.

When players talk about defining moments they usually focus on their highlights. I could begin my story writing about European triumphs or FA Cup wins. I could recall my professional debut, or the first time I signed a contract. I could relive a watershed game when I came off the pitch and knew I’d achieve my dreams, or at the very least felt they were within my grasp.

But a career isn’t so simple. Only as you get older can you reassess your experiences. Then you appreciate the impact of events you never recognized as life-changing at the time, but which made you the person you are. When my dad hurled that pair of soaking football boots at me, he probably thought he was merely handing me the punishment I deserved. It was more than that. This was the start of my becoming a footballer.

The cause of my dad’s rage was a shameful performance for Merton Villa, my first team. I was already showing promise, playing in the Under-11s alongside lads three years older, but on this particular afternoon there was a reason I didn’t want to play.

It was raining.

Actually, it was hail-stoning. I’d never faced torrential conditions before, and couldn’t summon the desire, energy or courage to drag my drenched body around a sodden pitch. For the first and only time, I faked injury. As the first challenge came in I hit the turf, rolled around and threw in some tears to seal the deal.

‘They’ll have to substitute me,’ my cunning seven-year-old brain conspired. ‘I can go home, put my feet up and get warm.’

No substitution was needed. Philly Carragher, my dad, was on the pitch with his own hook before any decision was necessary. He grabbed my shirt, dragged me from the field, pushed me head-first into the car and drove home, leaving me in no doubt about what would follow.

Once in my bedroom, it hailed football boots. My drowned jersey felt heavier by the second as it absorbed my tears. My dad told me I’d let him down as much as myself. No Carragher was going to be seen as such a coward, especially not in public. I needed to understand the value of pride, and to learn to deal with tough circumstances. I knew the next time I played, no matter how demanding the situation, I wouldn’t hide.

I hated my dad at that moment, but I’ve been thanking him for the punishment ever since. Since turning professional, I’ve played with and against players who’ve shown the same gutless attitude I did when I was seven. At least my age was an excuse.

Ability can only take you so far. You need character to accompany it. I was compelled to appreciate and make the most of my skills. There’s a saying, ‘you are what you’re brought up to be’, and it applies to me. The best players are a product of their environment. The attitude my mum, dad and the wider community drove into me at an early age became the foundation for how I carry myself on and off the pitch. I’ve been able to build my reputation on it, to export the distinctive principles of Marsh Lane, where I grew up, to the football stadiums of England and Europe.

People see where I’m from, Bootle on Merseyside, and consider it deprived. Economically it is, but there was nothing underprivileged about my childhood. I feel blessed to have been born there. I’m proud of my city and even prouder of the district where I still belong. Wearing my Liverpool shirt gives me a responsibility not only never to let myself down, but to make my family, friends, city and district proud of me. Without this outlook I would never have become a successful footballer. My heart and soul were born and bred in Bootle.

Maybe it was easier for me to develop a fighting instinct earlier than most. It was a necessity. I was lucky to be born. Everything that has followed has been a bonus.

My book of revelations begins with the most dramatic: if my mum hadn’t been a Roman Catholic, I might have been aborted.

Paula Carragher was given the option of a termination due to complications halfway through her pregnancy. She was told I had spina bifida – a birth defect that affects the spinal cord. She was too religious to consider abortion, no matter how disabled I’d be. ‘Our Lord told me to have the baby,’ she still claims. She’s very holy, my mum – at one time in her life she considered becoming a nun – and had already suffered two miscarriages before I came along. She’s since had three sons – her holy trinity, if you like. That’s a reward for extraordinary resilience and faith. She made all of us attend Mass every Sunday when we were youngsters, and she’s still sure someone above has been watching over me from the moment I was conceived.

Unlike my extrovert dad, who pops up so much in this story you could be mistaken for thinking the title Carra refers to him, my mum has always chosen to remain in the background, asserting a quiet influence. But she’s the rock on which my family was built. I owe everything to that agonizing decision she took thirty years ago.

Her prayers were answered, because when she had her final scan the condition was different to the doctors’ diagnosis. As I hope I’ve proved in the years since, there’s no problem with my spine. The trouble was in my stomach rather than on my back. I had a condition called gastroschisis: I was born with my bowels outside my stomach. If you ever see me changing shirts with an opponent after a match, you’ll get a good view of a scar and notice the absence of a belly-button. Thirty years ago it was serious, and I spent the first six weeks of my life in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital holding on for survival like Liverpool did in extra-time against AC Milan in Istanbul. Just like my cramp-ridden body in the final stages of that 2005 Champions League Final in the Ataturk Stadium, I must have looked a right state, but I managed to pull through, and it’s never been a problem to me since.

So it was amid trauma that I, James Lee Duncan Carragher, was delivered into the world on 28 January 1978. James was a tribute to my granddad. I’d like to inform you I was also named after two genuine greats of the game, Duncan Edwards and Jimmy Greaves; sadly, as my dad was a fervent Evertonian throughout the dismal 1970s, Gordon Lee and Duncan McKenzie were on his mind when I arrived. McKenzie was dropped by Lee for an away defeat at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on the day I was born, so my name shows Dad’s sense of humour more than his former love of the Blues. The guardian angel my mum talks about was obviously a Kopite, dropping the first hint my destiny lay in the opposite direction to Goodison Park.

I was baptized in honour of Merseyside football, and the initiation ceremonies have continued ever since. My first memory of my dad is of him on the Wembley pitch kissing Graeme Sharp after the full-time whistle against Watford in 1984. I was six, watching FA Cup Final Grandstand, when he jumped on to the screen dancing like a madman. This wasn’t his first time on the pitch. He confronted Everton manager Gordon Lee during the FA Cup semi-final replay with West Ham in 1980, shortly after Frank Lampard senior scored the winner. Whatever he thought of Lee, it didn’t stop him naming me after him.

Football was my dad’s life, and he passed it straight into me.

He managed two nearby football teams, The Brunswick, also based on Marsh Lane, and his Sunday League team Merton Villa. As soon as I could walk, I’d be standing on the touchline watching him impersonating a top-class football manager. He wore a long duffel coat, like all those charismatic bosses in the 1970s, and treated every game like it was the most important event of the week. He’d even employ the football psychology managers such as Bill Shankly were famous for. ‘You’re the best striker in this league, much better than everyone else,’ I once heard him say to one of his forwards. ‘You could score a hat-trick today.’ Five minutes into the game, he’d turn away from the pitch in disgust, look at the spectators and say of the same player, ‘He’s a fucking shithouse!’

My football training began like this, absorbing the lively sights and sounds of the Merseyside amateur leagues, and travelling to their most notorious venues, such as Brook Vale in Litherland, Buckley Hill in Sefton, Stuart Road in Bootle, and Windy Harbour, which, appropriately, is now the site of the Liverpool FC Academy in Kirkby. As a besotted spectator, the closest I got to playing on a full-size pitch in those days was sprinting towards the goalmouth at half-time, taking advantage of the nets for a fifteen-minute game of headers and volleys.

I was mesmerized, not only by the football but by the whole culture that accompanied it: the togetherness, the banter, the aggression, the celebrations in victory, the despair and conflict in defeat. I was eased into this world, then locked into it.

Everyone loved their football, no matter what their level. In the Sunday League, anyone who turns up can get a game. If a goalkeeper enjoys eight or nine pints too many on Saturday night and fails to turn up on Sunday morning, there’ll always be someone at the bar ready to step in. Mysterious hangover bugs often sweep across squads on Sunday mornings. On one occasion the manager of The Chaucer, the pub which was the focal point of my community, had no option but to turn to the untried goalkeeping talents of one of his locals.

Jimmy Smith’s long-awaited opportunity had arrived.

Those who know Jimmy will tell you he’s a great lad but he’s also not the full shilling. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t registered to play, so it was explained to Jimmy that for the duration of ninety minutes he had to pretend he was called ‘Kenty’ – the name of the absent keeper. Things progressed well until Jimmy conceded a penalty for an atrocious tackle, and the referee decided it was worth a booking. ‘Unlucky, Kenty!’ everyone on the pitch and touchline shouted loudly, reminding Jimmy of his secret identity, though not completely convinced their new recruit could maintain his act.

‘What’s your name, son?’ asked the ref.

You could see Jimmy struggling with this tough question, trying to ensure he didn’t let his team-mates down.

‘Kent,’ replied Jimmy proudly, the sweat pouring off him as he focused on his special task.

‘And your first name?’

There was a pause as Jimmy’s confused mind considered the possibilities. Then his face lit up, he stiffened his back, and he confidently offered his response.

‘Clark,’ he said.

The referee simply wrote the name in his book and carried on none the wiser.

This incident obviously provoked laughter, but generally these games were taken as seriously as Champions League qualifiers. There’s a famous quote attributed to the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi: ‘Winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.’ It’s the opposite of the fluffy romantic notion that says ‘it’s not the winning but the taking part’. Lombardi later tried to distance himself from the sentiments behind his famous line, concerned things would be taken to a dangerous extreme by more cynical, ruthless coaches. Perhaps he’d heard about my dad’s antics. Whenever I hear the saying now, I think of my dad’s career as a manager.

He adopted the philosophy with a religious fanaticism. Several escapades earned him a season ticket at county FA disciplinary hearings. I’m not sure if hitting a referee with a corner flag, as my dad once did when upset with a decision, will ever be recognized by UEFA as a fine example of sportsmanship. The victim, George Kane, went on to referee in the Football League. Fortunately, he never got the chance to wreak his revenge on me. Another time my dad was so convinced his team weren’t capable of equalizing he ordered his physio to break one of the crossbars to force an abandonment. The plot was foiled when a replacement was erected, and the game went ahead. My dad later vowed to be more respectful of officials. One day he discovered the referee for an important match several miles away in Kirkby was from Bootle, so he charitably offered him a lift on his team bus. The goodwill lasted ninety minutes. After his team’s defeat my dad drove home, deliberately leaving the poor ref stranded. Never mind the FA, even the local radio station was disgusted: the incident was mentioned on Billy Butler’s BBC Radio Merseyside show the following day.

The message being sent to me was clear: win by all means possible.

Life off the park was just as colourful. Marsh Lane is the type of area that has contributed to Liverpool’s reputation. It’s a mad mix of cynical and kind-hearted, funny yet tough personalities. The regulars of The Chaucer possessed the only degree that matters – a BA in how to be streetwise.

For generations, the people here have been bred to be survivors. Bootle was bombed to virtual destruction during the Second World War; it was the most shelled area of the country during the Blitz. Later, poverty set in because the dockyards, once the main source of employment, were abandoned. Entire communities were stricken. A grey landscape was left sandwiched between the wealthier suburb of Crosby, leading towards the middle-class towns of Formby and Southport, and the bustling Liverpool city centre two miles to the south. The residents must have felt they were being squeezed and taunted into submission. It’s no wonder many of them turned petty crime into a trade. Even now the police in Bootle are seen as a hindrance rather than a help. There must have seemed no alternative to bending the law, beyond packing your bags and jumping on a boat or train, which many did. Instead of walking around feeling defeated by their circumstances, the people here kept their chins up and fought back to support their families, and they didn’t care what it took. You’ve two choices in a situation like that: sink or swim. Ninety per cent of people here keep their head above water.

Those I grew up with didn’t simply strike back with violence or thieving, as the stereotypes suggest. The most destructive weapon I ever saw in The Chaucer was a sharp tongue. Some of the hardest men I’ve met have been reduced to nervous wrecks by a witty put-down. You need to be shrewd as well as resilient where I’m from.

The unconditional belief that friends and family come first, no matter what it takes, has been passed on to sons, daughters and grandchildren. It’s the Lombardi philosophy applied to real life. That’s why this is the place I love, warts and all.

Many football autobiographies slip into the cliché of rags-to-riches tales, every chapter sprinkled with sentimental accounts of how a multi-million-pound player once couldn’t even afford his own bootlaces when he was younger. You might be thinking my description of life in Marsh Lane in the eighties is following the trend. But mine is no story of a poor Scouser. Whatever preconceptions you may have of my childhood are wrong.

We lived in one of the biggest houses on Knowsley Road in Bootle. My mum is still there. She and my dad are grafters. They worked hard to make sure we had the best of everything, and if there was anything more to be done to make the life of their children better, so be it. I was never short of the best kits and football boots. I felt well off compared to some of the other lads in the area. One called my dad Arthur Daley, because on top of his building job he always seemed to have some scam on the go that meant we could go on our summer holidays to Spain.

His own dad, James, was a character too. ‘Mr Drysdale’ the drinkers in The Chaucer used to call him, after the bank manager from The Beverly Hillbillies who was considered tight with his cash, because he never got a round in. ‘I drink in my own time,’ he’d tell them. Regrettably, his wife, my Nanny Carra, was drinking in her own time too. She suffered from alcoholism. It reached such a bad stage she once mistook her poor dog for the living-room rug. ‘That rug is in a right state,’ she said as she was falling asleep in front of the fire. She’d picked it up and thrown it into the kitchen before she realized it had four legs.

We weren’t a family of scallies though. There were a few nutters, maybe, but not scallies. My uncle, Pat Carragher, was a well-respected policeman. I thought he was a millionaire. He lived in a huge house on Victoria Road in Formby, where some Liverpool and Everton players live now. We’d turn up with our swimming costumes and towels to head straight for his sauna and jacuzzi. It was as if we were on one of our trips to Butlin’s. Forget Mr Drysdale, we were like the Clampetts whenever we visited him.

The rest of the time we were more like the Royle family. When I heard one of Peter Kay’s stand-up routines I could have sworn he’d visited both my nans’ houses when I was little. Me and my younger brothers Paul and John spent alternate Sunday afternoons there, and later at my dad’s sister Auntie Ann’s. It was the same warmly familiar routine each week. We’d be outside playing football before being shouted inside to gather around the table for Sunday roast. When that was eaten, we’d fight for our speck in front of the television, munching away at the biscuits piled on a plate on the coffee table as we watched Bullseye. Family get-togethers saw my mum and dad’s Dr Hook and Drifters back catalogue getting played to death, while I’d moan at Mum for dressing me and Paul in identical clothes, as she always did.

Paul, who is a couple of years younger, seemed to like this habit more than I did. He looked up to me when he was really young, so much so that when I started primary school and was kitted out in my St James uniform, Paul insisted on my mum buying him the same outfit. He ended up going to nursery in a school uniform he didn’t need to wear for another two years. He soon stopped this fixation.

He has a shorter fuse than me, which I discovered to my cost when we were a little older. I tried to let him beat me at pool during one visit to The Chaucer, leaving the black over the pocket for a simple tap-in. Paul did a Ronnie Rosenthal and missed the sitter. His response to my laughing was to belt me with his snooker cue. I’m always on my guard when we’re playing pool now, just to be safe.

My dad’s family might have been home to some eccentrics, but Mum’s side, the Vasallos, who were originally from Malta, were just as lively. Her dad, Paul, worked on the boats, and often returned with all manner of different goodies from his journeys abroad. The family even had a pet monkey at one point. My mum’s mum, Ellen, is my only surviving grandparent, and I know how much pride she takes in all her children, and her twenty-one grandkids, and her six great-grandchildren.

My mum and dad split up when I was ten, and there were fears I’d go off the rails and manipulate some sort of ‘victim’ status, being from a broken home. I was caught robbing sweets at school, which prompted the parish priest to come and talk to me about the perils of a life of crime. He had nothing to worry about. This was when Mum’s strength came to the fore. She juggled her work behind the bar with bringing up three sons. She works in Southport as a nurse now, determined as ever to consider others before herself. Of all the people in my life, she’s the one I respect most. Paul, John and I never wanted for anything as kids. Everything was done for us. Whether it was cleaning, cooking or any other housework, she waited on us twenty-four hours a day. The way we’ve been brought up is to her eternal credit, so when she feels proud of any of our achievements, I feel doubly pleased because it’s she who made it possible.

Despite the separation, she knew I already had stability in my life, not only because of her, but because of football. My second home was the Brunswick Youth Club – the Brunny – where we’d spend every school holiday having a kick-about in the gym in the afternoon and playing pool in the evening.

My dad may have moved out of the house, but he remained as influential as ever. As I got older he’d take me to The Chaucer, or to the pub he owned, The Salisbury, otherwise known as The Solly, where in an hour I’d learn more words of wisdom and tricks than I did in a year at school. After I broke into the Liverpool first team, a bemused stranger saw me at the bar of The Chaucer and felt obliged to approach me with a word of advice.

‘Do you really think you should be in here?’ he said. ‘This pub is terrible for drugs.’

‘No it isn’t,’ came a voice from the other side of the room. ‘You can get anything you want in here.’

You didn’t strive to keep your feet on the ground, they were stuck there as soon as you walked through the doors of a Marsh Lane boozer. If anyone was perceived to be letting his head drift towards the clouds, he’d soon be dragged back. I once saw Tranmere Rovers midfielder Kenny Irons being brought to earth with a thud when he was overheard criticizing a fellow player, with the words, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, Marco Tardelli?’

I’d be captivated by the personalities surrounding me, although when fame arrived it sometimes felt I was being held responsible for every indiscretion of my friends. I later introduced one of my Liverpool team-mates, a certain Michael Owen, to Chaucer regular Tom Foley, and it seemed like an innocent enough meeting. Tom liked to rub his hands together – a gesture Michael later copied after scoring a famous hat-trick at St James’s Park against Newcastle – and was known to ‘have his fingers in one or two pies’, so Michael and I ended up on the front of the News of the World due to our ‘association’ with someone with a criminal record. The reporters must think we have a duty to check the background of everyone we meet.

I don’t take a moral view on any of the lads I grew up with. I take people as I find them. I served my apprenticeship as a permanent touchline mascot to my dad’s teams, but I earned my stripes by earning the respect of the people of Marsh Lane. I wasn’t going to be allowed, nor did I want, to forget my roots because I’d made it at Liverpool. Football has never been a way of escaping my working-class background, but a means of celebrating it. These fine people still remember the young lad who stood on the touchline with his dad every Sunday. I’d never turn my back on those who made me who I am.

Of course watching football was never going to be enough for me. I craved a piece of the action. I was supposed to wait until I was eight before I could play for the Merton Villa junior team, but I lied when I was seven to persuade the manager, Peter Halsall, to pick me. This was the beginning, I hoped, of a glorious career as one of Everton’s greatest ever strikers.

That was a distant fantasy. You’ve no idea how good you are, or might become, at that age. Throughout my years at St James Primary, I had no notion of the level of my talent. How could I know? You’re judging yourself against lads who live in the next house or street, not the rest of the country. I was content enough starring for the school team, trying to impress the headteacher, John Rourke, whose pride in being an Everton season ticket holder meant he could immediately count on my respect.

My secondary school was Savio High, where the most famous former pupils were Peter Hooton, the lead singer of The Farm, and former Liverpool defender Mark Seagraves. His cousin Gary, or ‘Siggy’, was my best mate in class. I treated my school trials in the same way as my first training sessions under a new manager, determined to show what I was capable of. And the more I played, the more I sensed how highly I was rated. I’d be in training sessions with lads my own age and the Savio High teachers would shift me to join the older boys in more organized competitive matches. Mike Dickinson, one of those teachers, was also the physio for England Schoolboys (he’s now working for Everton), so I guessed he could compare me to players from across the country.

I was still playing for fun rather than seriously considering turning professional. The first real hint I had of my ability arrived courtesy of Dad having a pint too many as I played pool in The Solly.

‘Is your lad any good?’ he was asked.

I was lining up another pot, pretending not to pay attention, but his response made me tremble with anticipation.

‘He’ll play in the top division in England,’ said my dad, who didn’t realize that I was listening in.

I wanted to believe him, but part of me still imagined it was the drink talking.

Even when I was first invited to train with Liverpool the implications didn’t sink in. When I was nine, I finished top scorer for the Bootle Boys side, which represented all the schools in the area. Again, I was playing in an age group above mine. (Ian Chapman was the manager of Bootle Boys. When he told me he was a Manchester United fan I jokingly said I was certain I’d learn nothing from him, but he proved me wrong and led us well.) Anfield scout Harry Hodges spotted me in the Bootle Boys team and asked five of us to train at the club, introducing me to the School of Excellence coaches Hugh McAuley and Dave Shannon, who’d have such a major influence in later years. I made sure they remembered me by turning up to train in an Everton kit and taking the nickname ‘Sharpy’, after my Goodison hero Graeme Sharp.

It wasn’t long before Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager at the time, knew who I was too, although this had nothing to do with my performances on the pitch. Once more I had my dad to thank. The meeting of Bootle and Crosby Boys led to Carragher clashing with Dalglish on and off the park.

Kenny’s son Paul was playing for Crosby, and he was on the touchline with one of his top scouts, Tom Saunders, to show his support. It was 1–0 to Crosby when, late in the game, we were gifted a dubious penalty to equalize. Kenny wasn’t impressed by the decision and had a pop at the referee. This was the signal for my dad to show his colours.

‘Keep your fuckin’ mouth shut, Dalglish,’ he said. ‘You should know all about dodgy penalties after the amount you get at Anfield every season.’

Before I knew it, Kenny and my dad were virtually coming to blows. Saunders had to step in to keep them apart.

My position at Liverpool could have been precarious if Kenny’s ego had been insulted, but the opposite happened. Ever since, he and my dad have laughed about it. Kenny probably thought if I was anything like my dad, no one and nothing was going to intimidate me. Reputations count for nothing in football, after all.

Unlike any Liverpool manager since, Kenny had a hands-on approach at the club’s School of Excellence, which later became The Academy. I hear Alex Ferguson does the same at Manchester United. Kenny would watch training sessions, know the names of every nine-year-old, and want to meet their families. His dedication undoubtedly brought good long-term results, ensuring Liverpool were a step ahead in signing the best young players, even passionate Evertonians like me, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman. Who says no if Kenny Dalglish or Steve Heighway knock on your front door? If a bright young prospect is undecided whether to move to Anfield or Goodison nowadays, I’m certain a quick visit from the current manager would seal the deal.

By now I was becoming increasingly aware of being a level above most of my team-mates at school and in the Bootle Boys side, but this began to cause problems. Football was no longer about fun, but critical to my mood for the rest of the week.

It was not pretty watching ten-year-old James Carragher in action. If anyone tracked down former colleagues who played alongside me as a schoolboy, I’m sure they’d hear a selection of horror stories regarding my attitude. They hated being in my team. I had no concept or appreciation of other players’ limitations. Perhaps I was still lacking an understanding of my own ability, believing anyone could reproduce my form if they put their mind to it. More likely, I was intolerant of less talented footballers to a point where I could be accused of being a bully.

I wanted to win too much. This isn’t a bad quality, but at such a tender age it must have seemed a bit strange. Most ten-year-olds will play the match, go home, watch telly eating a bag of crisps and forget about it the next day. I’d think about a defeat for days. Instead of enjoying my football, I was too intense. The ‘winning is the only thing’ philosophy was poisoning me. There were times I was substituted for being too aggressive towards my team-mates. The influence of watching all those adult amateur league battles had sunk in too deep.

By the start of my second year at Bootle Boys, the age rules meant I was playing alongside lads in my own year. It became even clearer to me how much better I was, and it wasn’t a responsibility I carried well.

We played Wirral first game of the new season, a team that included David Thompson, my future Liverpool team-mate. I’d decided I wanted to play centre midfield so I could dictate the play much more. It was 0–0 at half-time, so the manager ordered me back upfront and I scored a hat-trick in a 3–0 win. My central midfield career was over, temporarily at least, after forty-five minutes. I was a striker for the rest of the season.

I was talking a great game on the pitch, and usually playing one too, but I was stinking places out with my behaviour. On my Anfield debut playing for Bootle Boys, I scored at The Kop end, but Heighway pulled me after the game and slated me for not being a team player. ‘You need to start appreciating your team-mates,’ he said. It was the second key warning of my novice career, and it hit me as much as my dad’s flying boots.

The opposition felt the heat of my anger too. As Bootle’s best player, I’d often be targeted by opponents, and if I ever felt I was being provoked, I rarely bit my tongue or controlled my temper. Yet again, the conduct I’d witnessed standing on the sidelines had been embedded into my repertoire. The Sunday League was always a scally zone.

At the start of my Merton Villa career we’d regularly lose 7–0, but we improved every season. Medals began to arrive, and personal recognition came with them. Soon we were the best team in the Bootle and Litherland District. We also won a national tournament held in Southport and moved into the stronger Walton and Kirkdale League, playing the best sides in Liverpool.

Our rivals were a team called Pacific, who had a player everyone recognized as a top prospect, Jamie Cassidy. Jamie would have been a certain Liverpool regular if he hadn’t suffered so much with injuries. He damaged his cruciate and broke his leg just after breaking into the reserves, and never fully recovered. Their striker, John Murphy, also went on to score lots of goals for Blackpool. They were a formidable side, and they beat us to the league title, but then we met each other in the Sunday League Cup Final.

That game, held at the Long Lane playing fields in Fazakerley, meant as much to me when I was twelve as the moment Andriy Shevchenko fluffed his penalty in the 2005 Champions League Final. We won 5–4, and I scored twice. As Everton midfielder Stuart McCall presented the trophy, I revelled in a collective sense of achievement. Good as I was, it had needed a monumental team effort to win that cup. I was proud of the whole side’s efforts, not only my own. Another box in the ‘things to do to become a top footballer’ had been ticked.

After McCall handed me my medal, I just muttered ‘Thanks’ and walked back to my seat. If he’d wanted to chat longer, I could have listed all his playing statistics, how many goals he’d scored, and maybe even offered a bit of advice on what more he could be doing to live up to the standards of the great midfielder he’d replaced, Paul Bracewell – a player who inspired my gelled haircut at one time. This is because when I wasn’t playing football, I wanted to be reading or talking about it.

Every youngster in Liverpool likes to keep a stack of magazines under the bed for some quiet late-night entertainment. Shoot was my choice. Its arrival every Saturday morning was pencilled into my mind’s diary. I’d collect my order from the newsagent and read every sentence. I wasn’t interested in pinning posters on the wall, but in finding out any detail about every top player. I’d keep each edition for years, so I’d always have a private library for later reference. Today, I’d test my memory for games and goalscorers against anyone in the country. I studied results, fixtures and players in such depth I’m now able to answer many football trivia questions instantly. If I wasn’t a footballer, I’d have gone on Mastermind, my specialist subject ‘Shoot magazine during the 1980s’.

One edition from spring 1988 still traumatizes me. I was convinced Everton had signed Ian Rush from Juventus because he was on the cover of Shoot wearing the blue kit. I ran home shouting to everyone, ‘We’ve signed Ian Rush!’, only to read the article and discover it was an April Fool joke. I wasn’t laughing, and graduated to the more mature 90 Minutes shortly after.

If I ever met one of the professional players featured in the pages of Shoot, I wasn’t as surprised as some youngsters would have been because I was lucky enough to become accustomed to it. I was training twice a week at Liverpool, at the Vernon Sangster Leisure Centre – which is due to be demolished to make way for the new stadium on Stanley Park – and was used to seeing the likes of Dalglish and Everton’s manager Howard Kendall on the line during schoolboy games, watching their own sons. Kendall’s presence would always prompt me to try to find an extra yard. Liverpool had spotted me, but privately it was Everton I still hoped to join.

At the age of eleven, I was given my chance.

Ray Hall, who ran Everton’s School of Excellence, had actually been pursuing me for some time, and eventually I allowed my heart to rule my head and accepted his offer. We only signed annual contracts at Anfield, so at the end of my second season I informed Steve Heighway my Liverpool career was over and my spiritual home awaited.

Hall was excited by his new signing. A day before my first training session he called my mum to ask her the name of my favourite player.

She didn’t know. ‘I think it’s Tony Cottee,’ she said.

The following morning I arrived to be met by a smiling Hall.

‘I know who your favourite player is,’ he said.

‘Graeme Sharp?’ I replied.

Hall’s face turned white. He’d brought me Cottee’s shorts as a welcome gift. I wasn’t exactly gutted, but I wasn’t performing cartwheels either.

My dad warned me leaving Liverpool was a mistake. He had no intention of stopping me joining Everton; all he said was there was no reason to leave Anfield. Within a few months I realized he was right. I loved Everton, but there was no comparison in terms of the coaching, organization and standard of players, and the glory days of the mid to late eighties were over. At Liverpool, everything was focused on passing and moving. When a player tried to pick up the ball, Heighway would shout at them like they’d committed a cardinal sin. ‘Are you a goalkeeper, lad?’ he’d yell. ‘Put that down!’ I missed working with him and wanted to go back.

I asked my dad to approach Heighway and ask if there was a chance of a return. Thankfully, Liverpool agreed. I signed my first longer-term contract when I was fourteen, on schoolboy forms.

Phil Thompson was waiting for me at Anfield when I went there to put pen to paper. ‘You’ll never be as good as your arl’ fella,’ Thommo said. He probably still had the bruises from meetings between Kirkby and Bootle twenty years earlier.

The only time I’ve left Liverpool since that day was to head to Lilleshall, the FA School of Excellence for players between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Heighway tried to stop that happening. ‘I don’t want you to go,’ he said. ‘I know you’ve got to, but I believe you’re the best fourteen-year-old in the country and I want to coach you here. They’d better not ruin you.’ But this was my first opportunity to test myself against lads from across the country and in Europe. Besides, winning a place at Lilleshall was a huge accolade.

Any doubts I had about my abilities were quashed as I packed my bags and headed south for the final selections, after making the cut at the North-West trials, held in Preston. I was in competition with future internationals like Frank Lampard. I made the squad of sixteen, Lampard didn’t.

By winning a place, I felt I had everything I needed to realize my ambition.

Lilleshall was the perfect grounding for a young professional. It was like being at boarding school, but I loved every minute. They were two of the best years of my life. I suspect it was harder for my family than for me during this time. Going away from home was exciting. Other than holidays or away matches, I’d not spent any time outside Bootle. But to see me wave goodbye at fourteen, even if it was only for a while, wasn’t easy for my mum. Top footballers often get a bad press because the supporters only see our wealthy lifestyle, but there are sacrifices to be made to get to the top. There’s no doubt some lads find it tougher than others, and homesickness is a problem, but I didn’t see Lilleshall as a hardship. I missed my family too, but never so much I wanted to leave. I saw it as character-building. It helped me grow up quicker because you had to look after yourself rather than rely on your family to do everything for you.

The venue itself was superb. It was like living in luxury. It was a two-mile drive from the gates to the front door. I thought I was arriving at a mansion.

As far as I was concerned, I was joining a specialist school for footballers. We had to attend lessons and do all the usual school stuff, but we also trained with the best coaches every day and were all given our first taste of international football while we were there, so there was always something to look forward to.

After it was shut down, critics argued it was too elitist, focusing too much on a select group to the cost of others. This doesn’t make sense to me. The fact I could go from a Bootle Sunday League side to Lilleshall proved how fair the scouting system was, while even those who didn’t get in didn’t necessarily suffer from having to stay with their clubs. What Lilleshall guaranteed was that the most highly rated youngsters in the country were given every chance to progress, and if any of those went on to represent England, as I did, it was a success. Ray Clemence’s son Stephen and Gavin McCann were the other players in my year who went on to play at the top level. My Liverpool team-mate and former rival from Pacific Jamie Cassidy was also there. We shared digs. He’s responsible for my now being known as Jamie rather than James. To my family and friends, I’m still James, but during my spell at Lilleshall, Steve Heighway would refer to the ‘two Jamies’ away from home, so at Liverpool it’s stuck.

Our eyes were opened to the standard of player elsewhere, but also to the financial differences between the Scousers and others. Me and Jamie were proud of our YTS contracts, while others were telling us about being paid as much as £10,000 in signing-on fees. In every sense, this was a taste of a world beyond Liverpool, which broadened our horizons.

By the end of my first year there I couldn’t wait to go back. Steve Heighway had other ideas. Lilleshall played Liverpool towards the end of year one and I didn’t play well. ‘That’s it, I’m bringing him back here,’ Heighway told one of the coaches. ‘They’re ruining his game.’ I heard this news later. He was wrong, though. I’d simply had a poor match and there was nothing to worry about. I was progressing at least as well as I would have had I stayed on Merseyside.

I was overlooked for England Schoolboys, but made my international debut representing Lilleshall at Under-16 level, partly because the aptly named no-nonsense Keith Blunt was manager, and he seemed to take a shine to the street fighter from Liverpool.

Yorkshireman Blunt was my type of boss. It was he who convinced Heighway it wasn’t necessary to take me out of Lilleshall. He coached Joe Cole later, who told me how when he tried a Cruyff turn in the centre circle he was met with a scream of disapproval. ‘Stop!’ cried Blunt in his Brian Glover-inspired accent. ‘We won’t be having any of that nonsense here, lad.’

I was one of the smallest players in our group, but what I