With Andy Carroll leaving West Ham, Hal Walker offers an elegy on the career that was, the career that could have been, and Carroll’s folk idol place in English football.
It is 5.00pm on Saturday May 4 at the London Stadium.
The West Ham United players are completing their annual end-of-season lap of appreciation following their final home game of the season, a comfortable 3-0 victory over Southampton to ensure a rather serene summer send-off from the fans.
Familiar faces from the first team with their wives and children are present, but any attentive observer will have noticed the sad and final sight of a forgotten figure – Andy Carroll – crutches in tow, feebly walking incapacitated around the perimeter accompanied by children and girlfriend.
In many ways it was an apt final image of the player in club colours given the materialisation of a move, and career, that promised so much, to begin with, and sporadically at best since.
On May 29 West Ham announced the departure of now 30-year-old Carroll upon the season end, ending a seven-year stay in East London that has seen the 6 ft. 4 striker make 142 appearances, scoring 34 goals.
This season he has made a meagre 14 appearances, notching a single goal in an FA Cup 3rd round fixture at home to Birmingham on 6 January.
The reality of Carroll’s situation is that he has become an increasingly peripheral figure, and in the rare instances he has been fit in recent periods, has had a rapidly diminishing influence on the team, quite clearly suffered from a declining mobility – the result of as many as thirteen bedevilling injury lay-offs and has seen his playing style become increasingly primitive and unrefined.
In the past two seasons he has played for three different managers and has only clocked four goals across both campaigns.
He has become an increasingly detached presence, not just for the fact that he is so reliably absent from the first team through injury, but for the fact that he remains a marked, conspicuous target-man figure playing for a club attempting to transition from a style of play that harks back to a previous regime.
Carroll initially moved to Upton Park in August 2012 on a season-loan from Liverpool, where he played for 18 months following a £35m move from Newcastle, before a largely productive first season saw the Hammers break their transfer record at the time to sign the forward for £15m.
However the warning signs were apparent already.
A rampaging debut in West Ham’s 3-0 home win over Fulham was cut short after the hour-mark when Carroll was removed with a thigh strain.
He may have only missed four matches, but by the end of November he had encountered a knee issue that was to sideline him for the next two months of the season.
He was making some impression when fully fit on the pitch, though, returning for the final four months of the season where he effectively spearheaded Sam Allardyce’s offensive, aerial tactic that prioritised crosses from out wide into the penalty area that friend and former Newcastle teammate Kevin Nolan could predatorily sniff around for Carroll’s lay-offs.
The seven goals in the 24 appearances was encouragement enough for the Hammers to break their transfer record in completing the permanent signing of Carroll the following summer, the only significant financial outlay they could make within their means in the window.
Their over-reliance on the England international was soon to be exposed though.
A fractured foot injury that had been rooted back to the end of the previous season had flared up and he would miss the entire first half of the 2013/14 campaign, during which for the period of a month rendered Allardyce without any fit, recognised striker and ultimately resorted in him deploying an unorthodox 4-6-0 formation.
Seasons following have regrettably mirrored the injury:performances ratio with the 27 league appearances in Slaven Bilic’s first season of 2015/16 his most extended run of games in a single campaign.
This is telling considering he missed the first two months of that season with a knee injury as well as an unknown problem that ruled him out for three weeks in January 2016.
To dismiss the irregular moments of brilliance in his career is doing Carroll a major disservice though.
His style has been an undeniable throwback to a former era of British football.
At his best he has been so much more than a mere physical presence. The sheer transgressive beauty of his heading, that involves such an expert level of skill and timing to pick the flight of an incoming ball.
He has been an aberrational figure in the modern Premier League era that has been inexorably filled with a plethora of hard-running, athletic, technically-gifted players suited for the structured pressing and counter-attacking styles so prevalent in England’s top tier now.
The hat-trick salvo in the 3-3 home draw to Arsenal, the traumatising of a Swansea City defence in December 2014 where Carroll was a man possessed bullying, bludgeoning and tormenting Ashley Williams on his way to a brace, and not forgetting the majestic scissor-kick volley at the London Stadium at home to Crystal Palace.
All are just some of the special moments Carroll has produced during his prodigious peak in the Claret and Blue.
The fact that he has made just nine England appearances, all between 2010 and 2012, only goes to the underline the waste of talent.
The fact that not only is international football frequently less tactically polished than the modern European domestic game, but that before Harry Kane’s England emergence the national side yearned for a different option -who was not Peter Crouch – to utilise and target in the final embers of a game when they needed to test the resoluteness of an international defence who may be unaccustomed to an extraordinaire of Carroll’s extreme.
Questions have been posed by various quarters as to Carroll’s motivation to get, and remain fit, with Sam Allardyce suggesting that the forward had often been guilty of not looking after himself and failing to complete the required rehabilitation work in training.
At times, off-field distractions threatened to derail him. As a teenager prospect at Newcastle, Carroll even had difficulty remaining the right side of the law following a series non-football related incidents that culminated in his Range Rover being torched by an arsonist on Kevin Nolan’s driveway, where Carroll was being forced to reside at the time with his teammate following a previous assault charge.
At 30 years old and having played so little football in particularly the last two seasons, it is unlikely Carroll will remain in England barring any voluntary wage drop.
A move to the MLS has been touted, which may make sense from a marketing perspective, but the reality is we have probably seen the best of England’s last great footballing colossus.
We should remember Andy Carroll not for the perennial injury record, but for the fact that he represented the last remaining vestige of British strikers using a rather discredited method of craft.
A player who transcended time and spoke to a previous folk idol of English football, when attacking football would serve as a trial of strength and aerial prowess.
Follow Hal on Twitter @halwalker