Andy Carroll: The brittle sledgehammer stuck in a loop of declining returns

Andy Carroll’s £35 million move from Newcastle to Liverpool is one of the most infamous January deadline day transfers. Now at West Ham, Carroll remains an enigma, writes Matt Pearson .

It’s eight years to the day since Liverpool paid Newcastle £35 million to make Andy Carroll the most expensive British footballer of all time, and the eighth most expensive player in the history of the sport.

He’s since scored 39 league goals, or about five a season, and failed to reach double figures in any single campaign. All but six of those 39 goals of them have come for the club I support, West Ham United, who signed him for a club record fee of £15 million in 2013 after a decent loan spell. 

To say West Ham have signed a lot of forwards recently would be like saying Bill Gates has a few quid, or Michael Gove is a bit of an arse. At the last count there have been nearly 50 in the nine years since Davids Sullivan and Gold took over the club.

They have, with only a few exceptions (Demba Ba, Marko Arnautovic, Diafra Sakho), offered up just about every shade of disappointment. Exciting but ultimately underwhelming (Javier Hernandez), hardworking but terminally limited (Jonathan Calleri), financially disastrous (Benni McCarthy), desperate (Jordan Hugill), weird (Mido), or some dreary combination of them all. 

What none of them have been, is the best in the world at any aspect of football. Not even Jordan Hugill. But there have been times in his career where Carroll had a fair claim to be the best man on the planet at heading a football. 

In particular, Carroll has been a world leader at lurking beyond the back post, raising his arm like he’s summoning up a spirit from below and then flying through the air like a ponytailed fridge freezer that’s been bounced off an enormous trampoline. 

Carroll has been a world leader at lurking beyond the back post, raising his arm like he’s summoning up a spirit from below and then flying through the air like a ponytailed fridge freezer that’s been bounced off an enormous trampoline.

When the service is right, and in those few games a season when he’s at peak fitness, it’s a genuinely visceral and utterly distinct weapon that can wreak absolute havoc: a wild sledgehammer in a world of precise chisels. 

But therein lie the problems. To get the best out of Carroll, teams must play a certain way, and ideally sign Stewart Downing and Kevin Nolan. Even if managers are happy to sacrifice their more technical players to the whim of the knockdown, as Sam Allardyce was in his spell in charge of the Hammers, Carroll’s injury history makes him an impossible man to build a team around. And building a team around him is the only way to get the best of him.

Even more than that, these days he’s just not that good. With each injury, his leaps are more laboured, it takes him more and more matches to manage a sprint and, most damagingly, he forgets his strengths.

Watching him now, as he lumbers through his latest return to the first team, is like watching a cow at a dinner party. He’s not sure where to place himself but too conspicuous to blend in, and he’s constantly knocking things over while staring harrowingly in to the middle distance. So often Carroll drifts wide or deep to try and get involved in areas of the pitch in which a man with his limited subtlety, craft and nous have no business. He’s recently started trying to throw crosses in semi-regularly. No one wants that. Surely. 

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It’s difficult, and not especially desirable, to criticize him but it’s painful to watch a man who scored a header for the ages against Sweden in Euro 2012, a brilliant hat-trick against Arsenal in 2016 and a stunning bicycle kick against Crystal Palace two years ago, look like someone’s rugby-playing mate roped in at the last minute to play Sunday League.

Though Allardyce and others have questioned his off-pitch behavior and motivation, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Carroll. The last few years of his career have seen him trapped in a frustrating loop: 1. Injured. 2. Setback in recovery. 3. Sub appearances where he looks way off the pace. 4. A run of starts and a couple of goals. 5. Talk of an England call up as a ‘Plan B’. 6. See step 1.

His contract expires at the end of the season and with a few more games under his belt, perhaps he’ll be able to avoid what seems an inevitable departure - a goal against his old club Liverpool on Monday certainly wouldn’t hurt. But with stiff competition for West Ham’s highly-paid, mostly injured, former England international spot from Jack Wilshere, it’s very difficult to see a future in East London.

It’s also hard to think that many Hammers will be sorry to see him go at this point. But, for all his flaws, his experiments with cornrows and his heavy touches, there’s still something redeeming, and fascinating about Carroll. Even if it does all end this season, we’ll always have the headers.