ANDY Carroll is the boy with the world at his feet. A bullocking, fearless goalscoring striker at a time when the traditional British centre-forward is back in vogue with his national manager, Carroll’s rise to prominence as the figurehead for ‘new Newcastle’ has been timed to perfection.
Singled out as one to watch by no less a judge than Fabio Capello, he has backed up his raw potential with 19 crucial goals and a deserved place in the PFA’s Championship team of the year.
So why does it feel, at the age of just 21, his career is already at a crossroads?
Because, as high as Carroll’s stock has risen this season, there remain nagging concerns about character flaws which threaten to overshadow his mammoth talent.
So far the unsavoury incidents have been written off as youthful indiscretions, and Carroll is far from unique in suffering a few growing pains.
Indeed to spend quarter of an hour talking football to the energetic, enthusiastic and likeable Gateshead lad you would struggle to locate a bad bone in his body.
Waves of goodwill notwithstanding, there remain serious, thudding issues for Carroll to resolve if he is to capitalise on his tremendous first full campaign in a black and white shirt.
The suspicion is that the striker is getting to grips with that fact.
Carroll cannot talk about the elephant in the room just yet for obvious legal reasons.
His day in court on an assault charge looms large and perhaps after that he will be able to provide some sort of clarity about one of the season’s other big talking points, the alleged training ground bust-up with Steven Taylor.
Until then, he has to choose his words carefully, but what he does say is encouraging – hinting at having heeded the lessons of a turbulent campaign.
He said: “I have learned a lot this season. I has been a great experience but not always easy.
“It has been tough at times, on and off the pitch, but I have learned from it.
“There is always going to be attention on you as a footballer, but I have to prove myself and keep working hard on the pitch. That is all I can do.
“I have enjoyed having my games. From a team and a club point of view it was terrible going down, but it was probably better for my game.
“With the players we had in the squad last year, it was going to be difficult for a lad coming in from the youth team. It is difficult for a manager to give you a game over an international striker who cost millions, it is a big risk.
“A lot of the big names left and I have been able to have my games, score my goals and it has just been brilliant for me. It has really helped me to develop.
“It has gone better than I thought it would. I knew I would have more games in the Championship than in the Premier League, but I did not expect as many as I have had.”
Carroll’s biggest asset is his aerial prowess.
He is blessed with a high football IQ, drifting into the sort of positions which make it easy for attack-minded wingers to supply the ammunition.
However, it is his hold-up play, his neat touch and his fearlessness which set him apart from other ‘big men’ plying their trade in the second tier.
Is it the sort of ability which makes him worthy of one day donning Newcastle’s sacred number nine shirt?
As a boyhood season ticket holder, Carroll is aware of the tradition and plots a careful line when asked about his ambitions of following in the footsteps of Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Malcolm McDonald and the rest.
He added: “There is talk about it but I am just concentrating on my football. I just want to score goals and then we will see what happens.
“I have thought about it a lot, ever since I was coming through the youth team it was something to aim for.
“The players who have played number nine are great, great players for this football club and it would be a privilege to have it on my back, but I have work to do.
“Of course it would be big for me because I am a local lad.
“When I was young I had a season ticket, I watched them have some great days and I understand what the fans want and what they are thinking.
“I know what they like, I know the way they think, and it would be a proud moment if I did get it.”
Chris Hughton has had the biggest impact on his career, but Shearer remains a huge influence.
The words of caution from Gosforth’s famous son earlier in the sun clearly had an impact.
Carroll admits: “Alan is a big influence on me.
“Of course, it was huge to have him at the end of that season. He came in and showed me what to do.
“He helped a lot of the lads in that way, he is such a big character.
“I was sad to see him go, yeah. He was one of my idols and he helped me in the short time he was here.
“Colin and Chris have been fantastic this season and the lads were right behind them from the start of the season. My game has come on under them in a big way.”
Next up is the Premier League, a difficult new frontier to conquer. Strikers who score freely in the second tier rarely make the seamless transition into the top flight – and Carroll knows it will be tough.
Aware goals are a much more precious commodity in the Premier League, Hughton will attempt to sign another striker this summer.
It will not be Carroll’s place under threat in the summer shake-up, though.
United, who turned down a £4million bid from Wolves for the then untested forward last summer, know they have a diamond on their hands and will stick with him whatever trials and tribulations the summer brings.
Carroll said: “I cannot wait for it. I know it is a big step up but if I keep training and working hard, hopefully I can keep my place and keep scoring goals.”