THEY left the North East to move onto bigger and better things, but this season has not panned out as Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing hoped.
Like José Enríque, who followed Carroll to Liverpool from Newcastle United, they have a medal in the cabinet and another to come if they can turn their second Wembley appearance this season into a third. It is something they would not have had at the clubs they started last season with.
The last time any of the North East’s Big Three were there, Wembley still had Twin Towers. Downing’s previous club, Aston Villa, were knocked out of both domestic cups with indecent haste.
But as the sign in the tunnel constantly reminds them, this is Anfield. Liverpool expect better.
On Sunday, Carroll and Enríque return to St James’ Park for the first time to play catch-up on Newcastle. With only nine games left, the Reds are eight points behind the Magpies in the Premier League. Liverpool were expecting more for the £100m-plus spent in 18 months. No English club has more titles, even if their last was 22 years ago.
Carroll, Henderson and Downing have endured personal as well as collective disappointments.
Yielding just eight goals, Carroll’s move has been as unsuccessful as the Fernando Torres transfer to Chelsea which subsidised it.
Signed last summer to provide the ammunition Carroll craves, Downing has neither a Premier League assist nor a goal. Considering his 62 shots this season – more than anyone yet to score bar Adel Taarabt – the second half of that statistic is hugely disappointing.For a man who carved a reputation at hometown club Middlesbrough as an old-fashioned winger, the first is astonishing.
At times at Sunderland, Henderson seemed neither one thing nor the other – without the outstanding ball-winning, passing or goalscoring skills to be the finished article as a central midfielder, lacking the pace or skill to make the most of his crossing ability from wide. Kenny Dalglish saw potential and sanctioned a £16m transfer for a player fast approaching his 21st birthday. He is still finding his role. Without him, Sunderland have moved forward, though they will need another top-half finish to confirm as much.
Apart from putting medals on the table, swapping the North East – a no-go zone for England’s last manager – for the glamour of Anfield was meant to enhance Carroll and Henderson’s international prospects. Handed debuts against France in November 2010, both look Euro 2012 long shots. They may have to make do with playing in half-empty grounds at the Olympics.
Henderson has not played for England since, Carroll’s one start came in a friendly, his substitute’s appearance in a competitive game. Neither was in caretaker manager Stuart Pearce’s squad against the Netherlands. Downing was, but as in all but one of his last four appearances, he was limited to a cameo from the bench.
Confidence appears to have been the trio’s undoing. A goal here, a good performance there, has had little effect. Instability seems the root cause.
While Carroll is yet to start four consecutive games, Henderson and Downing have played regularly, but in different positions. Dalglish’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation has not helped Carroll. Why spend nearly £60m on two centre-forwards (Luis Suárez was the other) then design a formation which only utilises one? But the biggest problem has been a lack of service. Downing and Henderson must take their share of the blame.
As Carroll’s hero and former manager Alan Shearer commented recently: “If someone like Downing had been able to find him with a few crosses I’m sure things could have been different.” Playing against Newcastle in December, Carroll came alive when Steven Gerrard left the bench and at last some decent crosses came from the flanks, heading one against the bar. But Gerrard has missed much of the season injured and does not want to play on the wing any more than his team want him to. He has still out-crossed Downing.
But of course it has very little to do with Carroll or his team-mates. It is our fault.
“I think yourselves have a bigger problem with Andy than anyone else,” Dalglish told the media in the run-up to Carroll’s last game against Newcastle. Liverpool are unbeaten in the last seven matches Carroll has started, drawing only one.
They have lost the last six he has not, drawing the three before that.
If Dalglish really believed his striker was not struggling, he would pick him more. Carroll is largely being reserved for more winnable games, making his goal return more disappointing. Of those Liverpool bought from this region, only left-back Enríque has impressed, continuing the excellent form which earned his move.
Even his performances have tailed off recently. Providing it is a blip rather than a sustained downturn, Enríque should be safe when Liverpool’s team is next dismantled in search of past glories. Without significant improvement, his North East-born club-mates might not be so lucky. It is something those Carroll and Henderson left behind should bear in mind if the big boys come calling this summer.