Liverpool's 1-0 win over FC Gomel in the third qualifying round of the Europa League on Thursday was not a memorable match, but it had already become something of a staging post in the career of Andy Carroll, who was included in the squad and then removed. Officially a slight strain of his groin, picked up in training, put him out of contention. Brendan Rodgers, for whom the game was a competitive debut as Liverpool manager, spoke about ensuring that players are not lost to injury before the season has even started. "We have to make sure the players are fit enough to do well," he reasoned, perhaps hoping to still wagging tongues.
Since Alberto Aquilani (almost a Fiorentina player) and Daniel Agger (for whom the club has turned down a bid from Manchester City, and whose agent insisted there was no injury) also stayed home this week, Carroll's omission has been widely taken as a not-so-subtle hint as to the striker's place in the new Liverpool. Or rather, lack of it. ''Injured' Andy Carroll is left out' said The Daily Express, with a knowing wink and a tap of its nose. "The timing will inevitably raise eyebrows," said The Times. West Ham United had not long agreed on a fee to take Carroll on loan.
The $54.8 million paid by Liverpool to purchase Carroll from Newcastle United has left an indelible mark. A move produced by an exceptional set of circumstances -- Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli let loose with the company credit card in their first transfer window, knowing a British-record $78.2 million was on its way from Chelsea for Fernando Torres -- has, to an extent, set a course for Carroll's career. At 22, and with a decent season in the second tier and half a season in the Premier League under his belt, Carroll became the most expensive British player ever. He admitted to struggling with the expectations that invited. Yet it is what happens this summer -- how Carroll plays the options that he now has -- that will perhaps tell us the most about him.
Carroll arrived at Liverpool apparently distraught at having to leave his hometown club, that for its part insisted the player had submitted a transfer request when Newcastle refused to improve his recently-signed contract to reflect Liverpool's valuation, which came in at $46.9 million on the morning of the final day of the transfer window before being upped as the deadline approached. Whatever the truth (perhaps a combination of both, Carroll's arithmetic outstripping his common sense until it was too late to turn Newcastle off a significant windfall), 18 months later three paths lay ahead: he can stay with Liverpool; he can sign for West Ham; or he can hold out for a stronger expression of interest from Newcastle, who has also spoken to Liverpool about a loan deal but not matched the Hammers' figures.
West Ham, which is prepared to pay $3.1 million for the loan of Carroll and a further $41.6 million to keep him should the club stay up, and to match Carroll's $125,000-a-week wages, have been told that the forward does not want to move to east London to rejoin Kevin Nolan and Sam Allardyce. His preference is for a return to Newcastle, but if that's not happening -- and barring late interest from a club playing in Europe -- those immortal words have been uttered: He'll stay and fight for his place.
It's an expression loaded with messages. There is supposed to be something valiant about fighting for one's place, something Corinthian; a determination to honor not just a contract (of which four years remain) but also to honor the game, your abilities, your self-belief. It is, more often than not, horse pucky.
Carroll should know as well as anybody that he is unlikely to be afforded adequate opportunity to prove himself at Liverpool. In his first full season at the club, Liverpool were the Premier League's most prolific crossers of the ball, and one of the quickest to attempt a cross in attacking play (according to the Opta stats, only Wolves, Stoke and Sunderland tried to cross the ball sooner). The return? Four league goals. Forty-two headed attempts missed. There is little to encourage Rodgers to tailor his Liverpool side to a player he would scarcely consider signing himself, and he will feel under scant obligation to select a player who stays despite a move elsewhere being agreed.
If Carroll thinks that is unfair (and bare stats often are; he'll no doubt prefer to imagine a future in which every cross comes in from Steven Gerrard, as it did when he gave England the lead against Sweden at this summer's Euros), it would seem only another reason to get down to Upton Park quick smart. At West Ham he would not only remain well paid, he would have also have a manager prepared to arrange a team around him -- desperate to, it seems, when you consider David Gold's recent comments about wage control. Even if there is a surface romance to Carroll's possible return to the north east, Alan Pardew would not do the same to the more sophisticated Newcastle side he has fashioned since Carroll's departure.
So far, and perhaps infinitely, Carroll can be considered a victim of the money paid for him in January 2011; if he has made poor decisions they have come subsequent to and in the shadow of that vast, eye-watering sum. But he now has the chance to restore and build his reputation without loss of face or earnings by signing for West Ham. Sympathy wilts if he plumps instead for his weakest option, in which only the cash is preserved.