"I’ve grown up massively. I’ve realised my mistakes in the past, and realised what I want to be, and what I am." Big interview: Andy Carroll
Written by Tom Easterby
“We used to play pool in here, and there were two dartboards over there,” says Andy Carroll, pointing across the room to the wall on which two televisions now hang. “We had competitions. Steve Harper used to set it up. I was called ‘one-dart Carroll’ – I always used to finish. I had my own flights and everything. Joey Barton was ‘Bingo’ because he’d hit all the numbers on the board. We used to have a good craic back then.”
It’s been eight-and-a-half years since Carroll last took to the oche in the games room at Newcastle United’s training centre in Benton. He was 22 then, the number nine, a force of nature in a team built around his strengths. Each morning, on his way in, he would greet staff like Derek Wright, the physio, and kitmen Ray Thompson and George Ramshaw. He knew the chefs, too, and the security guards. The handshakes and the accent would remind him he was home.
Those faces were there to welcome him back on transfer deadline day earlier this month. There is comfort in familiarity for Carroll; he doesn’t need the tour. His seven years in the capital as a West Ham player have done little to dilute his slightly rasping Geordie lilt. He remembers the last time he left this building, on the 31st January 2011.
“It was mad,” he says, taking a breath. “I was in the gym with Derek. I was on the bike doing some work and it came up on Sky Sports News – £20 million rejected, £25 million rejected, £30 million rejected. Everyone’s coming in saying, ‘what’s happening?’, and I was like, basically, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’ve got a new contract here’.
“And then suddenly it was, ‘go and see the gaffer’. I went to see the gaffer. I literally got out in Kev (Nolan)’s car. Kev took us to his house, and next thing I knew I was in a helicopter to Liverpool.”
So sure was Carroll that he was staying, he gave an interview to nufc.co.uk saying as much just a few hours earlier. It was never published. Was he prepared for what was to come? “No, I wasn’t ready at all,” he shakes his head. “I wasn’t ready at all. But things happen like that. I went down there and it was like a whirlwind.
“I was happy, just about to sign a new deal, and the next day I was gone. I’d just bought a house and, believe it or not, I’d just got a cat. It was in the house, and I never went back to the house – I left in the helicopter and my brother had to have the cat.”
Carroll spent the following two months in a Liverpool hotel as he adjusted to the spotlight. He was the most expensive British footballer of all time, a newly-capped senior England international, and that status opened him up to further scrutiny. Talk about his behaviour was as prevalent as discussions around his ability and there were questions – so many questions – about his suitability at his new club, his professionalism, his life.
When he returned to Newcastle last month, Steve Bruce declared him to be a “mature Andy Carroll now”. Is he? “I’ve grown up completely,” says the Gateshead-born forward, who turned 30 in January. “When I was here, I had a lot of people around me. I was a kid, you know. I came out of school, I was messing around here. I never really grew up. And then I moved away from home, and realised actually what life is about. I’ve got four kids and I’m settled down with my missus, and that’s it now.
“I do have a daft side to me, a silly side to me, which will never ever go, and I don’t want it to, you know? I’m still a child at heart. But I’ve grown up massively. I’ve realised my mistakes in the past, and realised what I want to be, and what I am.”
Carroll credits his fiancé, Billi Mucklow, for that change. “I’ve got no doubt that I was daft when I was here, and no doubt that I was daft for a couple of years after as well. But I met my missus, and we’ve got four kids living at home now, we’ve got animals, we’ve got responsibilities. There’s no more behaviour like it was, you know. I was stupid, I was young, and I was carried away with the lifestyle that I had. Now it’s completely different. I’m actually a dad, I’ve grown up, and got responsibilities, so… I’ve got a purpose.”
Carroll - who is nearing a return to full fitness - in the gym at the Magpies' training centre
Growing up in Gateshead, Carroll attended Joseph Swan School. He would carry a ball everywhere, imploring his parents to stop the car if he ever saw one without an owner at the side of the road. He played for his school team – keeping it quiet, so United wouldn’t find out – and Low Fell Juniors while he worked his way through the Magpies’ academy as a teenager.
Every now and then, screenshots of an old Bebo account purporting to be Carroll’s surface. They suggest a love of The Jungle Book and a fear of spiders, among other arbitrary musings. “You know, it’s not even my account,” he begins. “It must have been, what, ten years that people have been abusing me for it. It’s not even my account, it’s mad.”
It seems a good time to ask whether he reads much of what is written about himself. “I used to years ago, and then there was so much press, bad press, and I just was like, ‘I can’t even be bothered with it’, because most of it is lies,” he says. “There was one (story), I think it was last season, that I got injured trying to climb over a balcony drunk on pre-season with West Ham, and I fell off the balcony and got injured. In the paper! I’m like, what am I even reading this for? It’s a load of ********.
“I won a game of table tennis, jumped on the table, landed, smashed the table and rolled my ankle and I’m injured. What? So I just stopped reading everything. Why am I even...” he pauses. “But people believe it.”
It took him a while, with the support of family at both ends of the country, to harden himself to the tiring cycle of tales. It is the knowledge that stories stick, and shape the public’s attitude towards him, that vexes him. Last year, Carroll told the Daily Mail about the time he’d taken his children to Lapland UK and was approached by a man who made a joke about being careful on the ice in case of injury. “I was just like, ‘really? Do you need to come over and say that?’ I’m actually talking there nicely, and then he comes over and says that. I’m sat there with my kids. It really annoyed me.”
He talks about the difference between reality and what can be perceived from a photograph, in this era of social media and instant judgement. There have been pictures taken of him having Christmas dinner with his family in a restaurant at the end of his street and reported to his employers. He recalls a night out with friends on which he was sober and driving; he was pictured at a table with drinks on, and the subject of subsequent stories.
“I’d be getting phonecalls in London saying, ‘you’re out, and you’re drinking this’. No – I’m in a restaurant with my family. ‘Well you’ve been spotted’. Yeah, I’ve been spotted in there because it’s a restaurant! ‘Yeah, but they sell alcohol, so you must have been drinking’. No – I’m with the kids!
“People just jump on it, thinking ‘oh, Andy’s in the pub’. Yesterday, I went for food with my mate and got a pint of lemonade. I was sitting there and I could see people taking pictures. Because it’s a pint glass, I start getting paranoid with it. I’m drinking lemonade!”
Carroll is training twice a day as he works towards a return to action
Carroll – who is undertaking two training sessions a day as he works towards his second United debut – recognises an appetite to apportion blame, rather than rue bad fortune, when it comes to his injury history. “It’s not my fault,” he says. “I don’t want to be sitting in the gym by myself doing rehab. I want to be outside doing what I love to do, playing football and being with the lads. I’ve been out of it for so long, and I don’t want to be like that.
“People think you’re getting paid so it doesn’t matter. No – that’s not the case. I haven’t come into this job to get paid. Yeah, it pays well, but I’ve come into it because I love it – there’s a difference. I don’t love being in the gym. Everyone that knows me knows I hate the gym, it’s the worst thing ever. I want to be outside. I’m working my ******** off to get fit and I was working my ******** off when I was injured as well. It’s non-stop.”
You suspect that Carroll won’t have imagined his life taking such a winding path when he was a child. His father would help hone his leaping and heading technique each night before his mother drove him to training. “I used to just love heading the ball. My dad would be like, ‘no – you’ve got to do it with your feet as well’ and he’d throw it to my feet. I was like, ‘just throw it up so I can head it’.” He would throw the ball to the top of the stairs and nod it back without it reaching the wall, over and over again, refining his timing. “I just love jumping up and heading it, and in games I just liked being aggressive and getting a battle. When people smash into me, I like smashing into someone else. It doesn’t bother me if someone clatters me or not.”
That endeared him as a youngster just as it does now. Everyone seems to have a favourite Andy Carroll moment: the hat-trick for Newcastle against Aston Villa. His first England goal, a thumping low finish against Ghana at Wembley. That stunning header, from beyond the penalty spot, to meet Steven Gerrard’s cross from deep against Sweden at the European Championships. Those FA Cup semi-final and final goals for Liverpool – each so different in execution but equally as emphatic – and that celebrated overhead kick for West Ham against Crystal Palace.
The thought that some view his career as a series of flashpoints rather than a more rounded whole doesn’t concern him, though talk of that Palace strike – January 2017’s goal of the month – is wearing a little thin, and he is aware of his place in the ever-changing landscape of football. Players with his qualities have fallen from fashion in the last eight years. There are times when he has been underappreciated or denigrated for his style, but he knows his talent – the jump, the angular, powerful frame, the hammer-like left foot, the feeling of restrained excitement that hangs in the air whenever the ball is floated his way in the box – is unique. “It’s pretty cool, actually. I owe it all to my dad throwing the ball up 100 times a day,” he laughs. “It’s actually probably a shame, because I think a lot of teams need some of the things I can do. I don’t think for one minute that I’m the only person who can do it, but I do think it’s a shame that there’s not many players around.
“I just enjoy it – I really enjoy just getting involved and throwing myself around. I think when you stand out of it and you’re not involved in it, it’s not fun. You need to be in the mix, getting involved. You see most teams now trying to look for the smaller, more athletic players, and it’s nice to know there’s some managers out there who appreciate that that’s not what it’s all about, and that you can change it up, chop it up. I actually think there needs to be more players like this.”
How that kind of player might be brought through in 2019 is a debate for another day. Carroll’s house is largely football-free, save for his four-old-son Arlo’s Match Attax. He owns memorabilia in the form of shirts and England caps and a games room in which to display them, but he doesn’t want to. “Right now, I want to go home with a clear mind and not think about my goal against Palace, or my goal against Sweden,” he smiles. “I don’t want to be thinking of that.”
That might explain why, after a testing few years in which injury and an expiring contract had played on his mind, Carroll now finds it easier to switch off from the game. It brings a chance to clear up an old rumour: that the young Carroll, on the day he joined Liverpool, had to look up his new teammates on the internet as he made his way to Merseyside. “That’s actually true,” he nods. “When I was here, I’d go home, mess about with my mates, play football, go out, whatever, but I’d never watch football, I never knew any players. I’d come in on the Friday or wake up on the Saturday morning saying, ‘who are we playing?’ It was just completely oblivious to all the football that was going on. I would work at the training ground and knew my tactics, but until we had a meeting I didn’t know who we were playing, unless I asked someone.
“When I was in the helicopter down to Liverpool, I was like, ‘I know Stevie G, I know Carragher. Who else?’ My agent at the time had to tell me, and I would get it on Google and find out the team. So that’s actually a true story. It’s bad because it’s Liverpool players, but it’s not disrespectful – I just literally didn’t watch football, so I didn’t know.”
"I just love jumping up and heading it, and in games I just liked being aggressive and getting a battle. When people smash into me, I like smashing into someone else. It doesn’t bother me if someone clatters me or not.”
He doesn’t require Google back at United, the club of his youth. He spent the summer in the gym and out running, training every day at West Ham with a week in Dubai – where he worked in the heat – to clear his head. He has been thinking of this, about being back, all that time.
“I can’t wait to just walk out at St. James’. I really can’t. Honestly, I can’t describe it,” he says, shaking his head. “I walked into the stadium when I was signing and walked down the side of the pitch. Just an unbelievable feeling. When I put the shirt on and walk out… I can’t describe it. I’m more buzzing to put it on now, the shirt, than I was when I was 17. I’m so excited.”
There is a romance about his return to Newcastle that can stir even the stoniest of Geordie hearts. Has Carroll himself, amid the deadline-day dash north and the homecoming fervour, allowed himself to be swept along with it?
“I have. I am taken in by it,” he smiles. “I’m waking up every morning at my mum and dad’s house, where it all began. I’m driving into training, the same drive we drove when I was seven years old. I had a walk around town the other day and it’s just like it is. It’s home.”
"I’m waking up every morning at my mum and dad’s house, where it all began. I’m driving into training, the same drive we drove when I was seven years old. I had a walk around town the other day and it’s just like it is. It’s home."