JANUARY 8th 1997. It’s a date which will forever be etched in Jamie Carragher’s mind.
There were 15 minutes left of Liverpool’s League Cup tie at Middlesbrough when boss Roy Evans sent him on in place of Rob Jones.
Carragher couldn’t save the Reds from a 2-1 defeat but the 18-year-old from Bootle had taken the vital first step towards achieving his dreams.
“Any kid will tell you, you need to get that first one out of the way,” he said.
“You have done it. You have played for Liverpool and no-one can ever take that away from you.
“I actually thought I was going to start that night and was a bit disappointed to be on the bench. When I came on, I wasn’t nervous. I never was as a kid.
“Maybe it’s something about my character but I always thought I should have been playing earlier!
“That’s the way I was. I would be knocking on Roy Evans’ door at the age of 18 asking ‘what can I do to get in the team? Why is he ahead of me?’ I was always pushing and pushing to get in there.”
Carragher had long since been labelled as a youngster of real promise. When he first walked through the gates of Melwood at nine years of age, he was a prolific striker.
At 14, he was hand-picked to spend two years at the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall. Living away from home was character-building and his game developed.
Carragher returned home and starred in a central defensive role as Liverpool clinched FA Youth Cup glory in 1996. His reward was a first professional contract.
Just three days after his first team bow at the Riverside, he came off the bench at home to West Ham before being handed his full debut against Aston Villa at Anfield.
It was an afternoon to cherish as Carragher opened the scoring in a 3-0 win, rising to head home Stig Inge Bjornebye’s corner.
“The night before I’d been told I was playing centre-half but Bjorn Kvarme’s international clearance came through in the end,” he recalled.
“I would have been on the bench but Patrik Berger was sick so I started in central midfield.
“It was a great day and one of the highlights of my Liverpool career. To score in front of the Kop was brilliant. I remember the roar when it went in.”
Evans gave Carragher his chance but it was under Gerard Houllier that he became a first-team regular.
The Frenchman, who took sole charge at Anfield in November 1998, liked what he saw in the home-grown talent.
However, with Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz forming a solid centre-back partnership, Carragher had to adapt to survive. He showed his versatility as he held off fierce competition for the full-back spots.
“Gerard Houllier was brilliant for me,” he said. “Straight away I was first choice from the age of 20 right through until now.
“He was the manager who had that belief to play me every week. Any player will tell you that gives you a lot of confidence.
“Houllier put me at centre-back to start with but I was still only a kid and it’s difficult to play centre-back for a top side when you are a kid. Then he brought in Sami and Stephane and they were absolutely outstanding for the next two or three years.
“What do you do? I ended up re-inventing myself as a full-back. I had never played there before but Houllier wanted me in the team. I was his type of character. I ended up going to World Cups with England as a full-back so I obviously did well in that position.”
Carragher was left-back during the historic treble-winning season of 2000/01. It’s an achievement he believes has never received the recognition it truly deserved.
After beating Birmingham City on penalties in the League Cup final, Liverpool won both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup in four days.
Michael Owen’s late double stunned Arsenal in Cardiff before a dramatic night in Dortmund where Alaves were finally beaten 5-4 by a golden goal in extra-time.
“That’s the best season I’ve ever had,” Carragher said.
“Just look at the number of big games we played. Not just three finals, but three semis, three quarters... every game was massive.”
“Looking back now, when will Liverpool ever play two major cup finals in the space of four days again and win them both?
“That was an unbelievable time and it does annoy me sometimes that it gets overlooked.
“I think a lot of that was to do with the fact that Gerard Houllier was a foreign manager. A lot of people outside the club dismissed Liverpool as boring during that UEFA Cup run.
“But we went to tough places like Porto and Barcelona and did a job. We weren’t an open or expansive team but we got results. At times I don’t think that was given enough credit.
“The final against Alaves was crazy. We were a lot better than them, you saw that in the opening 20 minutes, but we were absolutely shattered.
“We had played Arsenal in the heat four days before and been battered by them for most of the afternoon The adrenaline and how buzzing we were after that FA Cup final took it out of us.
“From the Saturday through to the Wednesday, you’re still thinking about the FA Cup final and trying to prepare yourself for a European final. What a week that was. I don’t think we realise how big a thing that was.”