A common trope in British sitcoms is the evocation of unfulfilled potential. Whether its Kurtan Mucklowe longing to leave his village but not possessing the wherewithal in This Country, Dawn Tinsey’s desire to become an illustrator but settling into becoming David Brent’s receptionist in The Office or the underlying sadness in the lives of Mark and Jez in Peep Show, comedy writers make their characters relatable by hinting at their inner frustrations. After all, the workplaces of this country are littered with people who felt they could have been more. Nobody dreams of working in a call centre.
Footballers are not immune from this description. Upon his release by West Ham in 2019, scores of articles appeared lamenting the unfulfilled potential of Andy Carroll. Portrayed as an analog player in a digital age, Carroll was the ultimate example of a striker who was unplayable on his day. Possessing unrivalled heading ability and the energy of a one-man mosh pit, defending against Carroll must have felt as futile as attempting to stop lava pouring out of a volcano.
Happily for defenders these occasions were as infrequent as they were brilliant. For most of his time at the club, Big Andy could be found on the treatment table and was unable to string together a full season of appearances. If he were a racehorse Brian Clough would have had him shot.
During an era where elite football became obsessed with possession stats and every club began to demand beautifully constructed football, there was something intangibly raw and elemental about watching Carroll play. When on form, this was a player you simply could not take your eyes off – in the words on The Guardian’s Barney Ronay watching him attack a cross into the penalty area was like witnessing an ‘angry buffalo being hurled off a hotel balcony’. Although unfashionable to admit, this was an arresting sight and one that proved thrilling football was not the sole preserve of Pep Guardiola.
This was no more evident than during one afternoon in April 2016. On his first league start since January, Carroll scored a nine-minute hat-trick against Arsenal and his overall performance was reported as ‘demented’ by the BBC.
In the midst of an occasion described by Danny Baker as a ‘super inept farce of a football match’, Carroll’s exhilarating exploits were enough to kickstart rallying cries for his inclusion in England’s Euro 2016 squad. It was one of the last great Upton Park moments and effectively ended Arsenal’s title challenge.
However, the afternoon did not start promisingly. In need of points to boost their unexpected push for the Champions League, West Ham were unlucky to find themselves behind to strikes from Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez as half-time approached. Despite this, there were signs something was stirring within Carroll. Fired up from his pre-match meal of raw steak, the Geordie received a booking within four minutes for a wild hack on Laurent Koscielny.
Soon after, he was at the centre of the game’s first controversial moment. A nonchalant flicked cross from Mark Noble was met with a spectacular overhead kick, comparable with a table footballer being spun violently on its axis. The ball was mishit into the ground and upon bouncing up was headed in by Manuel Lanzini. Although the Argentine was being played on by Hector Bellerin, the goal was disallowed for offside. Early indications were that Carroll would inflict chaos upon the Arsenal backline.
These suspicions proved correct minutes before half-time with a goal that was beautiful in its simplicity. A magnificent swirling cross from Aaron Cresswell was watched by a static defence in the manner of a group collectively observing a firework display, allowing Carroll to thunder home a header. The Arsenal goalkeeper, David Ospina, looked genuinely alarmed as he fell powerlessly to the floor. Game on.
Relief would turn to euphoria seconds later. After Arsenal had only partially cleared one delivery, the ball found its way back to Carroll in the penalty area. After controlling with his chest and mishitting a right footed shot, the striker contorted his whole body to bludgeon home a left-footed volley. The introduction of unorthodox acrobatics into Carroll’s repertoire produced a double take usually reserved for discovering a Page 3 clipping in the Bible. Fittingly, the replay showed the strike was largely off his shin but that did not detract from the elation of the moment. As a breathless first half ended level, it was possible to see why late-Wenger Arsenal were destined not to win the league.
It would have been no surprise if the start of the second half represented a lull after the intoxicating first forty-five minutes. However, the message had clearly not got through to both sets of players, the commotion of Carroll’s presence acting as a catalyst for the game’s tempo.
Already on a yellow card, a stray arm in the face of Gabriel could have seen the West Ham striker sent off. Minutes later, an impromptu wrestling match with Koscielny sent both players tumbling to the floor, along with Ospina. Dimitri Payet’s resulting tap in was correctly disallowed. It seemed as if Carroll was channelling the energy of a police horse who has had a cigarette stubbed out on its behind.
The atmosphere of bedlam reached its crescendo in the fifty-second minute. Winger Michail Antonio sped past one defender and stood up a wonderful cross from the byline towards the back post. Leaping imperiously above Bellerin as if engulfing him, Carroll powered a header past the helpless Ospina to complete his hat-trick.
The stadium erupted with joy and disbelief. With a nine-minute salvo, Carroll had transformed the game and set West Ham on their way to their first home win against Arsenal since Arsene Wenger’s unforgettable spat with Alan Pardew. Ever the killjoy, Howard Webb declared on BT Sport that Carroll should never have been on the field after his earlier fouls.
Alas, his defining performance did not result in victory. Pushing desperately forward, Arsenal equalised twenty minutes from time through Koscielny and a riotous game ended 3-3. For those numbed by the incessant over-promotion of the Premier League it must also be acknowledged that occasionally the hype is justified by a match as good as this one. A draw was of no real use to either team – Arsenal failed to win the title and West Ham missed out on Champions League qualification.
The calls for Carroll to be taken to Euro 2016 also fell on deaf ears, although some wags suggested he would be better suited for Aintree. The way Carroll’s potential inclusion was discussed bought similarities to shipping out and deploying a huge First World War artillery gun, albeit a rusting one with large spells out of action.
Unfortunately, Roy Hodgson resisted the temptation to include the target man in his squad. While supressing sniggers as England slipped to defeat against Iceland, it was impossible to shake the feeling that bringing Andy off the bench may have given the Scandinavians something tangible to worry about.
His West Ham career never matched the peak of that spring afternoon in East London. Despite a goal-of-the-season contender the following year against Crystal Palace, Carroll soon resumed his habitation in the physio’s room. Concerned he may become isolated and lonely, the club bought Jack Wilshere to keep him company.
During a rare appearance in an away match at Burnley in 2017, Carroll managed to be sent off for two identical challenges within a minute. Incredibly Antonio Conte wanted to sign him for reigning champions Chelsea, prompting frantic checks the Italian had not been replaced by a mysterious figure called Sam Allardici. Disappointingly for satirists everywhere, the move failed to materialise.
For all the jokes at Carroll’s expense, his performance against Arsenal represented all that was being airbrushed out of top-flight football. Mirroring big corporations in other industries, elite football clubs wished to exercise unprecedented levels of control over events, to minimise risk and impose a gentrified method of doing things that favoured those with the most money.
Andy Carroll presented a throwback to the very essence of sport that entices people from around the globe; its unpredictable mayhem. For all the advances made in football tactics and player conditioning, Carroll epitomised a unique challenge to the modern defender and was occasionally impossible to play against. Ronay labelled him ‘the man with a head like a foot’.
Despite his frustrating injury record and obvious limitations, we should celebrate Andy Carroll as part of football’s rich diversity. The sense of unfilled potential is only exacerbated by glimpses of what might have been. No glimpses were as tantalising as one afternoon against Arsenal in 2016.