Some players just feel special, don’t they? For whatever reason, whether you can put your finger on it or not, a few of those to pull on the blue and white hoops stand out from the rest - in a good way. You can’t necessarily put it down to a concrete reason, but the buzz surrounding them is undeniable regardless.
That is what seems to be happening with Andy Carroll. There’s something eminently exciting and uplifting not just in the idea of watching him play for Reading, but also in the fact that he’s here in the first place. Premier League veteran and former England international Carroll joining ‘little old Reading’ is something no one would have predicted before it was on the cards, and really, we’re still getting our heads around it.
In the meantime, the fans are lapping it up. You can tell a lot about how talismanic a player is by how loud the chanting about them is, even if the lyrics opt for simplicity over eloquence. From the moment it was clear he’d be coming on for his debut against Nottingham Forest, through the drab defeat to Sheffield United and up to the end of the fantastic win at Swansea City, one tune stood out above all others:
Andy Carroll, duh duh duh duh.
Change the name and you’re immediately transported back in time to the second half of 2011/12. Back then, Jason Roberts was the veteran centre forward - the classic ‘big man up top’ - grabbing the headlines. Like Carroll now, Roberts carried a sense of clout beyond his goal return or what he could offer tactically. Through reputation, both players command respect and inspire those around them.
Jason Roberts, duh duh duh duh.
Inspiration is exactly what Reading Football Club needs at the moment. After all, 2021 has been a punishing year on multiple fronts: missing out on a play-off spot, losing young stars Michael Olise and Omar Richards, the drawn-out struggle to get transfers greenlit in the summer, an ongoing battle with injuries, the six-point deduction from the EFL and anxiety over what the agreed ‘business plan’ will mean for the club’s future.
Amid those tough challenges on and off the pitch, some of which will hang over this club for the rest of the season, Andy Carroll is a shining light of enjoyment. Fans love that he’s here, enjoy watching him play and look forward to the next time they’ll do so. It’s simple but profound, football’s charm at its purest.
Carroll’s own attitude has been exemplary; any worries we may have had that he wouldn’t be up for the challenge at Reading were unfounded. Indeed, as David Ornstein at The Athletic reported, he was happy to move to Berkshire for just £1,000 per week - a pittance in relation to what he would have earned in the Premier League. Ornstein added:
“Team-mates and staff have noted the positivity that Carroll’s presence has generated and there is a sense among them that his decision was fuelled by a passion for the game rather than money.”
That’s so heartening to read, isn’t it? While there’d be no shame in 32-year-old Carroll opting for a pay cheque at this stage of his career, given the diminishing number of opportunities for him to earn ahead of eventual retirement, Carroll choosing Reading for footballing reasons is a fantastic attitude to have. It’s certainly one that will serve club and player alike very well indeed, however long he stays.
Carroll’s impact on the pitch has already been clear to see.
While he’s understandably not yet at the top of his game having only managed one start, his technical quality and general application have still stood out. This is a player who leads the line like the veteran pro he is, acting as the reliable target man that Reading have so badly lacked in the last couple of years when Lucas Joao hasn’t been available.
Scott Dann backed Carroll to improve further in an interview with The Athletic conducted before the Swansea game:
“Having Andy walk into the club has been a huge boost. He’s playing with barely any proper training in his legs but he’s still bullying defenders out on the pitch. Once he is up to speed properly, he’ll have a field day.”
That bullying of defenders was in full force on Saturday. Expertly controlling a ball over the top from Danny Drinkwater, Carroll charged forward, checked inside and slammed home with his stronger left foot. It was a tricky move to execute by himself, but Carroll made it look easy. As he told the club after the game, he’d actually missed a similar opening earlier in the game. Next time round though, he was determined to go one better.
“There was one just before, Drinky put it in but I wasn’t there. As soon as I saw the ball from Alen, I thought ‘I’m going’, I cut back on my left and hit it!”
Not content with merely sending the away end into raptures by putting Reading 2-1 up, Carroll had an extravagant celebration to match the moment. He ran over to the corner flag, picked it up and used it as a prop while Tom Dele-Bashiru, Josh Laurent and Scott Dann all joined in with the pretence of being in a rowing boat. It was unoarthodox (sorry, I couldn’t resist), but it spoke to just how well Carroll has settled in. Eddie Wallbank provided background to the celebration as so:
“In an animated pre-match speech before Reading played Swansea, Paunovic told the players that no individual comes before the team. He described the club as a boat, and that everyone needs to pull together to move it forward.
“He proceeded to demonstrate this by getting on the floor and he began rowing. Soon after this players joined him on rowing the metaphoric boat, on the floor. And thus, the celebration was born.”
Carroll duly captioned an Instagram post showing the celebration by saying: “We’re All In The Same Royal Boat.”
Carroll really meant it: he turned up to the SCL on Monday evening, taking in the under-23s’ win over Middlesbrough alongside Alen Halilovic. While senior players turning up to watch youth games isn’t unheard of, it’s not something you’d usually associate with a recent arrival who’s agreed a short-term contract. Full credit to Carroll - and the same certainly goes for Halilovic too. Seeing those two make the effort will have meant a lot to the young lads on the pitch.
He may well be here on a short-term contract, at least initially, but Carroll seems truly invested. Taking the time out to watch the under-23s is the sign of someone who’s keen to buy into the club’s long-term project, rather than just focusing on where he’ll be in February.
When a player of Carroll’s stature joins a club, attracting widespread attention from players, media and fans, they’ve got the opportunity to set the tone for those around them. Besides the Roberts example I mentioned earlier, think of the opposite - how Royston Drenthe’s arrival in 2013 felt symbolic of a broader malaise: over-paying for egotistical style over substance.
Carroll’s Reading however is fundamentally different: it is after all a club where everyone is in the same Royal boat, as he neatly put it. The diversity of who took part in his goal celebration at Swansea (Dann, Laurent, Swift and Dele-Bashiru) underlines that point rather neatly: young and old, defenders and attackers, long-term servants and recent arrivals, all coming together to create a cohesive whole.
While Carroll is another member of the crew, he’s also the figurehead at the bow of the ship. He’s this side’s talisman, and long may that continue.