Photo: PAUL GROVER
The unvarnished truth is that Roy Carroll has lifted himself, not just
figuratively, off the floor. One might struggle to notice it from his
self-assured pose here at the Four Seasons Hotel in Glyfada, a favoured
beachside sanctuary 10 miles south of Athens, but when bleakness engulfed
him in 2006 he would spend an unhealthy portion of his days flat on his back
The pain in his lumbar regions was so searing he could scarcely move, let
alone play with his children. Sinister murmurs swirled about his gambling
habit. The temptation to seek answers in the bottom of a glass was one to
which he all too readily succumbed.
“It was a dark time,” says Carroll, trying to engineer a cathartic postscript
to that episode through his work at Olympiakos, who – in a Champions
League draw of great serendipity – entertain his former club Manchester
United on Tuesday.
“It all felt seriously debilitating, as with a back injury you never know
which way it is going to turn out. I needed to let everything recover
properly, but the family found it difficult when I couldn’t even go for
walks with the kids or our dogs. I tend to think now that being depressed
while injured was stupid.
“You see players who are out for over a year and then find themselves
knocked down again. I watch Avraam Papadopoulos, the Olympiakos captain, who
just works hard and carries on. I look back and wish I had done the same,
but instead my alcoholism took over.”
Carroll’s drink problem was so acute that, with his marriage to wife Kerry
under strain from regular Bacardi and vodka binges, he checked himself in
for rehabilitation at Marylebone’s Capio Nightingale Hospital, under the
name of Jonathon Walker.
The goalkeeper was rumoured to owe one West
Ham United team-mate £30,000 due to an addiction to online casinos.
Eight years on, he continues to insist that such accusations were “wildly
exaggerated”, but acknowledges that the added turmoil of his six-month
injury lay-off pushed him over an emotional precipice.
“I had never had that type of injury before, and until you suffer it you never
realise how bad things are,” he recalls. “I grew depressed and got really
bad with it. I was very selfish to put myself through that situation. As a
young man you have tunnel vision, and that’s the wrong way to be. You have
too many people around you, telling you different things.
“The only regret is that the West Ham fans never saw what I could do. That’s
the most disappointing aspect, letting them down and the management, too. I
guess it is reassuring what has happened to me since. I hope my ordeal never
happens to anybody else, but it will. Depression is the hardest thing in
Courtesy of his renaissance in Greece, Carroll is soothed at 36 by the notion
that clubs of Olympiakos’s ambition still want him. It was his misfortune at
United that, despite 49 appearances and a mutually respectful relationship
Alex Ferguson, his time at Old Trafford remains most indelibly
defined by the embarrassment of “the goal never was”, when Pedro Mendes’s
audacious shot from the halfway line for Tottenham befuddled him into
dropping the ball behind his goal-line before scooping it back into play.
Rob Lewis, the linesman, did not spot his glaring lapse and yet legions of
United fans have never let him forget it.
Such ignominy, coupled with the backbiting that followed his more lurid
headlines, bred a paranoid suspicion in Carroll that he was toxic goods.
Once he was released by West Ham, bound for a circuitous route to Derby County
via Rangers, his reputation was again dragged through the sewer – tarnished
this time by an alleged connection to a Far East match-fixing syndicate.
The link was drawn between his sending-off against Norwich in October 2008 and
a betting spree in south-east Asia, and for all his robust denials his stock
was tainted. Nigel Clough, then in charge at Derby, obliquely made the point
by arguing that the 31-year-old Carroll was too old.
“I know, but that’s Nigel Clough,” the Northern Irishman mutters, with a
savage stare. “There are managers out there who dislike you.”
True to that logic, the approach from other prospective suitors never came.
“I thought I had a done deal with Phil Brown at Preston,” he says. “I had
spoken to the club about a one-year contract, but nothing was signed, and
then I had the phone call that no player wants to hear, that the manager had
decided to move on with another goalkeeper.”
Just as desperation started setting in, he was picked up by Odense in Denmark,
although his family chose not to accompany him to this slice of provincial
“It was a great little city but it was very difficult for my son, Jordan, to
go to school there because he would have had to learn Danish, and he is
dyslexic. I decided to travel back and forth. I did it for a year and a half
hoping that an opportunity would arise in England, but it never did.”
Carroll’s restoration was to spring from an improbable source, when a Greek
agent negotiated his transfer in the summer of 2011 to OFI Crete, a club
remote from the popular imagination but with lofty aspirations in the
country’s top flight. His island existence in the Aegean proved the perfect
fit for a man seeking to sublimate his demons.
“It was a different pace of life, and everything changed,” he admits. “Kerry
was with me, and it seemed like a fresh beginning. Moving away from England
was the best idea I could have had.
“By then I had encountered many people outside the game who weren’t my
friends, but you realise in adversity exactly who is important to you. I
don’t only look at football now, but all that surrounds it. It has opened my
eyes to a different world.”
Thus did Carroll, on the strength of his Cretan tour of duty, earn his
transfer to Greece’s greatest club and a tantalising reacquaintance with
United this week.
On his walks through Athens he already boasts a cult status in the eyes of
Olympiakos supporters, who fondly remember him saving a penalty with his
very first touch in their colours, in a Europa
League match against Rubin Kazan in February 2012
Auspiciously for Carroll, both young Jordan and his daughter, Ellie, are
enrolled at a school in nearby Voula under the care of a Northern Irish
headmistress. “She asked if I had played with George Best. I had to say,
‘No, I’m a bit young!’ But if your children are happy, then you’re happy.”
The frustration lately is that he has had to accept a demotion in Olympiakos’s
pecking order, behind Hungarian Balázs Megyeri, whose form throughout the
club’s extraordinary unbeaten season – 23 wins in 25 league games, with a
20-point lead over PAOK Salonika – threatens to squeeze him out of a
starting place against United.
In this more placid incarnation, Carroll can cope better with the potential
disappointment. “If I was younger I’d be complaining, shouting, crying, but
I have grown up and seen the wider world of football,” he says.
“I take my time these days, recognising that anything can happen in terms of
injury or sickness. You have to be prepared, so I’m calmer, more relaxed. I
don’t panic in the way I used to.”
He harbours vivid memories of the United v Olympiakos fixture from the other
side, as when he and his team-mates flew out from Manchester for the away
leg in 2001, they disembarked to the first reports of the September 11
terrorist attacks. “I just remember everybody’s amazement at what happened.
It was horrifying. Uefa took the correct decision to call the game off.”
Darren Fletcher represents Carroll’s one connection to the United class of
that vintage. He maintains regular contact with fellow Ulsterman Jonny Evans
and is adamant that he holds no lingering resentment at his exit from the
club he had dreamt of joining since his childhood in Enniskillen.
“Sir Alex explained my position as soon as I arrived. I knew I was going there
to be an understudy to Fabien Barthez, and I learnt a great deal from him –
playing with my feet, for a start. It was about being prepared to fight for
the No 1 spot.
“Clearly, there were games I would rather forget about, not least the one
at Spurs, but United gave me four years of unbelievable achievement. When I
look back at 70, I’ll be able to say that I played for the best team on the
Carroll is anxious, despite the last four itinerant years, for his time at
Olympiakos not to be painted as some form of distant twilight zone. The
training regime instituted by goalkeeping coach Alekos Rantos is, he
assures, intensive. “He works us very hard, trust me.”
The possibility that he could continue until 40, in the fashion of Mark
Schwarzer or Brad Friedel, has not been discounted. “Look at how Friedel has
looked after himself. Every day here, I sense that I am getting stronger.”
Suddenly, the dismissive verdict of his former nemesis flashes across his
mind. “That’s what you have to do, I suppose, when you reach the wrong side
of 30. Just ask Nigel Clough.”
He offers some emollient words for the travails of David Moyes, for whom the
Champions League signifies United’s final chance of silverware this season.
“It is like when Eric Cantona left,” Carroll says. “People wondered then who
on earth would replace him, but you move on. Manchester United fans
understand what needs to be done.”
While Wednesday’s match might, from his perspective, be a metaphor for the
curious circularity of life, he does not appear unduly troubled at having
left his United chapter behind, irrespective of the drinking and depression
“I always said to those close to me that I wanted to be someone who had played
600 or 700 games, not only 100,” Carroll says.
“You can win all the trophies in the business but ultimately, if you’re
not involved, then you don’t feel a part of it. Sometimes I wonder if I
should have stayed at United, but otherwise I’m aware that I made the right
call. In spite of it all, my life has turned out the right way.”