Signed from Coventry City in a £1.9million deal in the final days of Walter Smith’s managerial reign, Lee Carsley arrived at Goodison with the unenviable reputation of being relegated at each of his two previous clubs. With his new club facing another relegation battle, scarcely could many Evertonians – who feared the jinx might continue – have imagined that the 27-year-old would be one of the lynchpins around whom successive pushes for European football were based.
Born in Birmingham, but of Irish parentage, Carsley started his career with Derby County, cultivating a reputation as a tough but composed midfield anchor. He joined Blackburn Rovers in a £3.5million deal in March 1999, although his presence was unable to help the Lancashire club stave off relegation that season. Promoted to club captain, he finished the 1999/2000 season as Rovers’ top scorer after being designated penalty-taker.
But after failing to win promotion that year, Carsley was allowed to join Coventry City in December 2000 for £2.5million. Six months later the relegation curse struck again, and as Coventry were subsequently beset by financial crisis Carsley was sold to Everton in February 2002. Initially derided, Carsley’s signing would prove to be one of Smith’s shrewdest pieces of transfer business.
At first Carsley struggled to make a discernible impact at his new club, holding a variety of roles across the middle of the park without the effect that would mark his latter career. At the start of the 2004/05 season, David Moyes was forced to radically reshape his team in the wake of Wayne Rooney’s departure to Manchester United, adopting a 4-1-4-1 formation. Carsley dropped back into a holding position just in front of the back four and he, and Everton, flourished.
PHYSICAL AND ADROIT, powerful yet composed, Carsley mastered this difficult position immediately. His experience allowed him to read the game to perfection, but even though he was entering the veteran stage of his career, he remained a fine athlete, working tirelessly to do the defensive work that allowed more attacking players, such as Leon Osman, Tim Cahill and – notably – Thomas Gravesen to flourish. Gravesen, whose Everton career had previously been beset by inconsistency, suddenly freed from his defensive responsibilities became one of the Premier League’s most effective attacking midfielders, earning a surprise January move to Real Madrid. It was joked that Madrid had mistaken Gravesen, who resembled his bald colleague, for Carsley and signed the wrong man.
Without question, Carsley’s finest moment in a blue shirt came in the December 2004 Goodison derby. A typically close-fought game was deadlocked when, in the 68th minute, Carsley met Leon Osman’s cutback on the edge of the Liverpool area and curled a low shot past Chris Kirkland, Liverpool’s unsighted goalkeeper, for the game’s only goal. A photograph that captured the team piled on top of Carsley in celebration became so iconic at Goodison Park that David Moyes ordered a framed copy for every member of his squad, but Carsley joked three years later: ‘I find it ironic, because I’m still asked to sign that picture of my goal celebrations and I’m the only Everton player not on it.’
HIS IMPORTANCE to a team that finished fourth was underlined when Carsley was forced to miss most of the 2005/06 season through a serious knee injury sustained in a pre-season friendly. In the early stages of the season, Everton were scarcely able to cope without him, as they crashed out of Europe, losing 11 of their first 14 fixtures. When he returned for the 2006/07 season, he was ever-present as Everton finished sixth, again qualifying for Europe, and he missed just four league games as Everton went one place better the next season.
Aged 34 at the end of the 2007/08 season, Carsley was offered a new contract, but instead chose to take up an offer with Birmingham City, citing a need to be near his Midlands home and his disabled son. While the club and supporters respected his decision, his departure was nevertheless mourned, and on the pitch Everton initially struggled to cope without his composure in the early stages of the 2008/09 season.
An inherently decent man and popular member of the first-team squad, Carsley also made 39 appearances for the Republic of Ireland, appearing at the 2002 World Cup Finals.