Manchester City's players arranged a Secret Santa session last Christmas, with each member of Pep Guardiola's squad tasked with buying an appropriate gift for a teammate. Scott Carson, the club's third-choice goalkeeper, was on the receiving end of a particularly brutal piece of dressing-room humour.
"My Secret Santa was a tour of the Etihad Stadium," Carson told ESPN. "I'm one of the first to give stick to the lads, so they take the piss with me too. But I love that."
City have played 70 competitive fixtures in all competitions since Carson arrived on loan from Derby County in August 2019. The former England goalkeeper hasn't played a single minute of any of them, prompting the good-natured gift of a free trip around a stadium he has yet to play in. Even Kyle Walker has played between the sticks during Carson's time at the club, with the City right-back forced to wear the gloves for the final nine minutes of a Champions League clash with Atalanta in Nov. 2019 following a red card for substitute keeper Claudio Bravo.
"Kyle always tells me he has more goalkeeping appearances than me for Manchester City," Carson said. "That's another reason why I want to get at least one game during my time here!"
With the top clubs now carrying 25-man squads in order to compete on all fronts for silverware, the role of a third-choice goalkeeper has become a necessity and a thankless task at the same time. They train as hard and as regularly as the first and second-choice options, but when it comes to matchday, the No. 3 often has to watch from the stands, not even earning a place on the bench. Usually, the third-choice position is filled by a youngster learning the ropes alongside two more experienced keepers, although Argentina international Willy Caballero at Chelsea has found himself demoted to that role due to Edouard Mendy being signed to compete with Kepa Arrizabalaga this season.
Carson is an unusual figure for a third-choice. Still only 35 and having played for England while making over 140 Premier League appearances for Leeds United, Charlton Athletic, Liverpool, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, he remains a keeper who could be relied upon to perform consistently at a high level. With almost 500 career appearances to his name. Carson would make a solid and reliable No. 2. He is neither inexperienced rookie nor old-stager with his best days firmly behind him.
"I was caught in the headlights a bit when I was younger, but I am a much better keeper now than I when I played for England over 10 years ago,'' he said.
His ultimate value to City could be his ability to act as a mentor to the club's emerging keepers, particularly Zack Steffen, the 25-year-old United States No. 1, whose experience of top-level football is minimal compared for Carson's. But despite being behind first-choice Ederson and Steffen in the pecking order at City, Carson, who is on loan at the Etihad from Derby until the end of the season, insists he's not looking to wind down his career. He still wants to play.
"Becoming a third-choice wasn't something that I had said to myself I wanted to do right now," Carson said. "I had played the last three years at Derby and didn't want to leave, but they were pretty open in saying they wanted to go with another No. 1.
"When City came in for me, I told my agent that I wasn't ready to not play every week, but I spoke to goalkeeper coach Xabi Mancisidor about what was required and it all happened quickly. I knew what my role would be when I came in and I knew I always had to be ready to play. There were a couple of occasions last year where I was only an injury or suspension away from being on the bench and, when you are on the bench, anything can happen and you are suddenly on the pitch.
"But last season was difficult at times. During the week and training, it is no different. I have always loved training -- sometimes more than the actual games. It's only when you go to the stadium on a Saturday and you see the lads warming up that you realise how much you miss playing."
Despite the lack of match action -- Carson has been named as a substitute for 21 of the 70 games City have played since he arrived -- he admits he's become more comfortable with the role as time has progressed. And he tells ESPN that his early years in the game, when he earned a move to Liverpool from Leeds as a teenager before making his England debut at the age of 22, are helping him to guide U.S. keeper Steffen following his permanent arrival at the Etihad this summer after a one-season loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf.
"Zack will be dealing with training and expectations that he has never had to experience before," Carson said. "I have seen a couple of times where Zack's head has been all over the place, trying to think a little bit too much about things. I can just reassure him that he is here because of his talent and Xabi will improve him massively, but you just have to take it slowly.
"After 3-4 weeks of being here, my head was probably the same as Zack's. I was thinking that I was struggling and couldn't adjust to the demands and methods, because Pep wants a keeper to be able to play against strikers with the ball at his feet, but Zack has only had a couple of months of it and I've told him to relax, that it will come good for him and he will feel better. With my experience, I try to help the others and I take a lot of pride from being able to do that. There isn't too much I can help Ederson with because he has everything, but with Zack, it's about getting in the gym with him, having a good relationship with him and, when he makes a mistake, be there to speak to him."
There is a selflessness to Carson which shines through when he talks about being a source of support for the likes of Steffen. And it is a quality which emerges again when Carson is reminded that he is the only member of Guardiola's City squad with a Champions League winners' medal, having won the competition with Liverpool in 2005.
"I won one in Istanbul, but I try to keep it quiet," he said. "People often ask me about it, but Chris Kirkland played most of the games in the group stages and I was on the bench for the semis and the final, as back-up for Jerzy Dudek, after playing in the quarterfinal against Juventus. At the time, and even now, I just don't feel like it is something I deserved. I felt Chris deserved it much more than me and I felt for him that I was on the bench for the final in Istanbul and not him. I think that unless you play in the game, or a lot of games in the run-up to a final, it's hard to accept when people say you have won them. I have the medal, but it's not something I feel that I justified."
For Carson, a bigger prize than a medal he feels he did not earn would be a competitive appearance for City. Guardiola's team are still involved in all four competitions this season -- City face Arsenal at the Emirates in the Carabao Cup quarterfinal next month before the start of the FA Cup in January -- which increases the prospects of Carson be giving his first start for the club. He is open-minded about the future, whether it involves moving to a club for regular football or seeking a third season at City, but he desperately wants to play.
"I don't want to be here for however long I am at the club and end up with a zero on my appearance record," Carson said. "In my whole career, I have never wanted to just be somewhere and be happy not to play. I come in every day as though there could be an opportunity. Nobody knows what can happen.
"If I play, I know it won't come from me performing in the training ground -- it will come because of some misfortune affecting one of the other keepers. That's the reality of my situation. But my Derby contract is up in July and I am on loan here until that runs out. From then, who knows?"
In spite of being the butt of dressing-room jokes with the Secret Santa, Carson at least knows that if he does play, he will have the trust and the confidence of the players around him.
"You do have your reservations sometimes, when you come into a club like this with top-class players who have done everything in the game," he said. "You wonder how their egos are going to be, but I can honestly say that there is none of that here. I think the lads trust in me to do a job now and that is hopefully because of how I am, day in and day out.
"When I am out on the pitch, I work my nuts off. They can see that and, hopefully, they would have confidence me in a game, from what they have seen on the training ground. I'll be ready and able to show everyone that I am still capable as a goalkeeper."