Following the announcement of Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad, English football has felt compelled to pay tribute to its most glaring omission, Chelsea defender Ashley Cole. After rejecting a place on England’s stand-by list for Brazil, the Three Lions centurion has called time on his international career, spanning over a decade.
The acknowledgements of Gary Lineker, Michael Owen et al. are more than deserved – for all the failings of England’s golden generation, Cole’s performances over the last ten years have not been one of them.
Yet, spare a thought for Manchester United’s Michael Carrick. The Red Devils midfielder also failed to make Hodgson’s cut for Brazil, marking what will most likely be the final chapter in one of the most unfortunate international careers an England player has ever endured.
Unlike Cole, Carrick did accept to be on the Three Lions’ stand-by list. But with the power of youth the flavour of the month and seven players already in the squad capable of operating in central midfield, the chances of a last minute promotion for the 32 year-old remain incredibly slim.
Despite a glistening club career, including five Premier League titles and a Champions League medal from 2008, Carrick’s efforts for his country have constantly been overshadowed by two players – Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Perhaps understandably so; they’re the two highest-scoring midfielders in Premier League history, and both reached 100 caps for England during the last World Cup qualifiers – their quality and experience is impossible to understate.
But it’s not the quality and experience of Gerrard and Lampard that Carrick has spent his Three Lions career fighting against. Rather, the twosome’s inability to work effectively together in the same midfield – the Gerrard-Lampard-Midfield complex if you will – has resulted in endless engine room experiments by prior and current England managers, including such obscure variables as Owen Hargreaves, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Leon Osman and even Phil Neville.
From all the aforementioned names, only Parker and Osman – two more recent England inductees – boast less caps than the Manchester United midfielder. Indeed, throughout an England career spanning three clubs, 13 honours for United, three major international tournaments and thirteen years, an eternally injury-free Michael Carrick has claimed just 31 caps. Only twenty of his England outings have come as starts. Gareth Barry and Owen Hargreaves on the other hand – two of the most ineffective players I’ve ever seen in a Three Lions jersey – enjoy 53 and 42 caps respectively.
Carrick’s biggest crime, in comparison to England’s other midfielders, is his unusually passive, almost Italian nature of play. There’s no doubting his quality; when a youngster at West Ham’s famous ‘The Academy of Football’, the Geordie showed such trickery, invention and skill on the ball that scouts often mistook him for youth team-mate Joe Cole, whose reputation had already begun to precede him throughout England. They were soon surprised to discover that the Pele-incarnate in front of them was considered by himself and the club as a defensive midfielder.
Carrick has always oozed that class, but whilst Steven Gerrard would burst from one end of the pitch to the other, tackling everything in his path before unleashing a howling piledriver at goal, and Frank Lampard would ghost into the box to pick up at least ten goals per season, the United midfielder was controlled and calculated, subtle yet effective, intrinsically influential but often unnoticeable to the naked eye.
If the 32 year-old were more swashbuckling or cavalier, if he were positionally iller-disciplined or more wasteful on the ball, prepared to shirk his own responsibilities for moments in the goal-scoring limelight or willing to squander possession cheaply for the sake of the occasional exceptional 60 yard through ball, like his Chelsea and Liverpool counterparts, then perhaps he would be an England centurion by now too. Had his defensive contribution consisted of running around like a headless chicken or always being ‘the first man in the wall’, rather than unceremoniously anticipating and intercepting through the powers of his footballing intellect alone, then perhaps he would be at least an England half-centurion, like Gareth Barry.
With Lampard and Gerrard reaching their veteran years, thus losing that athletic element which made them such eye-catching dynamic midfielders, Brazil 2014 was billed as Carrick’s World Cup. A rare location of football’s pinnacle tournament that beckons three man midfields, an integral emphasis on maintaining possession and stressing the powers of the mind over the impact of the athlete, England’s unusual requirements for Rio paved the way for the 32 year-old to finally earn the recognition internationally that his club career deserves.
Admittedly, on merit, it’s hard to argue that Carrick deserves a place over the youthful midfield clan Hodgson has selected instead. Whilst the likes of Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana have just ended sensational coming of age campaigns, the 32 year-old has endured the most disappointing season of his career at Manchester United. Being one of the Old Trafford elders, despite the limited quality surrounding him in central midfield, Carrick must accept a share of the responsibility for the Red Devils’ enormous downturn from last term. In many ways it also highlights the England international’s most repetitive flaw; being a rather passive player, his performances are often only as good as those around him.
But had the World Cup been a year ago, then Carrick would have started for England in Brazil, let alone make the squad. He played a crucial part in United claiming their 13th Premier League title last season, accordingly earning the Players’ Player of the Year award at Old Trafford and a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
In comparison, Steven Gerrard was yet to reinvent himself as the deep-lying, Michael-Carrick-esque playmaker as that’s brought him and Liverpool such success this season, Jack Wilshere was still recovering from a year-long injury, much of the country hadn’t heard of Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana boasted a rather small, Southampton-based cult following. Had Brazil 14 been Brazil 13, the United veteran would be selected for England’s engine room by default.
So here lies the international career of Michael Carrick. A five-time Premier League winner whom, through no other predominant fault than his unassertive, almost foreign style has been completely wasted by his country for the benefit of two supposedly ‘world-class’ players that to this day cannot operate effectively next to each other in the same midfield. Rio spelt redemption, a final chance to show what Sven Goran-Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson had somehow missed, yet, as if fate had conspired against him, the build-up to the 2014 World Cup happened to coincide with Manchester United’s worst season since 1989.
Any other generation, and Michael Carrick would have been one of England’s brightest stars. Any other country, and the 32 year-old’s unique abilities would have received the widespread acknowledgement they deserve. Had Brazil 2014 taken place at the end of any other Manchester United campaign, and the Red Devils midfielder would have been a certainty for Roy Hodgson’s squad. But alas, Carrick remains one of the most wasted and misfortunate players to ever grace an England jersey.