Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a Geordie metronome who made good teams tick and great teams better.
“I have always seen myself in Carrick”. That’s what Xabi Alonso said two years ago, when ruminating on the importance of top-end talent who put the team ahead of individual garlands.
“One of the best holding midfielders I have ever seen in my life”. That’s Pep Guardiola’s take on the recently retired West Ham, Spurs and Manchester United metronome and it is worth pausing at this early juncture to consider who Michael Carrick is being placed among in that assessment. “He’s the level of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets”. There you go. That’s who he was up there with. Sir Alex Ferguson meanwhile deemed the pragmatic Geordie who won five Premier League titles and a Champions League under his charge to be “the best central midfielder in English football”. This is high praise indeed given that, at the time, Gerrard and Lampard were still roaming the nation’s centre-circles while Scholes schemed.
It seems utterly incongruous then, when looking back on Carrick’s two decades of stylish orchestration that began with an artful dictation of play in a Hammers shirt to becoming a seasoned pass-master at Old Trafford to acknowledge that he received just 34 England caps. By way of comparison Owen Hargreaves and David Batty each were gifted ten more. Jordan Henderson is currently on 48.
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Incongruous? Try protracted lunacy because here was a rare emergence of a technically adroit fulcrum, who stroked the ball with in-built finesse, and had the intelligence to control the tempo from deep. He was, in an era when passion was still prized over nuance despite our better instincts, a fluke of continental poise, a calming influence we could and should have built successive England sides around. Instead he remained on the periphery, distrusted for his differences that would have made a difference.
What a waste and what a shame.
Of course there is a happy ending here, even if it came with the benefit of hindsight. In the twilight years of Carrick’s career a greater recognition accumulated towards his attributes and by the time he hung up his boots in 2017/18 he was finally and rightfully lavished with plaudits for what he offered each and every game. By then though it was too late, or at least it was regarding the international stage. To ration out thirty-four caps then burnish the guy with platitudes is like possessing an heirloom but keeping it stashed in a cupboard somewhere. And it’s only when the Antiques Roadshow comes to town that you realise it’s worth an absolute fortune.
Let us never make that mistake again.
In Carrick’s twelve years at United he made 481 Premier League appearances, 70 Champions League outings, and scored 24 goals; the latter stat decidedly ordinary but perfectly acceptable for a player whose role was to start moves, not finish them. Indeed he was only prolific once, with appropriately good timing scoring a couple of beauties in one of the Reds most famous European nights as Roma came to Manchester to protect a first leg lead in a Champions League quarter final. They left dismantled, humiliated from a 7-1 hiding. They left cursing the name of Michael Carrick.
From the opening whistle Ferguson’s men were scintillating and ruthless, showing a degree of adventure atypical to this tournament, especially at this advanced stage. United immediately made it known they were going to win that night with the only query being to what extent and much of this adamance derived from Carrick’s endless probing, finding Giggs or Ronaldo on the flanks or shuffling searching balls into half-spaces for Rooney. Within the first ten minutes Daniele De Rossi was chasing the shadow of a statuesque opponent.
Then he ventured forward, propelled to join in yet another attack. With twelve minutes on the clock Ronaldo fed the ball across and Carrick scampered onto it, twenty yards out. It is difficult to describe what follows next, so unusual is the execution. It is part curler, part chip, yet somehow with a low powerful trajectory. It is a golf shot that duly finds the target and Old Trafford erupts.
Sixty minutes in and the contest is over. United are five goals to the good and Roma have only scavenged pride to play for. The best though is still to come.
Once again Carrick strides forward into a vacant acre of space and collects a pass, the ball immediately under his control. Once again he’s a full twenty yards from goal. He adjusts his footing as an Italian defender rushes out to block and in one fell swoop curls a picturesque long-range effort into the far corner. It’s a beautiful goal. The kind you wish you were stood behind.
It is not the reaction of his team-mates or even the home crowd that stays with you. They are ecstatic as is the norm. It’s the Roma players you notice; with the keeper pounding the grass in utter exasperation and the nearest centre-back slumping his hands onto knees. They have been broken by brilliance and it’s hard to recall any team, anywhere being reduced to such a state from even the finest work from Carrick.
What a waste and what a shame.