The summer before Michael Carrick joined Manchester United, he went with England to World Cup 2006 as part of the most talented Three Lions squad of its generation.
Despite it being clear that the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum could be solved by introducing a holding midfielder, Carrick was not contemplated as the answer.
Owen Hargreaves was the belated solution Sven Goran Eriksson reached for – and Sir Alex Ferguson completed his signing the summer after Carrick’s arrival – but it was the former West Ham man that the Scotsman chose to replace Roy Keane.
Following the Irishman’s acrimonious departure during the previous season – United’s third consecutive campaign without winning the Premier League as Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea machine looked set to dominate – the understated Carrick was brought in to replace him, as well as inheriting the famous number 16 shirt.
Carrick was the only new arrival at Old Trafford in the summer that proceeded a Premier League title win that led to a period of sustained dominance that saw the Geordie collect five Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a Champions League winners medal.
The deep-lying playmaker was a quiet, unassuming character, often deferring to Paul Scholes in the early days of his United career before blossoming into the last standard-bearer of the excellence Ferguson demanded, retiring five seasons after the legendary Scotsman.
Speaking ahead of Carrick’s testimonial, which took place at the end of last season, Gary Neville summarised why the playmaker made such a success of his time at Old Trafford, underlining his dedication to improvement and setting a standard.
“One of the biggest compliments you can pay Michael is that the team-mates around him had huge appreciation for him. He made everybody play better. What people may not understand is the quiet, introverted passion that he holds for Manchester United.
“When we won leagues, Michael would be the one singing the most and going home last from the parties; the one that would look the happiest and most joyous behind the scenes at having won a trophy.
“Behind the scenes he showed how much he loved the club. He absolutely loves United. He’s also an incredible role model.
“Michael would always do every single rep in the gym, every single inch of every warm-up; he made sure he ate every single thing right, did absolutely every single bit of pre-activation, was always in the gym with the fitness coaches and sports scientists, always did the hydration tests.
“He did absolutely everything by the book and set an incredibly high standard not only for himself, but also in the dressing room.”
Those words from Neville, who himself was not the most naturally talented but carved out a hugely successful career at his boyhood club through unstinting hard work and professionalism reveal the level of dedication that went into maximising Carrick’s talent to allow him to thrive under constant scrutiny at Old Trafford.
There aren’t many joyous highs that stand out from Carrick’s United career – the double in the 2007 7-1 against Roma, the 2008 Champions League final penalty and the 2009 late winner at Wigan are the three that come to mind – but similarly it is hard to remember many nightmares he had.
Never the quickest or strongest, Carrick was only truly outmaneuvered by the Barcelona sides of 2009 and 2011 – where his attempts to stifle the most talented midfield seen in modern times on the biggest stage of all were hamstrung by the presence of an aging Ryan Giggs alongside him in central midfield.
It is easy to say he was underused by England – and there are times when he would have undoubtedly added greater balance to a midfield lacking the ability to look after the ball – but Carrick himself has admitted that his enthusiasm for international football could have been greater, as could his performance level at certain periods.
It was that single-minded desire to succeed at United that created a classy, ultra-professional playmaker who remained in a vastly successful side under Ferguson.
He is the last of that Fergie-era side to retire but the fact that Jose Mourinho wants to keep Carrick around to instil that same high standard of consistency into the current crop speaks volumes about how rare that personality is to find.