Javier Hernandez could smell a goalscoring opportunity similar to the way a Springer Spaniel flushes out a pheasant. For a goal he scored on 11th March 2013, veteran Chelsea captain John Terry cannot really be accused of making a rare mistake and ‘switching off’ as the clever ‘Chicarito’ began a dash towards him from Cesar Azpilicueta’s right-back position across their defensive line, barely maintaining his on-side status. There was, after all, no danger. Manchester United’s defensive midfield player had the ball just inside the perfectly defensive-structured Blues’ half, and he was facing across the pitch — almost every holding player in the game would be passing into the path of his own right full-back from this position. But this was Michael Carrick, a midfielder who had gained a form of allergy to the sideways pass following one too many hairdryer treatments from Sir Alex Ferguson during his first season at Old Trafford, when he openly admits he took the easy option too often.
Following the slightest of glances from his expert peripheral vision (which he trained purposely to improve his vision and awareness on the pitch), Carrick wrapped his cultured right-foot around the ball, and sent it arcing towards the space Hernadez was suddenly sprinting into. The Mexican barely had to break stride and his header looped over the onrushing Peter Cech to give United an early lead in the sixth round of the FA Cup. Cech, Terry and Azpilicueta shared befuddled looks, confused as to what had just happened.
The difference was, Hernandez — training and playing with Carrick so regularly — was fully expecting an ambitious but exquisitely executed pass. If Carrick had played with Terry more regularly with the Three Lions’ badge upon both of their chests, as he undoubtedly should have, maybe the legendary defender would have expected it too.
“I think he was one of the greatest players in English football.” — Arsene Wenger
We are a curious and stubborn breed, the English. Set in our ways, some might say. We don’t like change. And after several decades of 4-4-2 and box-to-box heroes such as Paul Ince, Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne, we insisted that the central midfielders come off the pitch clad with blood, sweat and/or tears. They should have grass stains on their shorts and either a yellow card or a goal. If not, they were simply not trying hard enough.
But the beautiful game is ever-evolving. Continental influences and attempts to globalise standards regarding tackling and subsequent disciplinary sanctions for fouls that may previously have been deemed legal meant that the role of the deep-laying midfielder changed quite quickly — seemingly too quick for the British to accept.
Despite his advancing years and image of stoicism, Sir Alex Ferguson always managed to move with the times and adjust his squads and tactics accordingly to avoid ever being left behind. Following the unceremonious exit of Roy Keane, Fergie signed a holding-player in a mould to suit a slicker system that could conquer the new and emerging forces at home and in Europe.
“We had a totally different mindset to other countries … Playing out from the back into midfield was seen as dangerous … That was the English culture, giving us no rhythm so we were constantly fighting against the game, struggling, using up more energy and never being in control. Basically, we were just living in hope.” — Michael Carrick
In the summer of 2006, Manchester United bought Michael Carrick from Tottenham Hotspur for £18million. The player himself was with the England squad in Germany at the World Cup as the deal was thrashed out. Bowing to fan and media pressure, the attacks from whom would be scathing and personal if you dared to make a brave decision that failed to work, manager Sven-Göran Eriksson predictably despatched his team in a 4-4-2 formation. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard partnered one another in central midfield, despite the clear fact they simply couldn’t play in the same manner that they did for their club sides due to the fact one of them was always forced to play deep. A similar square-pegs-into-round-holes issue had already seen Paul Scholes, arguably the finest midfield player of his generation, retire from the international fold after being asked to ‘fill-in’ on the troublesome left-wing one too many times for his country
Following unconvincing victories over Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago, qualification for the knockout stages was secure. For the final group game, against a stronger team ailing from Eriksson’s native Sweden, Gerrard was rested and Owen Hargreaves deputised. Hargreaves provided the natural deep-lying midfield anchor that enabled David Beckham, Joe Cole and Lampard to attack the spaces ahead of them. Despite a 2-2 draw, the performance was deemed an improvement.
After not playing a single second of the group-stage games, Carrick was thrown in for the last-16 knockout match against Ecuador as the versatile Hargreaves moved to right-back following Gary Neville’s calf injury. The balance of the side had looked much better with a resident holding midfielder, so with a fully-fit Gerrard back, Eriksson finally deployed his troops in a different formation: 4-1-4-1.
The 1-0 victory in Stuttgart was widely regarded as England’s best performance of the tournament thus far, with Carrick singled out by most pundits and as the main reason for the marked improvement.
But with Neville returning to action for the quarter-final against Portugal, Hargreaves moved back into midfield and Carrick dropped back out of the team.
Gelsenkirchen. Rooney saw red. Cristiano winked. England crashed out on penalties.
A tournament lacking in true quality saw Italy once again crowned World Champions following a penalty shootout win over France and a dark-arts masterclass against Zinedine Zidane.
Could faith in the man Sir Alex Ferguson had just signed to build his new-look, modern midfield around have helped England go on to glory?
“What a group of players, though! Sol, Rio, John Terry, Nev, Ashley Cole, Becks, Lamps, Gerrard, Owen, and eventually Wazza. Throw some other lads in there like Coley, Ledley King and Owen Hargreaves, and England should’ve been unstoppable. They were a special crop. I say ‘they’ because I wasn’t part of it. I’d loved to have played more.” — Michael Carrick
Steve McClaren replaced Sven for the doomed Euro 2008 qualification campaign. Carrick played a couple of games but was mostly overlooked, even when injuries and suspensions meant McClaren had to ring the changes. Both Alan Smith and Phil Neville — neither recognised midfielders, but both more likely to raise a cheer from the crowd for a crunching tackle — were on occasion ahead of Carrick in the central position pecking-order.
Carrick could tackle, but he chose not to. If and when he did, he would often berate himself, for he believed such a reckless action that could give away a free-kick or penalty and put him in the referee’s notebook had only been required because of an earlier mistake: the squandering of possession or being caught out of position. He much preferred a well-timed interception — but they don’t make the Match of the Day highlight reel or make a fan look up from his Bovril.
Failure to qualify squandered another great opportunity for England’s fabled ‘Golden Generation’, with Spain winning another technically questionable tournament in Austria and Switzerland despite being yet to reach the peak of their tiki-taka inspired global dominance.
Meanwhile, Carrick had become a European Champion. He scored a penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shoot-out victory over Chelsea in Moscow and had been immaculate in a two-legged semi-final elimination of Spain’s finest, Barcelona. He was playing in a three-man midfield alongside any two of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Anderson or Darren Fletcher. With this system, United won the Premier League in each of Carrick’s first three campaigns, as well as the European glory, in what became Manchester United’s finest era in the whole of their silverware-laden existence. Could the England managers of the time not have replicated this winning formula? But with Gerrard and Lampard either side of the man continuously bringing out the best in the likes of Scholes and Rooney. With over a decade of hindsight, the idea feels mouthwatering — but also frustratingly obvious.
“I loved playing with him. He was like a Rolls Royce, just cruising around the football pitch.” — Paul Scholes
And so it continued. South Africa, World Cup 2010 — named in the squad by Fabio Capello, but not given one minute of game-time. England eliminated at the last-16 stage.
Poland and Ukraine, Euro 2012 — left at home by Roy Hodgson. England eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
Brazil, World Cup 2014 — left at home, again by Hodgson. England failed to qualify from the group stage.
During this period Carrick was often overlooked for central midfield berths in favour of the likes of Scott Parker, Tom Cleverley and Tom Huddlestone.
In the 2012/13 season, Carrick had won his fifth Premier League medal. It was a campaign in which he was named Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year, was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year and included in the PFA Team of the Year.
Yet, after each dour tournament elimination, the same press and public that derided Carrick as not playing with enough passion or attacking intent to don the Three Lions’ badge, would blame England’s inability to keep the ball in midfield; to receive the ball in tight spaces; to play the ball out from the back; to pass between the lines (the title of Carrick’s autobiography). And yet they intentionally ignored a man who, as a young boy, had fallen in love with the simple act of passing the football: the thudding sound of the firm side-foot and the satisfaction of the ball reaching its premeditated destination. A man who, as a schoolboy, had the attention of every club side in the country, but chose Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United — a perennial bottom-half Premiership team based 290-miles from his loving and comfortable family home and Wallsend Boys Club friends in Newcastle — because he judged them best to nurture him into the slick footballer he wanted to become, as their academy proudly preaches the ‘West Ham Way’.
‘A complete player.’ — Xavi Hernandez
The story goes that at during his early days at United’s Carrington training ground, when the national team squads were announced and Carrick had been omitted once again, there was anger, frustration and shock from his Red Devils teammates.
Later, came a form of acceptance — shakes of the head. Further down the line — towards the end of his career, they learnt to find it funny and would laugh ironic giggles when the names of the players picked ahead of their pass-perfect anchorman came to light.
In 2015, Carrick was named number one by The Telegraph in their ‘Top 20 most underrated footballers of all time’ list.
’Scholes and Carrick together was peaceful, like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing. Carrick’s a piano.’ — Gary Neville
During his long and decorated career, Michael Carrick was called up to a total of 87 England squads, but awarded just 34 caps — only seven were starts in competitive matches.
‘One of the best holding midfielders I’ve seen in my life.’ — Pep Guardiola