The genius of the soon-to-be-retired Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick has not always been given the due credit it so thoroughly deserves.
“He is one of the best holding midfielders I’ve ever seen in my life – by far.”
When someone like Pep Guardiola, who has accomplished so much in the game of football, both as a player and a manager, says the words in praise of a footballer, you know the player must have been very special.
Sadly, in case of Michael Carrick, many failed to appreciate that for a long time in his career. Too often, it so happens that a footballer doesn’t always receive the plaudits or the recognition that he so thoroughly deserves, but only when the time comes for him to hang up his boots do people realize what he brought to this game we so love.
Born in Wallsend in 1981, Carrick started off his youth career at the academy of West Ham United and broke into the senior time in the year of 1999, before going away on short loan spells at Swindon Town and Birmingham City. He went on to make a total of 159 appearances for the East Londoners, before moving to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2004, a year after West Ham had been relegated from the Premier League.
Carrick, at the time still a young midfielder trying to find his way in the Premier League, did not have the best of starts at Tottenham, with injury and manager Jacques Santini’s lack of faith in the player combining to deprive him of first-team action. However, that would all change when Martin Jol would be appointed as the manager of the North London outfit.
Under Jol, the Englishman became a regular member of the Spurs’ first team and slowly but surely started to build a reputation for himself. His growth over the next couple of years did not go unnoticed as Manchester United signed the midfielder up in 2006 for a £18.6 million fee after 75 appearances for Tottenham.
The reaction from the Manchester United supporters to the signing of Carrick, as the man to replace their legendary captain Roy Keane, was underwhelming to say the least. But, surely, the keen eye of Sir Alex Ferguson had spotted something. Surely, there must have been something for the legendary Scotsman to have decided that Carrick was going to be the man to fill the giant shoes left vacant by Keane’s acrimonious departure.
Carrick embraced the challenge of taking on the No.16 shirt that Keane had donned for the previous 12 years and while the two were as different as chalk and cheese when it came to their temperament or the way they carried themselves on the pitch, the core nature to drive the team forward, the determination to improve and the mental character to not accept defeat was all the same.
In Carrick, Manchester United had found a player who would sit deep in the midfield, do the dirty business for his team and make life easy for others around him, a player who just by his presence on the pitch, made others around him better.
He was never someone who possessed searing pace to bank upon or had the penchant for a spectacular last-ditch tackle. With Carrick, it was all about the mind – the reading of the game, the anticipation and the positioning to deny opposition the opportunity. And when he had the ball at his feet, there were not many who could match up to his range of distribution and vision.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Carrick’s presence in the midfield allowed another unassuming English midfielder and another Manchester United legend, Paul Scholes, to flourish boundlessly towards the twilight of his career and achieve the sort of longevity that he went on to. Playing alongside Carrick allowed Scholes to become an even better player than he already was, something that he himself has claimed a number of times.
In the years to follow, Manchester United would go onto win a number of trophies and titles and Carrick was at the heart of it all, the structural pillar around which the Red Devils’ side was built upon. It was the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney et al., that grabbed the limelight, that received all the plaudits and Carrick just went about his job with no fuss, silently putting in the graft and taking United to new heights.
When Manchester United romped home to their 20th league title in Sir Alex’s last season in-charge in 2012/13 on the back of Robin van Persie’s goals, the Dutchman was named the Fans’ Player of the Year and deservedly so. But when the players were asked to pick their best player for the season, it was Carrick that was chosen – a true testament to his importance the team and the value he brought to the side.
In his Manchester United career that has lasted over 11 years, Carrick has won five Premier League titles, one UEFA Champions League trophy, one UEFA Europa League trophy along with a number of other major honours and his contribution to every single triumph has been extremely significant. Yet, somehow, people were never completely able to recognize or acknowledge his brilliance.
Having made his debut for the England national team way back in 2001, Carrick, till date, has only 34 appearances for the Three Lions in a career that has spanned over 17 years since he made his debut.
The midfielder had been constantly overlooked by every manager starting from Sven-Goran Eriksson who handed him his international bow, to Fabio Capello, to Roy Hodgson, at a time when much lesser players like Gareth Barry, James Milner, Scott Parker, no disrespect to them, were given chance after chance.
Carrick’s treatment at the international level just goes on to show how criminally underrated he was throughout his career. Here was a player who was the centre-piece of an extremely successful Manchester United team, a player who had the quality to lead from the front, to take responsibility but was never given his due chance, when England could have very much used a character like him, given their recent history of under-performance.
Now that the 36-year old has decided to draw curtains on his playing career, tributes will flow in, perhaps not to the same level as they did when a certain Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard retired. He will go down as a player who knew what it meant to be playing for Manchester United, who understood and, in many ways, defined the spirit of this club, a true legend.
But, every time Carrick’s name is mentioned, the words “underrated and underappreciated” and in case of England, “underused”, will always echo back.
Carrick’s manager at Swindon Town in 1999, Jimmy Quinn, had said after his debut: “I knew he was good, I didn’t know he was THAT good.”
Little did Quinn know back then, that he was summing up Carrick’s entire career.