A Manchester United hero celebrates his birthday today as Michael Carrick turns 36 years old.
Since moving to Old Trafford from Tottenham in 2006, Carrick has often been a polarising figure for both club and country, but he has the honours list to silence the critics.
The midfielder is coming to the end of his career, but having replaced Wayne Rooney as club captain, his status at United is assured. Here are seven reasons why the veteran will always be loved in the red half of Manchester…
In terms of temperament rather than image, Michael Carrick is cool as f***. Nothing fazes him, no one affects him – the midfielder just gets the job done without concerning himself over due credit.
The 2012-13 season – Sir Alex Ferguson’s last – typified Carrick. Robin van Persie lit up Old Trafford as United marched to their 20th league title, and the Dutchman, of course, won the fans’ Player of the Year award.
But when the United players were asked to name which of their team-mates deserved the honour, Carrick was chosen ahead of Van Persie after what Ferguson described as the midfielder’s “best ever season for Manchester United”.
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“Michael is not a guy that seeks a lot of publicity,” Ferguson explained to the club’s website. “He is a quiet lad. He goes about his life in a similar way to Scholes. It doesn’t mean he is not recognised by us.
“You get players like that. Denis Irwin was the same. He was not the type to trumpet his achievements. It is quite refreshing in the modern game that we have players who can rely on their ability, not only by promoting or projecting themselves. Michael is mentally strong, too. He has a different personality to most players.”
Carrick doesn’t avoid the limelight quite as fiercely as Scholes, it simply isn’t shone upon him as often as perhaps it should be. But when he talks, the Geordie is always worth listening to. For that reason, and the example he sets in all aspects, Mourinho had no hesitation in naming Carrick as United’s club captain, even if he no longer starts every game.
When Carrick arrived, he was stepping into the shoes and shirt of another United captain. And Roy Keane’s boots were bloody big ones to fill.
Arriving from Tottenham, Carrick embraced the challenge of taking on the No.16 shirt that Keane had occupied for the previous 12 years. “I think that showed great courage,” said Ferguson at the time. “Because sometimes players are a bit superstitious about things like that, but he was keen and said he would gladly take number 16.”
Of course, Keane and Carrick are contrasting characters who rely upon different leadership styles. But his drive and determination were not the only things United missed upon the Irishman’s departure. Keane’s acrimonious exit deprived the Red Devils of his range of passing, until Carrick arrived.
“Pass it forward, take risks. You’re not at Leeds or West Ham now you are at Man United,” Keane told Rio Ferdinand, rather curtly you might suspect, during one of the defender’s first training sessions, and though Keane and Carrick’s paths never crossed, it is advice the current captain has always acted upon.
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Carrick’s first look – usually taken by checking his shoulder before the ball arrives – is always forward and when the opportunity is there to move United up the field, the holding midfielder always takes it.
More often than not with a crisp, perfectly-timed and wieghted ball, with laser-guided precision to enable an attacker to lay-off or shield possession on one touch, or delivered with exquisite length in front of a team-mate.
It all seems so simple, largely because Carrick makes it look that way, but it takes courage to play on the front foot, rather than persistently recycling possession, which is the option taken by many midfielders, who are happy simply to get their passing stats up rather than take opponents out of the game by passing with penetratively.
Of course, if the forward pass is not on, unlike some of the more celebrated, higher-profile names, Carrick won’t force it. He knows when to play and when to bounce it off before looking again to get it back on the half-turn.
Okay, so he lacks Keane’s intensity, but so do 99 per cent of people who are able to function in society. Carrick, though, is one of only six players remaining from the Ferguson era, when United weren’t always better technically than their opponents but were very rarely lacking in their mentality.
Since Ferguson’s exit, United can be accused of having gone soft. David Moyes was way, way out of his depth, while Louis van Gaal micromanaged to such an extent that the players barely had to think for themselves.
Now, under Mourinho, a bit of the old steel is back, and the manager knows he needs characters like Carrick around; players for whom nearly is not good enough. “I can’t get my head around that – to say top four is acceptable,” Carrick claimed last week. “As I said, it’s pretty much win the league or nothing for me.”
Plenty in the game talk like a winner but lack the self-awareness to ever truly become one.
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Plenty got their knickers in a twist about Wayne Rooney discussing how life at Old Trafford used to be compared to what it is now, with the former skipper saying: “Over the last few years, it was down to me and Michael Carrick to keep the new players maintaining those standards.
“That became more difficult over the last few years, with some of the players who joined the club. There are traditions at United that have to be maintained.”
Many fans got very precious about a perceived lack of respect, and you can imagine that there were some sensitive souls in the dressing room who might not have appreciated it. But Carrick, as skipper, struck exactly the right tone by addressing the weakness and pointing the way forward.
“That’s fair comment from Wayne,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got to change the mentality of the players, I just think the way we’ve been over the last few years, there’s been a lot of change at the club and when that happens, sometimes it takes a lot of time for people to find their feet and adjust.
“And yeah there have been times in the league when standards have dropped – there’s no hiding from that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get back there again if you keep doing the right things.”
Carrick was criminally underused by the national team, not that it concerned too many United fans. But how was it allowed to be that a player of Carrick’s class made only 34 appearances – including just 22 starts – during an international career that spanned 14-and-a-half years between his debut and his last appearance in November 2015.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Spain were his last opponents for England. “He could play in the Spain national team,” says Xabi Alonso.
“And in United he has been a very important player. I remember him and [Paul] Scholes were like a perfect machine, because Carrick was always in the right position and Scholes was moving around, doing his special things.
“But in the national team Carrick doesn’t play that important a role. I could see him being an important figure in making the team better, but it doesn’t happen.”
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It certainly doesn’t. Carrick made consecutive starts only five times in almost a decade and a half and played in only one competitive international in six years between 2006 and 2012. Roy Hodgson didn’t even bother to check whether Carrick was actually retired in 2012 when he picked his European Championships squad, and was suprised after the tournament to discover that, in fact, he wasn’t.
The persitant and eventually-fruitless attempts to get Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to develop a functioning relationship cost England the services of Paul Scholes and perhaps Carrick too.
The United midfielder alongside either Gerrard or Lampard would surely have given England a far more solid midfield platform. But, like Scholes, maybe his lack of international recognition has enabled Carrick to prolong his United career.
The England fans who never rated Carrick were not alone. When he joined United from Spurs for just over £18million in summer 2006, supporters of both clubs seemed distinctly underwhelmed.
Bernie Kingsley, of Tottenham fanzine Cock-a-Doodle-Do, told BBC Sport back then: “The general view among Tottenham fans is that it is a good deal. I don’t think fans will be desperately upset. For that sort of money – and with midfielders Tom Huddlestone and Didier Zokora at the club – it has got to be good business.”
But Mark Longden of the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association agreed it was a good deal – for Spurs: “I cannot understand what is going on. I have not spoken to anybody who, when £18.6m became available, would have spent that on Michael Carrick.”
Unlike Carrick, neither comment has aged well…
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Happy 36th birthday to the unsung hero Manchester United, Michael Carrick.
— REDRAM (@RameshK1902) July 28, 2017
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Most United fans – still not all, even after all these years – now rate Carrick as highly as he deserves to be, and they are not the only ones. These guys know a bit about what they’re talking about…
“I am a big fan of Michael Carrick. He is one of the best holding midfielders I’ve ever seen in my life by far. He’s the level of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets in Barcelona and Munich.” – Pep Guardiola
“In English football sometimes it seems hard for people to rate those who instead of shining themselves make the team work as a collective. For example Michael Carrick . . . who makes those around him play. I’ve always seen myself in Carrick.” – Xabi Alonso
“Carrick is a quality passer and he could play for Barcelona; he would be perfectly suited to their game. I think Carrick is an underrated player in England and sometimes not only should the goalscorer be rewarded but the real players at the heart of the game.” – Arsene Wenger
“Scholes and Carrick together was peaceful. It was like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing. It’s relaxing.” – Gary Neville
“Michael is a different breed to the likes of Roy and Nicky Butt. They were brilliant, but so is Michael in a different way. He brings calmness to the game and parades around the pitch like a Rolls-Royce. I’ve always found him very easy to play with. He’s capable of doing anything. He can create goals, score goals, he’s a great passer of the ball and is a big strong lad with a lot of presence who can run all day long.” – Paul Scholes
“Michael is a phenomenal person and a true professional. He gives stability in our game and mental freedom to the other guys around him to be more attacking. He has a big understanding of the game and is a great role model for our younger players.” – Jose Mourinho
During his 11 years at Old Trafford, one performance stands out more than any other when you ask United fans about Carrick – the 2006 destruction of Roma.
Carrick got the party started when he dug the ball out from under his feet to bend it around a defender and the Roma keeper in the 11th minute. His second, United’s sixth was even better; an arrow into the top corner from 22 yards.
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“I think they were two of my best goals for United on what was an incredible occasion,” Carrick told United’s official website this year.
“I remember quite clearly before the match that we really wanted a big start in the game. We wanted to create pressure and momentum and get the fans behind us and create a great atmosphere. We did that from the start and it was wave after wave of attacks.
“Obviously things went for us and I managed to get the first goal. You could just sense there was so much positive energy inside the place. It was an incredible night and things just kept on going after the first goal. We got another, then a third, then a fourth… it just went on. It was a sensational night.”
By Ian Watson
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