Michael Carrick made a welcome return from injury to face his former club on Wednedsay. ManUtd.com tracks his route from lanky lad to Reds lynchpin…
The archetypal ‘Boy Wonder’ tale runs: toddler kicks ball in nappies, hurtles through age groups, bursts to prominence while barely above legal driving age. But that’s not Michael Carrick’s style. Although playing five-a-side at precisely that age suggests a prodigious genius, the Wallsend-born youngster’s evolution into world-class midfielder has been a slow-burning affair.
True, he represented the fabled Wallsend Boys Club, and spent every spare moment practising with younger brother Graeme, but Carrick was a devoted student, always focused on his schoolwork. His football talent was apparent, without being glaring. Although a star performer for Wallsend – a club known for unearthing rough diamonds – scouts were impressed, but not blown away. Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland ran the rule over this leggy prospect, but all shied away from commitment. Sunderland didn’t even offer him a trial.
“It was a hell of a loss for Newcastle not to have got Michael to the club as a 12-year-old,” admits former Magpies manager Glenn Roeder, who worked with Carrick at West Ham. “He’s probably the best player to come out of Newcastle for a generation. You can’t put in what God left out: Michael was born to be a footballer. I think they saw a tall lad who was skilful, but didn’t appear to have pace. He only played either side of the halfway line. But West Ham had a scout up here that took a fancy to him.”
Harry Redknapp was at the Upton Park helm when Carrick was snared, part of a golden Hammers generation which spawned Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand. Whereas the others were obvious thoroughbreds from day one, it took Carrick time to settle. The
personality and football intellect were ticked boxes, but the midfielder needed to catch up with himself physically.
“Michael came down at an early age, skinny as a rake,” Redknapp recalls. “He had a terrific football brain even then, but absolutely no strength whatsoever. He always knew what he was doing, but couldn’t get around the pitch because he was so thin. Then he shot up a foot in a matter of months. He grew beyond his strength from 5’6” to 6’1”. He was like a beanpole; no strength, growing pains and problems with his knees. It was a case of waiting for him to develop and fill out.”
Harry was happy to wait, signing Carrick professionally in 1997. Two years later, months after scoring twice in the Hammers’ FA Youth Cup final 9-0 two-legged triumph against Coventry, 18-year-old Michael made his senior debut in a 3-0 victory at Bradford. Loan deals at Swindon Town and Birmingham City beckoned, and his displays caused such a stir that even Arsène Wenger – when asked which English player he’d love to sign – said: “I’d take Carrick tomorrow.”
Expectations snowballed, and Carrick’s increasingly eye-catching form for West Ham led to a nomination for the 2000/01 PFA Young Player of the Year award, eventually won by Steven Gerrard. Just when all seemed to be building to a crescendo, so came the bum note that was West Ham’s 2002/03 campaign. Carrick missed much of the season through injury, his form suffered and his popularity dipped among vexed Hammers fans. As relegation was duly confirmed, Fredi Kanouté, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe all upped sticks. Carrick, however, ignored the stampede. “My thoughts are with West Ham,” he said. “I have a debt of loyalty to the club. We got us sent down, so we have to get us back up.”
That stance won over the Hammers faithful, as did a season of superb performances in the second tier, which secured a place in the PFA First Division Team of the Year. West Ham’s defeat to Crystal Palace in the play-off final left the midfielder at a crossroads; run, or run the risk of stagnating. With only a year remaining on his contract, West Ham were happy to listen to offers.
Harry Redknapp, by then at Portsmouth, seemed certain to be reunited with his protégé after agreeing a knockdown £2.75million fee, only for late interest from Arsenal and Tottenham to scupper it. Eager for regular football, Carrick opted for White Hart Lane, but hit an immediate obstacle – manager Jacques Santini signed him, yet seemed loath to select him. When the Frenchman was replaced by Martin Jol three months later, however, the Dutchman made him a midfield mainstay.
“The first time I saw him on the training pitch I thought: ‘he’ll be an England international’,” says Jol. “Everyone could see it. He’s one of the biggest talents in England. He’s a complete midfielder.” Carrick flourished at White Hart Lane and was named in England’s 2006 World Cup squad. At this point rumours abounded of United’s interest, but Carrick wasn’t a new item in the shop window; he’d been on our hit-list for years.
“Michael was identified before he was at West Ham,” Reds assistant manager Mike Phelan revealed. “But West Ham got in there quick. We saw him young and always admired his talent - the timing never fell right. Around the time we signed him, we wondered whether to go for a defensive midfielder or one who could set the play rolling, and Michael fell into that category. We targeted him as a player who fitted into our grand scheme.”
With the timing finally right for player and club, Tottenham were persuaded to part with one of their prized assets for £14million, with the potential for further payment depending on United’s success. While some eyebrows were raised at the Reds’ outlay, Sir Alex Ferguson had no qualms. “It was maybe two pence more than I would have paid, but no more,” he said at Carrick’s media unveiling.
It was also revealed that the new boy would inherit the no.16 shirt vacated by Roy Keane. Some would have sought to distance themselves from the task of replacing a living legend, but Carrick relished the challenge. “I nearly snapped the gaffer’s hand off when he offered it.” Self-assured off the pitch, his on-field approach remained composed during his bedding-in period, and a string of fine displays silenced any doubters. Two years and three major trophies later, Carrick has made himself almost indispensable.
“He gives a feeling of well-being within the team,” says Phelan. "Where other players might want to rush, he takes his time. He can take the sting out of the game, and also keep the pace of it up. It’s his control, attitude and way of thinking. He’s learned a lot through playing with good players, and being at a club that is constantly striving for more. He’s a winner, and he wants to be the best midfielder in the country.”
At West Ham, Carrick’s was the neglected talent, often mentioned as an afterthought. At Tottenham, Carrick was the hub of flirtation with Champions League rather than the Championship. Even at United, amid the praise heaped upon the Reds’ glittering stars, praise for his role in the recent silver-laden seasons has been slow in coming. But those in the know have been assured this was a talent which, like a fine wine, would mature with time. Typically, his impact this term, rendered stop-start by injuries, has been slow to materialise. But now he's ready to bring his own carefully considered threat to our quest for silverware.