Michael Carrick: A Spur of the moment can be the man for middle England

After the wilderness years, a forgotten Hammer is finding his feet at White Hart Lane. And he's still only 23. Jason Burt talks to a talent reborn
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The Independent Online

'You have to keep believing and try not to get too down," says Michael Carrick. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is talking about the club's recent slump of six straight defeats - thankfully arrested - but he also knows that he could easily be applying the statement to his own, self-confessed "crazy" career.

Indeed it is only 10 games since Carrick worked his way into the Spurs side, following his summer transfer from West Ham, and already the talk is of a recall to the England squad. On Thursday England's assistant coach Sammy Lee was there to watch him train. Recall? Even that sounds crazy. After all this is a footballer who is just 23 - "even if my girlfriend thinks I'm older!" - who lost almost two of the previous four years to injury and who has spent the last season in the second tier of English football.

But this is also Michael Carrick. A player who made his international debut aged 19, against Mexico, and who so impressed his club coach, Martin Jol, that in the elegant, upright midfielder's first training session for Spurs this summer the Dutchman turned and said: "Now we have four England players."

Along with Paul Robinson, Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, Carrick was in Madrid for his country's last match. Except, at the Bernabeu, he was in the stands instead of on the pitch. He was there because Jamie Redknapp, who was part of the BBC's commentary team, had invited him - which speaks volumes about Spurs' club captain and the relationship he has with the young man who has taken his place under Jol.

"He's simply been fantastic with me," Carrick says of Redknapp. "When I first got into the team he said 'well done' and he has encouraged me ever since." The encouragement was needed. It took a lot for Carrick to leave West Ham, the club he had joined, aged 15, from that North-east football factory, Wallsend Boys Club, even if he knew it was time to go and there were "four or five offers on the table". They included one from Redknapp's father, Harry, who was then at Portsmouth.

"I gave it a year when we went down," Carrick says. "And I gave it my best. But it wasn't quite enough for us." In some ways it was harder because West Ham got so close to going straight back up despite being stripped of all their burgeoning talent apart from Carrick. "That was devastating," he says, readily acknowledging that it was worse for the fans. "We simply didn't play well in that play-off final," Carrick says. "We were buzzing, having done so well in the semi-final and really believed we could go through. But it was a huge let-down. We could have had a penalty and Bobby [Zamora] was through one-on-one but it just didn't happen for us."

What Carrick neglects to mention is that the spot-kick against Crystal Palace should have been awarded for a foul on him - while it was his pin-point pass which had released Zamora. Carrick tried his best. He was the fulcrum. The heart-beat. Spurs now hope he will perform the same function for them and the signs are promising. Jol, who calls him a complete player, "one of the biggest talents in England", certainly thinks he can.

"I've got more responsibility now and it's time to step forward and produce," Carrick says, emphatically. Even if, last season, teams treated the arrival of West Ham like a "cup final" the intensity of the Premiership is even fiercer since he last played there. "There's a huge gap now," Carrick says of the chasm with the Football League. "But the hardest transition was going down - coming back up makes it just great to be here. The standard is higher, certainly, than what I remember. It has improved every year, in fact. Players are improving, they are stronger, bigger, fitter. The tactics are better. The modern footballer is changing and that provides fantastic entertainment. It has been a bit of a shock but it's just great to be back."

Leaving, he says, came down to a "hard, professional decision". West Ham needed the money (£3m), he needed the move. "Between me and the club we kind of knew it had to happen," Carrick says. "It was just the right time." Spurs appear the ideal choice. "Where do you want to go? Where do you want to live?" says Carrick as he reruns the questions he asked himself. "Tottenham was just perfect. Everything about the place. There are some fantastic players, young players," he says. Carrick spoke to Defoe, his former team-mate at West Ham, but he didn't need persuading.

Not that things started well. "I just wanted to get going," Carrick says. For a player who has been so horrendously affected by injury it was hard to be fit and overlooked. Indeed it was unclear as to whether Jacques Santini, the-then head coach, really wanted him at all. "I was champing at the bit," Carrick recalls. "It's frustrating because you don't feel part of it especially with coming to a new club. You want to go straight into the mix. But that's the way it was and I had to be patient and wait for my chance. Thankfully I was and now those first few months don't mean anything to me, I can forget about them."

Jol's first act upon succeeding Santini was to promote Carrick. "He's put me in the team, he's given me the chance and that's good," Carrick says. "He's just told me to play my game and, although in the last few matches it has worked quite well, I know that there is more to come."

The new manager's qualities are obvious. "He's an honest guy. What he says is what he's thinking and that's good for players. We know exactly where we stand. He doesn't 'umm' or 'ahh'. If that happens then questions are asked. Even with you guys [the media] he's very good, isn't he? There's just a good vibe around the place. Everyone knows what's required."

Carrick above all. "I always want to improve," he says. "I'm probably my biggest critic and maybe I'm a bit hard on myself. I always want to do better. But the team has been winning again and that makes me happy." Four straight victories, including yesterday's visit of Harry Redknapp's Southampton - and Spurs are upwardly mobile again with Carrick at the helm.

Not that he is complacent. He knows this is Tottenham, after all. "We can't get too carried away. Win a couple and everyone starts talking about Europe," he says. "Lose and you start getting sucked into a relegation dogfight. What we need are more points on the board first to give us the chance - otherwise people will start getting negative again. Then we can start thinking about the top six or seven."

Indeed both Carrick and his club are on the cusp. "This is a massive place," he says. "And it's right that people expect, just like at West Ham or Newcastle. With the players we've got we should be producing and we need to make sure we do something about it. It's up to us." Carrick goes on: "If you want to play for one of the top clubs you have to do that. You can't be protected. You have to produce. If you don't do that then you won't play and you shouldn't play. It's a question of having to be at your peak throughout the season. But consistency is more important than ever and I believe that is coming together."

Given his tribulations Carrick knows that more than anyone. "My aims are simple," he says. "To stay in the team, play as many games as I can and hopefully that will be successful. I don't want to look too far ahead and think I'm going to do this or that. That's dangerous. It's too easy to say that." It seems like a mantra that Spurs should also follow. "Where we are now is a decent position considering what has gone on but if we can come out of the Christmas period and we're in touch then anything can happen. We can then set ourselves new targets. That means that the next five or six games are so important. We need to stay consistent, keep winning and maybe then we can look ahead. We will then have earned the right."

And what of England? Can he add to his two caps as, after all, with the waning of Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes's retirement there is a vacancy? Jol certainly thinks so. "For now I'm only thinking of this place," Carrick says of Spurs, "and taking that forward. I think if the club is going places and being successful then that may come round the corner later on. I'm still young so there's time."

But he admits: "It's in the back of my mind because once you've had a taste for it and it's taken away from you it makes you want to have it that bit more. At the time I was 19 and everything was happening so quickly. I got into the West Ham team and by the end of the season I was playing for England. If I got in there now and played again I would appreciate it more because I know how hard it is.

"Then everything was just going so well and it seemed so easy. Back then I didn't know anything different but now I know how hard it can be, especially having gone down a division. England is the pinnacle. You just want to be part of it again. It's hard to explain."

Not when it is done so eloquently. The summit should be obtainable again which, for Carrick, should be to his club's, and his nation's, benefit.



Born: 28 July 1981 in North Shields

Height: 6ft 1in. Weight: 11st 10lb.

Club career: started with Wallsend Boys' Club, before signing with West Ham in August 1998. Loan stints with Swindon (six matches, Nov-Dec 1999) and Birmingham (one match, Feb-March 2002). Totalled 150 matches (six goals) for West Ham before moving to Tottenham for £2.75m in August 2004.

International career: England, two caps (v Mexico, 5 May 2001; v Holland 15 August 2001). The 1,108th player to represent his country.

Also: England U21, England U18. FA Youth Cup winner 1998-99 (West Ham). Named in the PFA First Division team of 2003-04 season.