Carrick the survivor key to revival at Upton Park

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Michael Carrick could be forgiven if he strode into West Ham United's training ground and screamed: "I'm a Premiership footballer, get me out of here!" The elegant England midfielder is now, following the sale of Jermain Defoe, one of just three players left from the first team last season, such has been the tumult in what was, until recently, among the most talented and precocious squads in the country.

And, indeed, an exit from the First Division is on his mind - but with West Ham. "It's tight. But there's a belief that we're going to do it this season," Carrick says. He knows how difficult that will be after all the upheaval. "We obviously put pressure on ourselves as well, as we want to bounce straight back up."

It's easy to forget how young Carrick is - just 22 - and what he has achieved. It is also easy to forget the single-mindedness he showed to uproot himself from the North-east and go to London aged 15. And stay there. He has stickability. Today Carrick plays at Bradford City. It recalls sharp memories. Bradford was where he made his Premiership debut as a callow substitute in 1999. How things have changed.

"I want to be playing Premier League football," he says. "You ask any player and they will say they want to play at the highest level they can, especially when they've had a taste of it. You just have to believe that you can get back there and if we have a good end to the season we can do it." And suddenly, listening to him, it doesn't look so desperate. He goes on. "We've had stick over the course of the season but if you look where we are now, just a couple of points off, after everything the club's been through it could be an awful lot worse. Look at Derby and how they have struggled. After the turnover of players we're not in bad shape and if we go on any sort of run, as we are capable, we're going to get promoted."

The turnover has come full circle. As part of the Defoe deal - "a massive blow because J's one of the best around, as good a finisher as there is" - Bobby Zamora was transferred to Upton Park, where he started his career. "Funnily enough, one of the first games I played there [when a schoolboy], there was Joe [Cole] and Bobby," Carrick says.

He joined West Ham from the famous Wallsend Boys' Club, a football factory where a dozen scouts regularly watch every Sunday morning. "But there was something about West Ham," says Carrick, who had trials at 12 other clubs. There must have been as his brother Graeme, now 18, followed him down. "I think it was harder for my parents then," he says. "It's a big jump when your eldest son leaves home but when Graeme came as well, well, that's it. We'd both left the nest."

Carrick quickly spread his wings. His ascent was dizzying - England Under-21s, the Intertoto Cup and a first League start, three days into the new millennium, aged 18, against his beloved Newcastle United at St James' Park. "Crazy," he says. "I was so tired. Even at half-time I was so tired. I think it was the excitement. I wasn't nervous, I guess." He should have been. Two down with four minutes to go and West Ham drew 2-2. Carrick was on a roll now. "Looking back I didn't know any different. I knew how lucky I was. But you just get on with it."

The team - and Carrick - were "buzzing". Then Sven Goran Eriksson arrived and he was called up for his first England squad. "But I was injured, a bad hamstring. Harry [Redknapp, the then manager] said 'I'm not going to stop you. If it was anyone else I would say you're not going.' But, of course, I had to come back anyway." Nevertheless just 17 months after his full Premiership debut he was playing for England against Mexico. He was changing, but so were West Ham.

"Players started to leave and then Glenn [Roeder] came in and we had a good season, finished seventh, but for some reason, last season, things just didn't happen," he says. What did happen, to Carrick, were injuries. Niggling, painful injuries which lingered for almost two years. He tried to play on but it got worse. His light dimmed. His form suffered. "You can't train properly because after a game you're sore and then it's another game." Eventually, last February, he was ruled out of the desperate fight against relegation.

"I watched but couldn't help," he says. "We went on a great run, but Bolton did as well. Maybe we were just meant to go down. But to do so with 40-odd points was unbelievable." When it came, away to Birmingham City on the season's final day, it was numbing.

"I was in the directors' box with Ian Pearce, who also couldn't play, and I was on the phone to my mum, my girlfriend, trying to find out the other scores," Carrick says. "It was just devastating. Shock more than anything. It didn't sink in."

It did when the exodus began. "You start seeing the lads leaving and that just becomes so frustrating. You knew it would happen because when clubs get relegated they need money, but it seems one by one everyone was going." Cole, Trevor Sinclair, Frédéric Kanouté, Glen Johnson - "he was up and away" - the list went on. Team-mates and friends.

"We came back for pre-season and I'll never forget it," Carrick explains. "There must have been just 10 players training. I wasn't fit and I looked at the lads doing the session and it was just unbelievable."

Last autumn, his injuries, after a double hernia and a third groin operation, cleared. His form, also, has returned so that he can, at last, "kick on" from the promise he showed.

The picture at West Ham has also brightened. More players left but others arrived, young, hungry players such as Nigel Reo-Coker, Marlon Harewood and Zamora, and they softened the blow of losing, most recently, Defoe. "When Joe [Cole] and the others left there was no one coming in. That makes it doubly hard. Now it's a whole new team and we're close. It's just tweaking a few things. There may be only me, Christian [Dailly] and Tomas [Repka] left, and a transformation like that takes time but recently it's gelling and we've a more settled side."

A run in the FA Cup - West Ham face Fulham in the fifth round next Saturday - has helped. "It's no distraction," Carrick says. "If you are winning you want to play and it breeds confidence."

That is maybe all West Ham were lacking. They are also hardening to the division. Teams are being dealt with, at last. "It's something we still have to work on," he says. The shining determination is clear - a second season outside the Premiership is hard to contemplate. Carrick's future may eventually lie elsewhere. "I don't want to be in this situation again and would do anything to stop that," he says. "But I want to learn and will be a better player, stronger, for that." And maybe, just maybe, West Ham will be stronger as well.