Future of Carrick tied into West Ham's progress

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As one prized West Ham United asset after another left Upton Park last summer following relegation from the Premier League, there was one player conspicuous for staying.

As one prized West Ham United asset after another left Upton Park last summer following relegation from the Premier League, there was one player conspicuous for staying.

Michael Carrick, the elegant central midfield player who broke into the West Ham first team only a short time after Joe Cole, established himself so quickly he was named by Sven Goran Eriksson in the Swede's first England squad after barely 40 senior appearances for his club. If anyone looked like a ready-made component for any of the trophy-chasing Premiership élite, it was Carrick. Yet the 22-year-old from Wallsend was the one left behind.

It was good news for West Ham fans, who were thankful that a nagging pelvic injury combined with the first dip in form in the young player's career was probably enough to persuade potential suitors to back off, at least for a while.

But that could soon end. Indeed, whether he goes or stays in East London will probably depend on how far West Ham can progress when they begin their play-off campaign at Ipswich today. Should Alan Pardew's side win the right to join Norwich and West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League next season, there is a chance he will stay. Should they fail, he will almost certainly move on, with Arsenal, Everton and Charlton already mooted as possible destinations.

He admits: "It was strange to see so many of my clubmates leave at the end of last season but I was more concerned with just getting fit again. Had I been fit then, I suppose I could have gone as well.

"To see Joe Cole and Glen Johnson being involved at Chelsea was great and though I'm not going to be banging on the manager's door obviously I want to play at that level as well." West Ham, after a mid-season slump, have run into form at just the right time but Pardew insists that the play-off outcome is too close to call.

"The four teams who have ended up in the play-offs are probably the four most capable of staying in the Premiership," he said. "I've never seen a play-off match that wasn't close and our match with Ipswich will be the same. Three or four critical moments will decide the tie.

"I have seen players lose focus in these games. The final is bigger than the FA Cup final in terms of what it means financially to the victors."

Likewise, the Ipswich manager, Joe Royle, expects a finely balanced contest. "We are a free-scoring side with undoubtedly the worst defensive record of the four play-off teams," he said. "West Ham have talented forwards but overall there is not a lot between us."

Today also sees the first leg of the Second Division play-off between Hartlepool and Bristol City, whose winger Scott Murray used to regard the Hartlepool manager, Neale Cooper, as an idol when he supported Aberdeen as a boy. "He was like an animal in midfield and there's no doubting he'll have his players wound up," Murray said.

In the opening Third Division game, Lincoln City, seeking to end manager Keith Alexander's season on a fairytale note only months after he underwent brain surgery, meet Huddersfield Town, who missed automatic promotion on goal difference after taking only two points from their final three matches.

Tomorrow, Swindon Town face Brighton and Hove Albion - beaten only twice in 15 games - in the second of the Second Division semi-finals. In the other Third Division first-leg game, Northampton face Mansfield at home only a week after beating the same opponent away in the last game of the regular season.