23 caps in 11 years but Michael Carrick could still be England's Andrea Pirlo
Midfielder, who many thought had retired from international duty, eager to prove his worth
When Michael Carrick made his England debut, aged 19, against Mexico at Pride Park in 2001 it was a reasonable expectation that we were witnessing the start of a long and successful international career. He was a member of West Ham's very own golden generation and reputed to be every bit as talented as the prodigal Joe Cole. So why is it that the 31-year-old Carrick, who sat down to talk at the England team hotel this week, has just 23 caps to his name and was fielding questions about international retirement?
Eleven years on Carrick's England career can politely be described as forgettable. There have been high points, such as his performance in a weakened England team that beat Germany in Berlin in 2008 and then there have been the lows, the long sequences of games when he was not selected, most notably the 2010 World Cup finals for which he was one of only three outfield squad members who did not get a minute on the pitch.
Carrick took some gentle encouraging to explain why it was that he had asked Fabio Capello in January not to be considered for selection, a problem inherited by Roy Hodgson which led to the misunderstanding whereby Carrick was not considered for the Euro 2012 squad. You get the impression there is more to it than meets the eye but Carrick was not prepared to expand beyond the basics.
"I will say it as I said it before, I hadn't played for 18 months to two years really," he said. "I went to the World Cup in South Africa but wasn't really going to play. There were injuries but I knew I wasn't going to play. It was a hard time for me and then I hadn't played for so long, so I thought it was best for me not to be involved really and for the manager to bring someone else in and give him a chance. That was pretty much it."
There is evidently no love lost between Carrick and Capello, not given how easily won round the player said he was by Hodgson's approach to him last month that led to him being in the squad for tonight's 2014 World Cup qualifier against Moldova.
"He [Hodgson] didn't have to say too much. I still want to be part of England, that is why I am here. I know I will get a fair chance and if I am playing well enough and deserve my place I will have a chance of getting in. If I don't, I won't. I am not here to think I should be playing or guaranteed a place by any means because that is not what playing for England is all about. It is up to me to earn the right to be in the squad."
It should not be forgotten that this happens to be a man with four Premier League titles to his name – more than Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard combined – as well as a Champions League winner's medal. He has the pedigree. He has out-lasted his old team-mate Cole, whose star shone brighter in their respective mid-20s but has now sadly faded. While Cole went to join Roman Abramovich's new Chelsea in 2003, Carrick went down to the Championship with West Ham.
As England cast around for a new solution to their midfield, Carrick is an attractive option. He passed the ball well against Italy. He offers an alternative to the old Gerrard-Lampard axis. He may be the closest thing Hodgson has to an Andrea Pirlo. At the same time it should not be forgotten that, on his off-days, Carrick can be a deeply frustrating figure. There have been periods at United, notably in the 2009-2010 season, when Sir Alex Ferguson's faith in him seemed to waver.
For one who has won so much, Carrick is a quiet, understated man. He is not on Twitter. He does not have a website or a clothing range. "It is not me to shout the odds," he said. "I just go about my business. I am a footballer. I am not into PR. If the boss at United picks me I am obviously doing something right and he is the main person I have to please week in, week out.
"This is my seventh season [at United] and I have played a lot of games. The England scenario is slightly different but it is not for me to start shouting that I am good enough and who I should be playing with because that is just not my style. Maybe some people do, but that's just not for me."
When he was asked about his biggest sacrifices, he said that he was missing his daughter's first day at school. His son, he added, was born a week before he left for the 2010 World Cup. "That was a big reason why I found it hard. He was seven weeks old and I had only seen him for five days. That comes into it."
There is no better indicator of the unsatisfactory nature of Carrick's England career than the fact he waited nearly four years between his second cap, against the Netherlands in August 2001, and his third in the friendly against the United States in Chicago in May 2005. His first competitive start was against Ecuador in the 2006 World Cup second round and despite a decent performance he was dropped for the quarter-final against Portugal.
Then it was Owen Hargreaves who was promoted ahead of him but there have been others too. Players of Carrick's quality always get second chances but, realistically, this might be the last one he gets to make himself a fixture in the team. "For whatever reason I have not played," he said. "That's football. That is the way it goes. No complaints. But it is up to me now. I cannot blame everyone else. Maybe at times I haven't played well enough to get in the team. My ego is not that big that I think I should be playing every game for England."
Bizarre mismatch: Carrick and England
The midfielder has been called up to 61 England squads since 2001, winning 23 caps, and playing for four different managers:
Sven Goran Eriksson Seven caps across five years.
Steve McClaren Seven caps in one year.
Fabio Capello Eight caps in two years, but he was an unused squad member in the last seven squads he was called up to by the Italian.
Roy Hodgson One cap.
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