Ronald Atkin: The making of Michael Carrick

Redknapp predicts a long England career for the United midfielder with 'lovely feet'
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The Independent Football

So, for an outlay of £14 million, possibly rising to £18.6m if club and player do the business on the field, what have Man-chester United bought in Michael Carrick? Is he the latest overpriced attempt by Sir Alex Ferguson to replace Roy Keane or a talented midfielder capable of a key role in helping to knock Chelsea out of their title-winning stride?

Sparing time from the incessant juggling of his battery of mobile phones as he goes about rebuilding Portsmouth, the team he plucked clear of relegation last season, Harry Redknapp offered the opinion that the kid he signed in 1998 while West Ham United's manager would prove a fine addition to the Old Trafford set-up.

"I am pleased to see Michael get such a fantastic move because he's a great lad," said Redknapp. "You would not meet a nicer kid." Carrick was one of the Redknapp youngsters, alongside Joe Cole, who won the FA Youth Cup for West Ham in 1999, and the former Hammers manager said: "I am delighted to see them all make it in the big time. I signed them all, every one, and it is great to see them doing so well. Most of them were with me from the age of 12 or 13.

"Michael came down from the north skinny as a rake. He had a terrific football brain on him even then, but absolutely no strength in him 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."

Things have looked up since then for The Rake, culminating in a summer which pitched him into World Cup action with England and then into the Old Trafford set-up. "He has got every chance of getting a good run in the England team," was Redknapp's forecast. "He has been kept waiting because of the excellence of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but he will get plenty of caps. He will get the ball and pass it 40 yards, he's got lovely feet and is a terrific all-round footballer, but he's not the next Roy Keane, he hasn't got the drive or leadership."

The search for a new Keane has been going on, as Ferguson himself admitted at Carrick's unveiling last Wednesday, for five years. "You can't get Roy Keanes," added the United manager. "You could say you'd need to replace Roy with four people. He was the most influential player in the club's history." Ferguson has certainly tried hard enough to replace the Irishman in recent seasons, laying out many millions and chalking up a few notable failures along the way in signing Juan Sebastian Veron, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson. The local evening paper remarked acidly of Carrick's arrival: "He fills Keane's No 16 shirt but will not fill Keane's boots."

As he sat quietly between Ferguson and the chief executive, David Gill, at the media conference in United's academy building ("Our responsibility to the future of this game is to give budding talent the very best opportunity to flourish" trumpets a banner on the wall) Carrick looked pensive, but not apprehensive, given the weight of expectation and the size of his fee.

Filling Keane's shirt was Ferguson's way of offering incentive. "I said to him, 'I'm giving you the No 16', and he was delighted," said Sir Alex. "I think that showed great courage, because sometimes players are a bit superstitious about things like that, but he was keen." In fact, as Carrick himself pointed out, "I nearly snapped the gaffer's hand off when he offered it".

As Ferguson acknowledged, United see the way ahead in multiple new faces, each offering some of the Keane skills. "The best way to approach it was to make sure we had good players with good ability in midfield," said Sir Alex. "Michael's an excellent footballer, a very good passer of the ball, a more inventive passer than Keane was."

Though he is far from timid when it comes to tackling, Carrick is not the answer in the Ferguson mind to the physical presence his team needs in midfield, and the manager is hot in pursuit of the 30-year-old Marcos Senna, the Brazilian-born Spanish international who drove Villarreal to the Champions' League semi-finals last season. Asked when this might happen, the manager quipped to the assembled media: "Don't go home." Just where Carrick might have ended up calling home was revealed by Redknapp, who thought he had snapped up for Portsmouth the young man he signed for West Ham. Carrick had made it clear he wanted to get away from Championship football with the Hammers, baulking at signing a fresh contract.

"A couple of years back I had him coming to me at Portsmouth for £2.2m," said Redknapp. "It was a done deal, he was on his way to have a medical. Then he got a phone call from his agent saying Arsenal had made an enquiry, so he suddenly wanted a bit of time. Then while he was waiting for Arsenal, Tottenham came in and took him."

Tottenham paid out £2.7m and have reaped more than five times that, making Carrick the fifth most expensive buy in United's history. Have they paid out above the odds? Redknapp reckons: "It is an awful lot of money, but I wouldn't want to say it is too much," while Gill bravely maintained: "We think we've got a great player at a great price."

Gill's reasoning is that, apart from United having to pay a premium simply because of who they are, there is an inflated market in English talent in view of the Uefa ruling that will require all Champions' League clubs to include eight homegrown players in their squads of 25 by the start of the 2008 season.

"We're more comfortable signing home-based players," was Ferguson's viewpoint. "They understand the club and its loyalty factor much easier. We have had fewer problems with them over the years."

Even with a No 16 shirt bearing an £18m price tag, Redknapp is confident the 25-year-old he signed as a teenager will not let Old Trafford down. "The price will put a lot of pressure on him, but I think he will handle it OK."