Carrick happy to be upstaged at latest reunion

Former Hammer will be in ruder health today than he was with ailing Spurs
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The Independent Football

The last time Michael Carrick played at West Ham he felt sick, though it was nothing to do with apprehension about a return to his first professional club. Carrick was one of numerous victims of the mysterious virus that afflicted Spurs on the morning of their final and most important match last season, the local derby they needed to win in order to enter the Champions' League. Suffering as badly as anyone, he staggered through just over an hour's play before being forced off as Tottenham were beaten 2-1.

It would be his last appearance in a Spurs shirt. Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate enough to secure his services in the summer to pay the £14 million downpayment being demanded - with plenty of add-ons - so this afternoon the England midfielder goes back again representing the Premiership leaders, Manchester United.

The occasion should hold few terrors. Even in Tottenham's colours, he recalls, "the West Ham fans were good to me, which was nice"; he was, after all, not one of those perceived to have deserted a sinking boat when the good ship Hammer hit the relegation rocks in 2003.

Now treacherous waters are swirling round Upton Park again, and Alan Curbishley has been brought in to take the tiller, which will also divert some of the attention from Carrick today. "They'll be all right, they've got some players," he says of his former club. "They had a good season last year and sometimes it's difficult in the second season, but they've got enough quality in there and I'm sure their home form's going to be good."

Unlike Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Trevor Sinclair and others, Carrick stayed for a year after relegation and went through the further misery of losing in the play-off final to Crystal Palace before moving the few miles north-west to Tottenham. Oddly, the new manager there, Jacques Santini, did not fancy him at all, but Martin Jol had greater faith, and by the end of that first campaign Carrick was in sufficiently good form to have made the England team for the first time in four long years.

Summoned initially in 2001, along with his team-mate and fellow teenager Cole, for the first squad picked by Sven Goran Eriksson, he was forced to withdraw, but was allowed two appearances as a substitute that year. Then nothing until starting two games at last when a depleted side went to the United States in the summer of 2005.

Carrick took his chance well on tour and was an obvious choice to go to the World Cup last summer. He could not take equal advantage when surprisingly handed the defensive midfield role against Ecuador ahead of Owen Hargreaves, but has the support of Steve McClaren and has played in the three most recent internationals thanks to the injury suffered by Hargreaves - who is now desperate to join him at Old Trafford.

Were that to happen, they would be potential rivals rather than partners, for Carrick - a centre-forward in his Tyneside boyhood - has been slowly moving towards a more defensive role throughout his career.

Hence only two goals in as many seasons at Spurs and none in 21 games for United, where he appears happy to let a much admired team-mate, Paul Scholes, do the attacking stuff from central midfield: "I'm happy with that. To play with someone like him is great and I keep learning all the time."

The difference he has found between London and Old Trafford is simply weight of expectation: "You're expected to win every week; it's a different type of pressure, but I'm really enjoying it. As a team we're playing well, and when you're winning, things come a little bit easier." As a Newcastle supporter, Carrick will have found Chelsea's scrambled victory over Glenn Roeder's severely weakened side in midweek all the more painful, though United's failure to beat the champions three weeks ago was the more significant result.

"That performance was good from us. We felt we did enough to win the game and were in a good position. We were disappointed to lose a goal to a set-piece in the end but it was only three points at stake, that's all you get. There's still an awful long way to go."

The winding road takes in Upton Park this afternoon, when Carrick has to hope that by tea-time it will be his old club who are left feeling, in the local parlance, Tom Dick.

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