Carrick: Rise of the invisible Manc

United's long-overlooked playmaker tells Ian Herbert why he is finally in the spotlight
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The Independent Football

If an evening could sum a player's footballing life, perhaps the sultry one in Athens in an England Under-21 jersey eight years ago is most appropriate for Michael Carrick.

It was not an occasion that most of those Englishmen involved in will care to dwell on – a young John Terry and Luke Young were both dismissed for violent conduct in England's 3-1 defeat to Greece – but Carrick provided some evidence of that beautifully clean way he strikes a football when he netted for Howard Wilkinson's side four minutes from time. The essential point is that the man Carrick most needed to impress that night, the then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, had left the stadium shortly before the half-volley left his boot for the net.

There is Carrick in a nutshell. One of the most gifted distributors of a ball in the Premier League, an individual who has more right to a place on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist than at least four of the five Manchester United players who actually made it, but the one who has long been overlooked. There will be no anthem ringing out for Carrick from the United end at the club's FA Cup semi-final against Everton tomorrow and he does not mind admitting that he has often toyed mentally with what one might sound like. Part of the problem is that "Carrick" doesn't rhyme with anything, he accepts. "I've spent a few hours myself trying to think something up. I don't mind though really, as long as I am playing."

Martin Jol, Carrick's manager for two years at Tottenham and an individual who fought desperately against Sir Alex Ferguson's advances for the player, had his own theory as to why Carrick did not prompt the same fervent reaction in fans as, say, Roy Keane, the man he was signed to replace and whose No 16 jersey he took. Carrick, he once said, is a midfield interceptor, blessed with the vision to read opponents' passes, rather more than the tackler whose contributions, like Keane's, are unmissable. Jol was also fond of saying the midfielder had a languid ability to look "as if he's in the park" – which the two of them often joked was a double-edged compliment.

Carrick has been worth staying in your seat for this season. His tackling, distribution and increasing inclination to place himself in opponents' penalty areas have made him arguably United's player of the campaign, and justified the £18.6m price tag, which was something of a hindrance when it brought Carrick to Old Trafford in July 2006. "It was a few quid and at the time people would question it," Carrick reflects now. "It wasn't something that could get to me, so I just forgot about it, I just wanted to come and do what I was bought for."

Though Carrick believes this is his best season to date, his manager thinks he developed into the finished article last year and has maintained that standard. "Last season he had a fantastic season," Ferguson said yesterday. "There's not been any depreciation in his form. He has kept a consistency which is good and he is a good age."

The 27-year-old has spent his fair share of time trying to let his football do his talking, yet not entirely being heard. Kevin Keegan, the first manager not to notice him, disbanded the reserve team at Newcastle United in his first spell at St James' Park – a move which persuaded Carrick, then 15, that he must leave the North-east and head to West Ham. His development in the East End was slow, too. His football style and personality were overshadowed by Joe Cole, with whom he progressed through the ranks. Harry Redknapp, his manager at West Ham, always said his early difficulty was mainly physical, though Carrick says having Cole in the same age group was a blessing of sorts. "He took all the pressure off me. I had a handful of games in the first team without anyone knowing much about me."

But Ferguson, whose scouts had first tracked Carrick as a teenage striker in the North-east for Wallsend Boys' Club, knows the value of those whose talent does not shout its name from the rooftops. He likens Carrick to Denis Irwin, another of "the quiet types who tend to get overlooked" but who always "give us eight or nine [out of 10] every week." Carrick, like Irwin, has "never had the celebrity status of a Ryan Giggs, David Beckham or Eric Cantona," Ferguson said two months ago. "It's not a concern for us because we know what a terrific footballer Michael is. He always had that ability to make a pass and open a defence. He's developed physically and improved his defensive play tremendously."

An anthem in his own name is not the only kind of acclaim Carrick is still searching for. Some FA Cup success would be welcome for a player who, alongside Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, is one of the senior United players never to have lifted the old trophy. Carrick's first FA Cup memory is watching Liverpool play Wimbledon in 1988 but his abiding one is of the 2007 final – his own first time at Wembley and first FA Cup final – with a United side who has just beaten Chelsea to the title and were convinced they would win. "We were really set up there to go and win but it just didn't happen for us on the day," Carrick says. "Chelsea just managed to nick one and we did have chances and we did have one cleared off the line or [Petr] Cech save it off the line. We could've nicked it 1-0 ourselves but sometimes that is just how it goes." It was a crushing personal disappointment. "I still haven't really come close to winning the FA Cup."

United's Champions League triumph against Porto on Wednesday night – the first real evidence in five games that their form might be returning – came in no small measure from Carrick's personal contribution. His 84 per cent pass completion rate surpassed all other United players in Estadio do Dragao, though others won the plaudits. Listen to Carrick talk about United's recent blip, though, and you discover that Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford on 14 March, which prompted the miserable run of form, will gnaw away at them for weeks to come. It was the worst day of Carrick's United career, he says. "It was terrible for us to lose the way we did. It was pretty silent [in the dressing room] as we thought about what had gone on and what we would do after that. Maybe because we were in an unbelievable position before that game. If we had won that game things would have been a whole lot different." Had complacency set in? "Perhaps," he replies, "but if that was the case then it definitely isn't now. We have had a big wake-up call over the last couple of weeks and now we know that there is no room for error. That is probably a good thing in a way because we are very focused and determined to not let it slip."

Another March afternoon at Old Trafford which Carrick cannot banish from his mind was the 1-0 home defeat to Portsmouth in last season's FA Cup sixth round which – with West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City up ahead, as things transpired – probably deprived United of what would have been a treble. "We were well aware at the time it was a good opportunity," he says.

The travails of his football life have equipped Carrick with the quality which Ferguson has especially warned his players to expect tomorrow from an opposition manager, David Moyes, still seeking his first trophy. "I have been on the other side of things were you don't know where the next win is coming from – at West Ham," he says. "So to be like this and to expect to win things is a great feeling to have. After winning my first Premier League I thought I would be happy with that but you want it more and hopefully I can do that in the cup competitions."

That way, the Carrick songs which are to be found on United websites for those who look hard enough might finally get their airing. "We don't need no Michael Ballack, We don't need no Joseph Cole," runs one, to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall". "All in all just give Michael Carrick the ball. All in all just give Michael Carrick the ball."

My Other Life

Michael Carrick spent part of last summer helping out as a roadie for The Sound Ex, a Newcastle band which features his brother-in-law. "You can see the similarities between a band about to go on stage and a team about to walk on the pitch," he says. "I love going to their shows and you can get stuck in and lend a hand setting up – their music is great so that always helps."

The Sound Ex, also known as the Sound Explosion, class their music as "rock and soul", and are signed to Newcastle-based indie label Demolition Records. Carrick is not the first football roadie. Alan Curbishley's brother Bill has been a significant player in the rock world, managing The Who among others, and the former Charlton and West Ham manager has acted as a roadie for acts such as Robert Plant.