Michael Carrick retires with his legacy intact
FC Jokerit were a flash in the footballing pan. They were founded in 1999 as the result of a mad scheme hatched by Harry Harkimo, the presenter of the Finnish version of the apprentice, who also happened to own an Ice Hockey team of the same name.
The Ice Hockey branch of Jokerit still exists and they play with huge, manic-looking jesters emblazoned on their jerseys. The football team, however, lasted just five short years in its original guise before it was sold to city rivals HJK Helsinki in 2004 and became Klubi-04.
All references to jokers were eradicated and Harkimo was forced to put the last of the unsold clown-adorned merchandise into the bin and lament his luck.
Not many people remember Jokerit and for good reason, but one man who will is Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick who recently announced that he would retire from football at the end of the season.
Carrick made his professional debut against FC Jokerit in that most glamorous of tournaments, the Intertoto Cup.
He was 18 and was introduced in the 87th minute of West Ham’s third round second-leg match by then manager Harry Redknapp.
West Ham was actually one of the winners of the tournament that season but Carrick’s only contribution were those three minutes in Finland.
During that fabled Intertoto Cup run Carrick was kept out of the side by fellow academy graduate Frank Lampard, something that would become a feature of his staccato international career.
Carrick, his bench warming in the Intertoto Cup run of 1999 notwithstanding, went on to have a fantastic career.
A quick scroll down to the bottom of his Wikipedia page will allow you to cast your eyes over Carrick’s impressive haul of honours; five PL titles, one FA Cup and three League Cups as well as one Champions League and last season’s Europa League.
For such a highly decorated player it is perhaps a little surprising that Carrick didn’t feature more for the national team.
His 34 caps seem a disproportionate return for a man with such a trophy collection.
Unfortunately, for most of his career, Carrick was in direct competition with the much-lamented Lampard/Gerrard combination, one that didn’t work but that no England manager was brave enough to break up.
Despite their apparent incompatibility Gerrard and Lampard accrued over 200 caps between them.
Both players had what Carrick lacked during his career, the ability to score goals. On paper, Sven and co seemed to have the most potent central midfield pairing in world football, but nobody could wring the best out of them as a duo.
England fans went hungry as the feasts of footballing brilliance promised by the amalgamation of the skillsets of Lamps and Stevie G failed to materialise.
Their styles clashed and while both seemed eager to make it work, what transpired was a clumsy, Chuckle brothers kind of partnership which flattered to deceive. The shards of broken chinaware that seemed to follow Barry and Paul around were a fitting metaphor for England’s major tournament hopes.
It was hard for us as a nation to admit that the Gerrard plus Lampard formula didn’t equal success which is a shame for Carrick who could have proved the perfect foil for either of them.
Carrick has made a career out of being unspectacular. Over the years at Manchester United, he proved to be a calming influence, the metronome that they needed in midfield.
It is easy for the work of such a player to go unnoticed and whilst he was appreciated by United’s fans because he was right in front of them, the wider footballing world could have been forgiven for thinking that Carrick was just another half-decent English midfielder.
In comparison, Lampard and Gerrard were stars at their respective clubs, true leaders who were universally lauded by fans.
At Manchester United Carrick was an unsung but integral cog and, whilst not as widely praised by fans, was highly thought of among his peers – Xavi once referred to him as ‘the perfect player’.
Timing and injuries both contributed to Carrick’s truncated international career too and he joins the likes of Robbie Fowler and Andrew Cole on the list of fantastic footballers who, for whatever reason, had sporadic international careers.
Carrick did go to two major tournaments. In 2006 he travelled to Germany with the squad but didn’t feature at all in the group stage; Gerrard and Lampard started and Owen Hargreaves was Sven’s preferred backup option.
After a reshuffle following Michael Owen’s injury against Sweden in the final group match, Carrick did start in England’s 1-0 win over Ecuador in the first knockout round but he was promptly dropped for the quarter-final against Portugal where England was eliminated.
Four years later he got another chance on the world stage but it was a similar story. Carrick didn’t play a single minute as England limped through the groups before being dumped out by Germany in the round of 16.
Lampard and Gerrard once again squandered the opportunity to prove to the footballing world that they were indeed an effective duo and, despite the fact that there was no Owen Hargreaves in the squad, Carrick found himself glued to the bench and behind Gareth Barry and James Milner in the pecking order.
Two years later Carrick wasn’t selected for the 2012 European Championships despite Frank Lampard being ruled out through injury.
With the Gerrard/Lampard duopoly broken England put in some good performances, a resilient draw against France was followed by victories over Sweden and Ukraine before we were knocked out on penalties by Italy.
It seems like an opportunity missed for Carrick. The season before the tournament he had been a regular starter for a United side who had only missed out on the title on goal difference. The fact that he didn’t even make the squad speaks volumes about his perceived capabilities at international level.
With hindsight, it is easy to say that Carrick should have been given more of an opportunity at international level. It seems obvious to us now that we failed to appreciate a player who was so understated that he went unnoticed by England managers for most of his career.
But England loves powerful goal-scoring midfielders, players who will bust a gut to get into the box and send us into rapturous ecstasy with a net-ripping half volley. We also love scrappers, players like Scott Parker and Gareth Barry whose shorts are muddied even before the game has kicked off, players that wear their disciplinary record like a badge of honour.
Michael Carrick fell into neither one of those categories.
It is not the first time that a talented player has been overlooked or misused by his country. Paul Scholes - largely believed to be England’s most talented midfielder of recent times and with a list of domestic honours as long as anyone who has played at international level - was also taken for granted by England.
He was often shoved to the wing while lesser players toiled away in the centre of the park; he retired early with only 66 caps, fed up with it all.
Carrick’s footballing journey began in Helsinki against experimental opposition in a ridiculous tournament. He has come a long way since then and has achieved more than the vast majority of footballers could ever dream of.
His international career never flourished the way it might have but while the likes of Gerrard and Lampard have had their legacies tarnished by their failures to prosper as members of England’s golden generation, Carrick can retire without such worries.
Whether he will take comfort from that, only he knows.