The Evening Standard

Michael Carrick never reads reports of his matches, in fact he never goes beyond the first page of a newspaper. He does watch Match of the Day but is only interested in seeing the goals that are scored – not the analysis of the game offered by Gary Lineker and co.

The 28-year-old has a self belief which means he can shut out the opinions of the outside world and be very comfortable in his football bubble: all that matters to him is the training ground, the football stadium and home. No other worlds intervene.

Sitting in the press room of the first of that triumvirate, United’s Carrington training ground, Carrick says: “I am not going to judge myself on what someone is writing and how they see it.

“You know yourself if things are not going so well. I’ve got people here, team-mates, who’ll tell you, and coaches and the manager to help.”

This belief has remained intact despite not being a regular in the Manchester United team – he has started eight times this season – or quite sure of his place in Fabio Capello’s squad for next year’s World Cup in South Africa.

There were even some stories in the summer suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson may sell Carrick to Liverpool, but the midfielder – whose contract runs to 2013 – is not looking at life beyond Old Trafford.

“You never know in football but I see no reason to leave at all,” he told me. “I am delighted to be here. It is as high as you can get.”

This self-confidence may explain why in a game increasingly marked by tribal divisions among supporters, Carrick has moved from West Ham via Tottenham to United without leaving behind the trail of bitterness such transfers often generate.

This week provides an excellent test of Carrick’s ability to move on and retain friendships. At the weekend, the champions travel to Upton Park where the faithful will read an interview in their match programme about Carrick’s time at the West Ham Academy, and how he adapted to life in the capital as a 15-year-old all the way from Newcastle. First, though, he will meet up with his old Tottenham colleagues at Old Trafford in tonight’s Carling Cup quarter-final.

He has already faced Spurs once this season, in the League match at White Hart Lane, when United, he admits, had to put in “our best performance of the season – they have improved”, to secure a 3-1 victory.

The improvement, he feels, is good enough for Tottenham to be right to finally have aspirations about breaking into the top four, they lie third ahead of Arsenal, and qualify for the Champions League.

“This season has been the most unpredictable for a long while,” says Carrick. “Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham are looking to be pushing up there. And at the moment Tottenham look as strong as anyone.”

And the Spurs player who has impressed him the most is Aaron Lennon. “He has looked very good. I know him quite well, played with him for a couple of years. He has brought his game to a new level and will be causing problems to a lot of left backs this year.”

Carrick also has warm words for Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas. “Tom has an awful lot of ability to pick a pass. JJ is an all round midfield player, he can pass, he can score, he can defend, together they are a very good midfield.”

So what has his old West Ham manager Harry Redknapp done to transform a side who were staring into the abyss a year ago?

“To be honest the squad he had when he arrived was a good squad,” says Carrick. “He has obviously given the lads a lot of confidence and he has improved it again by bringing in his own men.”

The England midfielder, of course, knows all about Spurs’ struggle to break into the top four. He was in the 2005-2006 side that, laid low by illness after eating a dodgy lasagne, failed to win the last match at Upton Park and allowed Arsenal to pip them to the final top-four spot.

He lets out a long sigh conveying the hurt it still carries as he admits: “It is one of my worst memories. If we had got to the top four the Premiership might have been different.”

But while Tottenham may entertain hopes of at last breaking into the magic circle, Carrick is quick to emphasise that becoming genuine title contenders is a different story altogether.

Chelsea are still clearly the team that United have to beat and he can see a lot of similarities to the side being moulded by Carlo Ancelotti to the one that won two League crowns under Jose Mourinho.

“The players they have are powerful and strong,” he argues. “They are playing well and getting results.”

While the 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge obviously still rankles – “We were the better team but that’s football” – there is still every confidence within the Old Trafford dressing room that the five-point gap between the sides can be closed.

Carrick adds: “We still believe it will be very close and if we are playing well and get a good run in we can finish on top in the end.”

Such is United’s confidence that their midfielder feels the amazing dream of winning all four trophies, which United nourished last season, may still be on.

Ferguson’s team won the League title and the Carling Cup but missed out on the FA Cup and lost the Champions League Final against Barcelona. Many thought the defeat in Rome showed a telling weakness – but not Carrick. “That night we did not play well. The year before we did. But if it comes again we will. We were very close to achieving something amazing last season and we could go some way to doing that again.”

Carrick’s desire to remain with United is clearly born out of a belief that the club will be challenging for all the major honours every season.

Nor did the midfielder have to wait long before he realised how different United were to his previous two clubs. It came on his very first pre-season tour. “We went to Korea and Japan,” he explains. “It is something I had never seen before. The people you see, the reactions you get, the people who come to your hotels. It is quite shattering to realise how big the club is.

“Spurs and West Ham have their following but United as a brand is absolutely huge. Wherever you go in the world the response you get is astounding.”

Much of the credit for this reaction must go to Ferguson and the legacy he has created. Yet, after four years working under the manager, Carrick still finds it difficult to explain what makes Sir Alex quite so successful.

“He has got the presence, the aura that he has developed because he has been so successful. The respect he gets is not just from the players but everyone around the club.”

In only one respect has Ferguson changed: the famous hair dryer treatment he meted out to players is no longer administered. “Not so much these days,” reveals Carrick. “We are playing well enough so he doesn’t have to lose his rag quite so often.” But if Sir Alex is mellowing with age what about England under Capello? It is only now that Carrick becomes a touch defensive, particularly when I suggest that England’s defeat by Brazil highlighted a gap in technical skills. With a touch of annoyance he said: “It is so old fashioned to keep on saying that. The football England can play shows that we can compete against the very best and it is hard to judge friendlies because of the teams that are fielded.”

And even before I have a chance to point out that away from home England have only once gone past the quarter-finals in a World Cup, he added: “People say it is a failure to lose in a quarter-final. But in recent times to get to the quarter-final is not an easy thing to do. And on the night, in a quarter-final or semi-final, a lot of things can sway a game. As we saw in the France and Ireland matches, one thing can turn a game on its head.” Carrick’s reference to the Thierry Henry handball that led to France’s winning goal made me wonder if Carrick would have done the same in that situation. Significantly, he does not condemn Henry.

“To be honest you don’t know do you, until you are in that situation? My first impression was it was instinctive. When things happen so quickly you don’t know what you do. It happened and there’s nothing anyone can do to change it.” The incident led to calls for the implementation of video evidence for referees, but does Carrick think it would make a difference?

“As long as it does not affect the flow of the game. If you stop 10 or 15 times a game that is a problem. If it is once or twice and you get a major decision right then maybe it is not a bad thing.”

If this makes Carrick a revolutionary in a game, then in every other way Carrick remains a footballer very much in the old mould in contrast to his contemporaries.


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