Michael Carrick did not feature in Manchester United’s handsome victories at Watford or Arsenal. The 35-year-old is still regaining fitness after a spell on the sidelines following detection of a worrying heart condition back in September. One suspects that the veteran midfielder will be enjoying the performances of fellow Englishmen Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard though; two revivalists enjoying life under José Mourinho. Not just because of Young’s successful reinvention as a decent left-back, or Lingard’s ascent to become United’s number 10, but the way each has transformed to get ahead. After all, Carrick is an avid student of the game.
The former West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder has enjoyed a fine career at United. Perhaps even a great one. When the Geordie inevitably hangs up his boots next summer, he will retire with at least five Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, and last season’s Europa League. More trophies may arrive this season, but Carrick already has the full monty of domestic, European and world titles.
[blockquote who=”Sir Alex Ferguson” cite=””]I think players need to understand the game and, if they’re going to be a coach or a manager, understand the difference between that and being a player. Michael will do that and I think he has the natural attributes to do the job.[/blockquote]
At his best Carrick was among the most efficient midfielders in Europe: an outstanding passer, a rapid recycler of possession, and always street-smart in defensive positions. In his worst moments, Carrick was accused of being passive, a passenger, a Rolls Royce player when a 4×4 was all that United needed. Fortunately, the good has always outnumbered the bad.
When it mattered most, his managers turned to Carrick. Of those finals, Carrick started the 2008 Champions League final, the FIFA World Club Cup final in 2008, the 2010 League Cup final, and the 2016 FA Cup final, although there were plenty of disappointments too.
In his final seasons Carrick has fluttered to life only briefly. His experience in the wake of United’s decline since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has been valuable though; enough that José Mourinho awarded the veteran a new contract last summer despite the limited chances that were likely to come his way.
Illness this season will have refocused Carrick on the road ahead. It has certainly stimulated Mourinho, who effectively offered the player a route into the boot room and a place on the manager’s staff.
“We gave him the time to relax, to recover, to feel confident, to make the decision when he wants to play, when he wants to stop,” said Mourinho recently. “He knows that my coaching staff has the chair for him if he wants. When he wants the chair, it is there in the office for him. I want that, the board wants that and the owner wants that.
“Michael is in a comfortable situation. His future will be with us. But he wants to be a player until the end of the season and now he feels confident to be back and now he is training back with us.”
Carrick, who has been taking his UEFA coaching badges, will surely take up Mourinho’s offer. The midfielder has worked with United’s Under-14 team this season as he prepares for life after retirement, and Sir Alex Ferguson was effusive in his praise of the Geordie’s chances of success earlier this summer.
“I know about that and I spoke to Michael about it,” Sir Alex Ferguson noted. “I encouraged all the players to do that and most have done it. It’s really important. A lot of players don’t do anything in the afternoon after training. They go home and sit in the house, watching television or whatever. But I think they should take a keen interest in the game.
“I was taking all my coaching badges when I was 23. I think players need to understand the game and, if they’re going to be a coach or a manager, understand the difference between that and being a player. As a player, if you’ve lost a game on Saturday, you go home and feel like all the rest of the players. You don’t understand the loneliness a coach. It’s what you have to start thinking about. Michael will do that and I think he has the natural attributes to do the job.”
As a player Carrick has long demonstrated a nuance for understanding the game’s patterns, and a rare appreciation of time and space. Top players do not always great coaches make, but there are some for whom the hat seems to fit. Indeed, Mourinho was reportedly so impressed with the player’s influence in the dressing room that the new playing contract signed last summer was offered despite Mourinho’s plan to use Carrick in fewer than 20 games this season.
Carrick’s challenge is to buck the trend of former Ferguson pupils who have failed to become the master. Now numbering more than 30, few of Ferguson’s former players-turned-managers have gone on to make a great career out of coaching, let alone achieved real success. Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes have both enjoyed a number of seasons in the Premier League, although neither has secured any major silverware. Laurent Blanc has enjoyed more more success in France, securing four League 1 titles in spells with PSG and Bordeaux.
[blockquote who=”Arsene Wenger” cite=””]I’m an admirer of his career, of his quality. One of my regrets is never having had him as a player because I think he was one of the greatest players in English football. He did not always get the recognition he deserved, but I’m an admirer of Michael.[/blockquote]
Meanwhile, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson have each seemingly given up on management, with the former now an acerbic pundit and Ireland’s assistant manager, and the latter having not worked as a club manager in a decade. Of the younger generation Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried and failed in England, Michael Appleton is a highly rated coach, while Jaap Stam is still battling to drag Reading up the Championship table. Gary Neville will probably remain one of the country’s top pundits after a chastening time as interim Valencia manager.
Carrick will also have to decide – if he wants to be a manager, and not just a coach – at what point he should break out on his own, away from Old Trafford, and probably in the lower divisions. As Ryan Giggs has found, there is no guarantee of securing a job at one of England’s top clubs, while Carrick has no experience of anything but the Premier League bubble.
On Sunday United will face the manager to whom all young coaches can look, Pep Guardiola. The Spaniard spent just one season coaching Barcelona’s B team before being promoted to the big time aged just 39. Now more than 500 games into his second career as a manager, Guardiola has secured more than 20 major trophies and a 72 per cent managerial win rate. It is quite some record.
For now, emulating Guardiola, Ferguson or Mourinho is a distant dream. Over the next six months Carrick is likely to play out the final few games of a playing career that has brought huge personal glory, as well as no little criticism just to balance things out.
Then will probably come a place alongside former player Nick Butt in United’s youth coaching ranks. One more link to the past, with an eye on United’s future.