By Graham Ruthven
When England manager Roy Hodgson released his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro he might’ve had the good sense to scale the Wembley arch and never come down.
Indeed, Hodgson’s selection of outcast Rio Ferdinand has dominated the English media agenda this week, with Hodgson forced to defend his decision, only for the Manchester United defender to pull out earlier this week.
Yet Ferdinand was never Hodgson’s most significant recall. Instead the return of one of his club teammates could have a genuine impact on Hodgson’s England.
Michael Carrick’s career is a peculiar paradox. While at club level his prominence is widely revered, the international scene has always proved a difficult arena for the midfielder.
Having played at the top of the English and European game for almost seven years, winning league and European titles, it’s somewhat remarkable Carrick has collected just 26 caps over the course of his distinguished career.
Carrick has never fitted in with the cultural identity of his homeland. English football has always been more about hard tackling, lung-busting runs, Roy of the Rovers and Lucozade adverts than the European idealisms of ‘tiki-taka’ and ‘totaalvoetbal.’
However, if Hodgson’s tactics in England’s last outing, against Brazil, are to be taken as his system of preference in the lead up to next year’s World Cup, England’s identity on the pitch might finally be in line with Carrick’s.
In the 2-1 win over Brazil last month Hodgson used Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere to provide the energy and vigor in midfield, deploying Steven Gerrard as the calming, holding lynchpin in the centre of the pitch. And it worked.
Hodgson’s side moved through the phases of transition quickly, shifting the ball through the lines of defence, midfield and attack, catching Brazil off guard.
But with Gerrard, Hodgson’s captain, also demonstrating his suitability for such a role in the national team’s new-look midfield, it’s ironic that although Carrick’s style and even persona might fit in with England’s new identity there may not be a place for him.
Penciled into Hodgson’s line-up to play San Marino on Friday, it has been suggested Carrick could in fact take his place in defence rather than his default central position.
Even at his own club Carrick has had to work harder than most to prove his worth.
While many United fans were looking for the next Roy Keane when Carrick arrival at the club in 2006 they failed to appreciate what they had actually signed.
However, something has changed this season. The 31-year-old is even the subject of the Old Trafford faithful’s latest chant, a lighthearted song that draws comparison between Carrick and the rather more beloved Paul Scholes.
Sir Alex Ferguson claims Carrick is enjoying his “best ever season at the club” yet the United number 16 still polarizes opinion.
Leading the Premier League passing column—he made 2,119 of them in 28 appearances—Carrick’s worth to England as the midfield pivot is obvious. But his value to attackers is also clear, having completed 82% of attacking third passes in the league this season, a remarkably high average.
The former Tottenham and West Ham midfielder has never been left unrecognized within the game. Teammate Ferdinand once described him as “England’s Andrea Pirlo.” Real Madrid contemporary Xabi Alonso said he “missed seeing a player like Carrick in the England midfield” when the United midfielder was omitted from Hodgson’s squad for last summer’s European Championships.
Hindsight suggests that those who questioned for years whether Gerrard and Lampard could play alongside each other they should have been asking who would play alongside Carrick, the one player England has in his mould.
Carrick’s game isn’t based on physical presence, but then neither is England’s under Hodgson. The former Liverpool and West Brom manager has thought about what personality to give his side and nobody embodies that identity like Carrick, on and off the pitch.
As a character that doesn’t seek the limelight or the front pages it is surprising England has yet to turn to him in its conscious efforts to cleanse itself of the celebrity culture that has dogged it for so long.
England may well come to regret overlooking, and even deriding, him for so long.
Spain has Alonso, Italy has Pirlo, Germany has Bastian Schweinsteiger and now England finally has Carrick again.
His return might not have attracted the same attention as Ferdinand’s, but recalling Carrick could be one of the best decisions Hodgson ever makes. The rest of Europe knows it and maybe it’s finally time England did too.