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Michael Carrick: The retrospective interview

Inside United magazine recently sat down with Michael Carrick for a wide-ranging career retrospective, taking in his ‘daunting’ early days after arriving from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006, and navigating the ups and downs that have taken him to a coming move into the coaching arena.

It makes for a fascinating read from one of football’s nice guys – not to mention a true great… 

You grew up as a big Newcastle fan. Do you remember what you thought of Manchester United as a youngster and aspiring footballer?
I always saw them as a big club. One of my dad’s favourite players was George Best, so we had plenty of the old videos of George in the house that we used to watch. So my first memories were seeing United as a big club that played good football. Me being born in Newcastle, they were the team that everyone was desperate to beat and almost disliked in a way! You wanted to beat them, so that’s just how it was. That was my first impression.

Do you remember the first thing Sir Alex Ferguson said to you during the summer you were approached?
We didn’t really speak about that, to be honest. He didn’t need to sell the club in any way; he didn’t really need to sell it to me in terms of where I played or how I played or anything like that. As soon as I knew they were interested it was a decision that was a no-brainer, to be honest: I was coming regardless. Obviously the first time I met him and sat in his office, and went into that room for the first time and had that one-on-one conversation was quite nerve-wracking. It was more of an introduction. He just said,
“You’ll enjoy it here. You’ll love playing for this club. It’s a great club, and you’re playing with great players. Hopefully you work hard and improve. You’ve got to live up to the standards that we’ve set over the years,”
and all that sort of general stuff.

How much do you recall of your first day of training with your team-mates?
It was daunting. I was 25 at the time, quite established – had played for England – but walking into that United dressing room at the time was daunting. There were big characters, world-class players. It’s two-fold really. You’ve got to fit into the dressing room; you’ve got to find your place in there and create relationships, but then you’ve also got to gain the trust of the lads on the pitch as well, through training and playing. So it’s a massive part of integrating with the squad and having to do that with the players I was stepping into the squad with was daunting, but at the same time it was a big challenge and something that I was just really excited about.
Your competitive home debut was against Spurs. That must have been an emotional overload, playing in front of 75,000 supporters for the first time and against your former team-mates?
Playing against Tottenham didn’t really matter to me so much. I had played a couple of away games already [at Charlton and Watford], so playing a couple of games with the lads you kind of get used to the way they prepared for the game, how they get used to the game – all that sort of stuff. The first home game is always the standout game – standing in that tunnel with the little incline the tunnel’s got and standing there, walking down the tunnel, that feeling was pretty special. The fact it was against Tottenham was a little bit strange but, at the same time, it didn’t really have much of an influence on how I was feeling at that time. It’s a game of football and, as a footballer, you can’t get sucked into the things surrounding the game. I’ve got a job to do; I had a big responsibility and it was my first game, so everything surrounding that was irrelevant, really. 

Was there one match or moment were you thought to yourself: this is where I belong; I’m good enough?
Not really, no, I think was just over time. Probably the highlight of that first season for me was the Roma game, really – winning 7-1 at home. But there was a gradual sort of build-up and improvement as time went on and I felt more and more comfortable. I couldn’t really say there was one moment that stands out. I was just so happy to be there playing with a team as good as we were. Tottenham, where I came from, had a good team, but it was such a big jump to playing with the team I had joined. I was more in awe of being in that team and just enjoying the experience.

The league campaign was incredibly tight that first year. How did United manage to find an extra gear when coming from behind?
I think it was a bit of everything. There was obviously a huge amount of belief in each other and individual confidence, but the spirit within the group was unbelievable. The belief in each other and the trust in each other was there, and obviously an awful lot of quality as well. Someone would step up when we needed them to. We always had players that we thought would create chances and score goals for us, which was a massive thing to have. So we always felt in a game, whether we were 1-0 down or 2-0 down, that we’d get opportunities towards the end of the game to get back into it. The Fulham goal was outstanding from Ronnie – he created it from nothing really. The Everton game was pretty special, because that was the turnaround – Chelsea, I think, drew at the same time, 2-2 against Bolton, so that was quite a pivotal day. There was just a pure, sheer determination and belief and trust in each other.

Carrick's full farewell speechVideo

The majority of United players mention Paul Scholes as the outstanding influence on the team at that time. Gary Neville described your partnership ‘like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing’. What was your biggest strength as a duo?
I’m not sure. I think, obviously, we both enjoyed playing with the ball, you know? We probably played as a partnership quite a bit, and passed to each other quite a bit, which might sound quite obvious, but it doesn’t necessarily always work out like that. We probably kept the ball in midfield a little bit longer at times, than maybe you would, and just enjoyed playing with each other. Almost two against two in midfield, like a little game within the big game. We had our own little game going on in midfield. He was just a pleasure to play with, Scholesy. He always wanted the ball, he was always there as an option for you to play. We just clicked. We had a good relationship on the pitch and suited each other’s games.

The following season was more of a squad success – bar Cristiano Ronaldo, who stood out...
I think it was a squad effort, and pretty much a team effort. That was the beauty of it. I think if you’re going to win the league and the Champions League in the same year [it has to be]. We feel we let the FA Cup slip away and we had a good chance in that, so that kind of niggles away at us a little bit. But to be successful everywhere, you can’t rely on one, two, three players; the whole squad played their part. I couldn’t really single anyone out for special praise really.

Is Moscow the greatest night of your career?
I could pick a number of games, but the first one at Anfield, when Sheasy scored was one that sticks out for me, where we scored in the last minute with ten men. Because we were chasing the league, and that was my first one, that was special. Barcelona in the semi-final at Old Trafford, winning that, or Roma at home. The two City late winners – one in the cup and then when Michael [Owen] scored at the Stretford End. They stick out, as does when Robin [van Persie] scored at City to win in the last minute. Also when we beat Wigan 2-1 [May 2009] and I managed to score towards the end, which went towards clinching the league. It’s hard to pick one of them that really stands out more than the others, but if I was to do that, maybe the Barcelona one, just because the tension that night was incredible in the stadium. To make it to the final was amazing.
The 2012/13 season is widely regarded as your best in a United shirt. You were voted Players’ Player of the Year – quite an achievement given Robin van Persie scored 30 goals that season. Why do you think they voted for you? 
Form-wise it was just the case that I had quite a bit of experience by that time, at the age I was at. Physically I was at my peak, really. I could still do everything that I wanted to but with the experience, and everything just fell into place. I just felt at my best, basically, and playing my best football. I enjoyed it, felt comfortable, felt confident and, when you’re like that, everything comes a little bit easier, you know? In terms of winning the award, to have that from your fellow players and for them to think of you like that was one of my most special achievements really, and one that I hold really close to me, because – going back to the start – earning the trust of the players was one of the first things you try to do when you come into the club. So for them to vote you Player of the Year was very special.

Which big signing impressed you most when you first saw them train?
God, it’s a tough one, that! A very tough one. Robin stood out. He was a proven, established top Premier League player at the time. We’ve had other players that have come in younger and developed and become really good players, but Robin was kind of a ready-made player to step straight into the squad. He hit the ground running straightaway and looked comfortable so maybe he’s the one that stands out.

What did you learn from Sir Alex and was his influence as much on your character as a man?
Yes. I did change a little bit, coming to United. Sir Alex was at the top of the tree, so he set everything going, but I learned just as much from the changing room to be honest, and the players within the dressing room who had the experience of winning things and how they went about winning things. I looked at them just as much, but obviously that had come down from the manager over the years so, ultimately, it was from him, but certainly the senior players were a massive influence on me, without me probably really knowing it at the time.

How enjoyable has it been to work with Jose Mourinho?
Of course, yeah. It’s all these experiences working with the top managers and coaches to see how they work, what they bring, their ideas. Football is a game full of opinions and there’s different ways to do it, and I’m learning all the time still at my age, whether it’s playing or the coaching side of things. You can see he’s a winner. He’s won everywhere he’s gone, and he managed to win trophies last year here and hopefully there’s more to come.

The must-watch tributes to CarrasVideo

Which successful game, where everything clicked perfectly from a performance point of view, would you most like to play all over again, irrespective of atmosphere and achievements?
Do you know what was a good game, where it clicked? Schalke away [European Cup semi-final first leg, 2009). We won 2-0, but it could have been any score, really. I know you can say that Schalke at the time probably weren’t in Europe’s elite-elite to be in the semi-final but, still, it’s a Champions League semi-final and, for me, it was one of the games where I felt most in control, comfortable, for a game of the stature of that. That’s the one that sticks out, really.

If you were joining United as a coach or manager, what would you be looking for in a player?
I mean, there are a lot of different things. The biggest thing is being mentally strong enough to cope with the pressures and the expectations. There’s a lot of different players who can be at a certain level of ability or talent or potential or technical ability – whatever you want to call it – but I think the difference is living and being able to perform under the different pressures and the standards you’re expected to hit week in, week out. It’s to do it over a period of time and consistently, week in, week out, and holding that level of performance. I think that’s the toughest thing about playing at this club. The level of scrutiny is off the scale sometimes! From one week to the next you can be the best player in the world; you can be the worst player in the world! So that’s something you’ve got to deal with.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It sounds very simple advice to be honest, but Sir Alex used to say it quite a bit, well pretty much before almost every game:
“Don’t be afraid to work hard and express yourself.”
That’s something you could take into any walk of life, but it’s something that’s right, it works, and it’s something that we always took on board. It’s the simplest thing in life: to work hard. Nothing stops you from working hard, whether you’re good at it or not, you can still work hard at it and enjoy it and express yourself when you’re doing it. If you’re doing that then hopefully it’s a formula for success.

You took over the captaincy from Wayne Rooney, who you played with for so long. How do you look back on your time together?
We’ve had some great times. I’ve known Wazza a long time now, and obviously I’m still close to him, and I’m still good friends with him. We’ve been through some unbelievable times and it’s just the memories. Pretty much all my best memories have been alongside him. We’ve come through together and achieved quite a bit together, so it’s always special to have that kind of bond with someone, that relationship where you kind of nod at each other as if to say, ‘We’ve been through this together’, which is nice.

'I'm ready for my future with Jose' article

Deciding when to retire is not easy, yet Michael is completely content with his “natural” conclusion.

When you look back through your career, where does being captain rank and what’s being the standout moment of that period? 
It’s special to be captain of this club. I came when Nev [Gary Neville] was captain and he was an unbelievable captain in how he went about it here, and played under Rio, under Vida, Giggsy and Patrice – for a little bit they all shared it – and then obviously Wayne. It’s a slightly different for me because I’m a bit older and coming towards the end, so it’s a bit more of a responsibility thing and I think maybe a bit more about guidance and keeping everything in check a little bit. So it’s a responsibility and it’s one that I was honoured to take on, and have not taken for granted at all. Even though it was only something for this season, it’s something I’ve enjoyed and I’m very grateful for having had the chance.

What do you think you’ll bring to coaching?
I’m excited. It’s new. You can say going from playing into coaching fits together, but actually the more you look into going into coaching, it’s a totally different approach to how you are as a player. Doing my badges over the last three or four years is something that I’ve really enjoyed, and working with the Academy doing the 14s and 15s and spending time with them.  It’s totally different coaching them to how you coach the first team and the information and in how you are with them, and all that sort of stuff. It’s really interesting to get into, and I’m looking forward to just trying to develop and seeing how good I can be.

How do you sum up United fans, and the special role they play in making the club unique? 
The fans always amaze us and I can speak on behalf of all the boys, I think. Obviously, Old Trafford is magical on a big night, when the atmosphere and the tension is there, and the anticipation. It’s magical. But a lot of the time, what stands out for me is the away support. Wherever we go, it’s incredible. We’ve had some great nights and we’ve had some bad nights away from home, but the fans have always been with us and they’ve always been there. For me, it’s almost the pride they take in supporting the lads properly. At times it’s easy to turn and get despondent and disappointed, and we’ve given them enough of that over the years for them to be quite angry and upset with us. But they take pride in sticking with us and showing their loyal support, which is something quite special.

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