England's impressive performance in the last half an hour against the fading force of the Azzuri on their own turf on Tuesday evening was credited to the injection of two livewires, Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend, both second half substitutes.
The latter provided the net busting strike that leveled the scores, earning England a deserved draw, and a guaranteed headline on the back pages of the tabloids.
According the the skipper, Wayne Rooney, however, the most important contribution came from the other substitute, his Manchester United team mate, Michael Carrick. "The best player on the pitch by a mile," Rooney gushed in an after-match interview of the televised game.
The line was delivered with the same deadpan inflection of understatement and straight faced disposition that Rooney always seems to carry in such discourses. It was nonetheless sincere, and one suspects that he wasn't only talking about England. The fortunes at his own club, of which he also captains, have improved dramatically over the past few games. Games in which Carrick has returned from a short spell on the sidelines due to injury and imposed his timely influence with his precise passing game.
It has certainly opened the doors to a long held debate about a player who divides opinion as surely as England crashing out of a major tournament before the second week is up.
For years we have bemoaned the national team's inability to keep possession of the ball, thus ensuring failure when facing a level of opposition that seems to know exactly how to do just that. It is hard to argue with Rooney's loyal opinion of Carrick on deeper analysis of the match.
Carrick's protection of the back four gave license for the flair players to have a go at the Italian's back three, while his measured probing,forward passes, and quick interchanges provided an intelligence lacking until his arrival into the game.
Spain's midfield maestro, Xavi, long ago expressed his own rather considered opinion on Carrick's worth, saying that if Spanish, Carrick would have earned many more caps than he did being English and under-appreciated. So, why wasn't Michael Carrick an automatic first choice for a succession of England managers? Including Fabio Capello, an Italian obsessed with keeping the ball, and who refused to allow him a second of playing time in South Africa, five years ago. Alex Ferguson, who trusted the player implicitly at Old Trafford, must have made strange reading of it all.
Carrick is in good company, though, in the doubting of worth to the national cause. We have had a real problem with players that don't either run themselves into the ground like a beast of burden, getting stuck in, or running like a headless chicken, chasing opponents with superior technique and know how. One of the most outstanding examples of unappreciated talent was sat in the ITV studios employed as a pundit. Glen Hoddle, a former England player and manager, was constantly derided by fans and press alike as an England player precisely for not covering the turf enough, of not getting stuck in to opponents, or chasing back to help the defence.
Lord preserve us. Why oh why didn't anyone with half the wit of an idiot understand then that he wasn't designed or built for any of that? He was good enough to build a team around. His silky touch, his deft intelligence in finding that certain pass, or making an informed run and creating space for a team mate wasn't considered good enough for England.
They wanted more, and instead got less. Sir Alf Ramsey told Alan Ball to win the ball, and then give it Bobby Charlton, in 1966, and to let him run the game. England won the World Cup that year. What happened in between that piece of wisdom and the following years in the wilderness? One suspects that had Diego Maradona been born an Englishman, he might have struggled to gain a regular England place in the 1980's due his lack of defensive discipline, and a perceived absence of tin hat desperation on the pitch.
Of course attitudes have improved over the past thirty years. The Premier League has been graced by the likes of Cantona, Zola, Bergkamp, Henry, Ronaldo, none of whom ever, "Put in a shift," or strained after an opponent, but whose worth to their teams was immeasurable. So the question must be asked, why has a player like Michael Carrick, appreciated by the most successful ever club manager in England, recognised by the Spanish, and embellished with praise from the England Captain and great hope of the last decade, not been a regular for his country as he had been for Fergie, and now Van Gaal? If attitudes have changed, as indeed they must have, perhaps they are not changing quickly enough.
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