When NearPostFlick was young, and hadn’t heard of entropy, the heat death of the universe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Samantha Brick, we had the good fortune of playing in a Dorset-based Under-16s side which toured the country, knocking off wildly exuberant high-scoring wins against crack school outfits from across the land. As was the fashion for extravagantly gifted sides of the period, we were likened to the Sheffield United of Jan-Aage Fjortoft; however we now see, with the benefit of experience, that we were more evocative of Hugo Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam, with the easy nervelessness of a collective not labouring under the shadow of war, but who really wanted to get home in time for The Crystal Maze.
One frost-blighted morning we filed onto the team minibus, with its bursting upholstered seats and dusty floor, our breath misting about us as we discussed, through chattering teeth, the day’s opponents. We were on our way to play the renowned Wallsend Boys’ Club, the historic proving ground of the North East’s finest young footballers. As we sped north, we ran over our approach to the game once more with our coach, Mr Barton. I relished my role as the team’s Paul Rogers (with hindsight, of course, its Josef Smistik). In front of me, our Alan Cork/Matthias Sindelar – my friend, and favoured through-ball recipient Simon Calverston, a forward who had it all and – rumour had it – was being trailed by a slew of agents. He was a decent sort, though he didn’t really like The Crystal Maze and wondered why you never saw Richard O’Brien’s ‘Mumsy’.
We arrived a little late and there was barely a moment for a kick-in, let alone a full warm-up. The pitch was frozen solid and the local parents huddled around the touchline made us feel like we were being hemmed in for execution in a stadium at some dictator’s whim. As usual, we lined up in our asymmetric 4-3-3 with Simon at its apex, and I drifted out to the left channel looking for space and time. After a few minutes it was obvious we were out of our depth; the Wallsend boys had far superior technique and fitness, and would execute complex interchanges around us as we gasped in breathless admiration. Aftera quarter of an hour they were three ahead.
Our chief tormentor was a tall, elegant centre-forward whose relationship with the ball seemed almost symbiotic. He would draw it down from the air, bewitching it on his instep as a snake-charmer coaxes a python from its basket. And in a flash he would be gone – a pale ghost leaving vacuum in his wake, nimbly gliding beyond the desperately outstretched boots of mortals and impelling the ball into the net almost as a casual afterthought.
His name was Michael Carrick.
Of course, in those days he played up front to exploit his height – it would take visionary coaching to deploy his range of passing in a deep-lying playmaker role as he embarked on his professional career. That phase of his life was still to come – at this point he was a proto-van Basten and he was destroying us.
Then, from nowhere – perhaps after half an hour, though details blur in the retelling – we’d scrambled a goal. Our full-back, Dave Chisholm, flighted a speculative ball over the Wallsend back four. Necks craned to follow its trajectory as a freezing northern gust gathered the ball in its arms and carried it over the head of the startled keeper. We had our consolation goal.
But then a strange thing happened. The Wallsend boys seemed demoralised. We began to enjoy some possession, working small, tentative triangles in midfield unchallenged. When Simon attempted a speculative shot from eighteen yards which arced into the top left corner, their heads fell and our tails were up. Like a hyena happening across a stricken lion, we scented blood and saw our chance.
Then, disaster struck. A Wallsend player slipped, waif-like, past me as a short free-kick ran into his path in the box. As I stretched out a toe I knew it was the wrong decision. A catastrophic decision. Our momentum stopped in its tracks; the lion roused for one last mighty sweep of its paw. Carrick stepped up to take the penalty and – if I recall correctly – complete a first-half hat-trick.
He smashed it over the bar.
Wallsend went to pieces. Carrick just didn’t want the ball any more and his team-mates – robbed of their totem, their bandiera, their Churchill – lost direction, like that bit where the Borg Queen dies in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’. A good pass was rolled into Carrick’s path. He didn’t chase it; he made to point plaintively at his feet, then looked bashfully at the floor. The best player on the pitch trotted about peripherally as we completed the most stunning comeback of our young lives, winning 6-4. We even conceded another penalty in injury time; Carrick passed it up and let his strike partner take it. Condensation streaked the windows of the minibus on our way home as we celebrated in near-disbelief. Those players were so superior to us it was embarrassing. But they didn’t have the character to make it count.
Now, that story about Michael Carrick isn’t true.
But I think what it tells us about him, is.
(Simon Calverston went on to appear as a contestant on the last series of ‘The Crystal Maze’ and preferred Ed Tudor-Pole.)