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Captain Michael Carrick quietly outlasts peers at Manchester United

Former Manchester United defender Phil Neville says Michael Carrick has all the tools to succeed as captain.
Former Manchester United defender Phil Neville says Michael Carrick has all the tools to succeed as captain.
Former Manchester United defender Phil Neville says Michael Carrick has all the tools to succeed as captain.

And there was one. When Wayne Rooney decamped to Everton, ready to see if he can get a staff discount on pajamas in the club shop, Michael Carrick was left alone. Rooney's replacement as Manchester United captain is now the sole survivor of their 2008 Champions League win, the last remaining hero of Moscow.

He is the throwback to the golden days. Perhaps a man who keeps the ball with a craftsman's precision is now the keeper of the flame. An often unassuming figure could be conferred with the position of role model, the example that the "Theatre of Dreams" is not merely a slogan, but a place where ambitions can be realised. 

There are a couple of pictures from the pivotal moment in Moscow, when Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka's penalty in the shootout and his teammates, who had been lined up in the centre circle, sprinted toward the goalkeeper. Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson were quickest off the mark, Patrice Evra starting to rival them in a race. Carrick is in the rear, partly camouflaged by others. He was slower off the mark but he has lasted the distance. 

Viewed nine years on, it feels fitting. Recognition has been delayed. There were so many senior figures that, until the past three years, Carrick could blend into the background. Others were not just the faces of United, but the symbols of loyalty and longevity. Now that mantle has passed to him.

Now he seems an anachronism, a man who arrived the summer Ruud van Nistelrooy left and is now the only footballer remaining who can testify what it was like to line up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese and Carlos Tevez were the first to depart, going in 2009; 2014 brought the greatest exodus of the conquerors of Europe as Nemanja Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra took their leave and Ryan Giggs ended his playing career. Since 2015, it has been just Rooney and Carrick.

It is worth noting that six of the 14 men who took the field for United in Moscow are younger than Carrick, but he has sustained standards in a way that means only he and Ronaldo have never left the ranks of the elite clubs in the intervening period. Carrick is four years older than Rooney but acquitted himself better under Jose Mourinho.  

Rooney has been reinvented and has tried to rebrand himself. He has been striker and midfielder, winger and No. 10, but Carrick has remained broadly similar. He has stayed an upright figure at the base of the midfield, picking passes with quiet expertise, a timeless, tattoo-less figure; even his hairstyle has stayed the same. He has been a constant in a changing world. He has been there when United were Europe's most formidable side and when they were only England's seventh best. He has lived through the age of austerity into the era of outlandish spending. He was an integral part of Sir Alex Ferguson's side and has adapted to a phase where he has had to prove himself to a series of new managers.

Following Wayne Rooney's exit, Michael Carrick is the sole survivor from Manchester United's 2008 triumph in Moscow.

He remained through the strange stasis when Ferguson refused to buy senior central midfielders and retained his influence as the Scot's successors signed a series of them. He saw off the challenge of the more athletic Morgan Schneiderlin. He outlasted Bastian Schweinsteiger, a younger man with a greater CV and more talent, who might have pensioned him off. Another holding midfielder -- perhaps Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier or someone else -- is set to be signed this summer, again charged with being Carrick's long-term replacement.

This time, perhaps, they may succeed. Carrick turns 37 next summer. Even one whose game relies so little on speed and so much on technique and understanding may struggle to secure another deal. His recent contract renewals have been delayed until summer.

Yet his staying power is remarkable. He seems part of the scenery but the former United manager Ron Atkinson wrote in his recent book "The Manager": "Fergie was a hair's breadth from getting rid of him when he allowed Barcelona to run wild in the 2009 Champions League final."

Eight years on, it underlines what a feat it is to survive in a ruthless environment. Carrick is beginning his 12th season in the first-team squad of a super club. Some manage it after coming through the youth system, but rather fewer when developed elsewhere. It places him alongside former teammates like Rooney and Ferdinand, predecessors including Roy Keane and Bryan Robson, and a select few counterparts elsewhere, such as Alessandro Del Piero and Frank Lampard, in a select company.   

At Old Trafford, Carrick is the link with the past and, in some ways, a figure from it. He is the more understated antidote to exuberant characters like Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku. He belonged to a time when there were fewer flamboyant figures; that, seemingly, was how Ferguson preferred it. But while he has spanned generations, he is a strolling reminder that the glory days will soon be distanced. The last Champions League winner serves as a reminder that the new United need to make the same sort of history. If not, the sight of Carrick will make them more nostalgic for the triumph of 2008.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.

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