Rio Ferdinand will always remember his first day at Manchester United and the childlike excitement of pulling on the strip.
"I was thinking to myself: 'These are Man United socks, this is how they feel. This is how the shirt feels, these are their shorts.'" Then he went out for his first training session and, bang, Roy Keane was screaming in his face.
Ferdinand had made the mistake of taking the safe option, playing a nice, easy pass to his nearest team-mate. He remembers Keane "went mental and barked: 'Pass the fucking ball forward.' I looked at him, his face all contorted, and he goes: 'It's fucking easy going sideways, pass it forward.'"
Keane was always good at cutting down to size those he suspected did not fully understand what it meant to play for the club. Dwight Yorke experienced something similar, also in his first training game, when Keane booted the ball at him, deliberately too hard, and the new signing miscontrolled it. "Welcome to United," Keane hissed with that Tommy DeVito stare. "Cantona used to kill them."
For Yorke, the lesson was to understand his new surroundings. For Ferdinand, there was a message about what was expected of players at Old Trafford. "You have to try to affect the game rather than wait for others to do it," is how Ferdinand remembers it. "I learned from Roy that you cannot develop from being a good player to a top player if you play safe all the time. You've got to take chances. At United everyone takes responsibility."
All of which brings us to the player who inherited Keane's No16 shirt and the story of a man who at one point always seemed to want the ball and knew what to do with it, an elegant, graceful footballer who became the team's key distributor and won votes for player-of-the-season awards.
We can only hazard a guess about what Keane would make of Michael Carrick's deterioration over the past 18 months and the way, going into United's FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, the time may be approaching when we are entitled to wonder at what point a long-term slump begins to resemble permanent decline.
Carrick is not the only member of Sir Alex Ferguson's squad to perplex United's supporters but he is, perhaps, the one who provokes the most intense frustration. In the 3-1 defeat at Anfield last Sunday he looked like a confidence player who had lost all sense of what he had to be confident about. Eleven days earlier, in a Champions League tie against a prosaic Marseille, he completed a mere four passes forwards, 17 square and nine backwards. The following week he agreed a new three-year contract and the latest cover of Red Issue fanzine shows him signing the paperwork, alongside the chief executive, David Gill, a target of sustained criticism for different reasons. The caption is a mixture of irony and brutality: "'Capable Hands' Signs Incapable Feet." A speech bubble has them both saying: "I can't believe I'm still getting away with this."
The frustration is because a player of Carrick's gifts – his vision and ability on the ball, with either foot – should be dominating games or at least having a telling impact as the norm rather than the exception. Instead, it is nearly 14 months since Carrick scored and, at an age when he should be reaching the point of maximum expression, his international career now seems to have been faded out. Carrick, who turns 30 in July, did not kick a ball in the World Cup but has still become one of its victims, no longer in the reckoning after a strangely unfulfilled decade of serving his time on the training pitches, idling away the hours on all those long trips away and, for the most part, watching matches from the periphery. Carrick has been involved in 56 squads over 10 years but has a mere 13 starts to show for it, with nine more caps as a substitute and no goals.
For United, the wider issue here perhaps is of a midfield that invites allegations of decline. Paul Scholes is 37 later this year, younger than Ryan Giggs but not so mobile and with a longer history of injury issues. Beyond a powerful shot, Darron Gibson has demonstrated little to show he belongs at this level. Anderson has been too erratic to justify what Porto's official accounts reveal is a €30m (£25.8m) price tag, Darren Fletcher's development has faltered a little this season and, as for Owen Hargreaves, that is a sad story of risk and waste that is not going to have a happy ending. United bought a crock and, for their money, they got a crock.
With Scholes now taking a deeper position, United are missing an advanced central midfielder who can play the killer pass and contribute a decent share of goals. Ferguson does not have a Cesc Fábregas or a Luka Modric or a Rafael van der Vaart. United are the Premier League's top scorers with 63 goals, but only three from central midfield – two via Fletcher, one from Scholes. In his time at the club, Carrick has scored 17 times in 213 appearances. Anderson has two in 121.
Can Carrick still be that man? At times Ferguson has had his own misgivings. It was Carrick's mistake that led to Ivica Olic scoring Bayern Munich's first goal at Old Trafford last April when United were eliminated from the Champions League. Ferguson was furious and Carrick was removed from the team.
Yet Carrick's new contract demonstrates there is support for him within the club. "He has been outstanding since joining us from Tottenham in 2006," Ferguson declared on the press release. "He is a true professional and it is great he has committed his future to the club."
Kind words, and yes, anyone who has followed Carrick's career from West Ham United to Tottenham Hotspur and United should appreciate this is a footballer with rare vision and football intelligence. Alternatively, Carrick is at risk of becoming the safety-first man, a sideways footballer not emboldened enough to impose his personality on a game of football.
The sport is about more than caressing a pass over 12 yards, it is about drive and will and unless Carrick can reinvent himself he is in danger of two things. One is losing the fans' trust when it comes to assembling a new-look midfield for when the lights go out on Scholes and Giggs. The other is that he continues to drift to the edges in the years when his output should be at its greatest. You know the one: ticks along, gets five or six in the match ratings; the guy who would have brought Keane close to spontaneous combustion.
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