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Why go to a tropical paradise and hunch in a gym watching TV? Well, it makes losing easier

In Grenada, I could wipe the Spurs result from my mind. 

Last Saturday morning I got up at six thirty and headed straight into the Caribbean for a long swim, watching the sea and the sky and the palm trees waking up. Then I had breakfast on the beach. The Calabash hotel in Grenada, where I was staying, does breakfast and lunch, tables and chairs and table cloths, set up on the sand.

But all the time I was thinking, would it work? Would my cunning plan come to fruition?

Just before 8.30am local time – 12.30pm in the UK – I rushed across the lush lawns to the hotel gym. But I couldn’t get in. The door I tried was locked. Oh no! After all my scheming.

The night before, I had caused maximum fuss by asking at the reception if there was any way I could watch the Arsenal–Spurs game. I knew there was no satellite connection in the rooms, but surely someone could access it in this most luxurious and efficient of Caribbean hotels.

The owner’s daughter Adele had said she would do her best, but I wasn’t sure she would manage. Signals do not always come through.

It was sad – pathetic – to have gone all that way to a tropical paradise and to want to go inside and crouch in front of a TV. My wife used to moan like hell when I did it on holiday. For the past eight World Cups we were always up in Lakeland. For three weeks I would sit in my little den glued to every game – ignoring the lovely scenery and, yes, the lovely weather. “How can you bear to be inside on a day like this? I’m turning it off.”

“Don’t you dare,” I would say, shushing her out.

I found the right door into the gym just a minute before kick off, and there was the owner of the hotel, Leo Garbutt, waiting for me.

Leo comes originally from Norwich, has been in Grenada for 30 years, and is a Liverpool fan. When someone anywhere in the world tells you they follow Liverpool or Man United yet have no connection with either place, you can always tell their age. Liverpool fans must have grown up in the Seventies and Eighties when the club was at its height. Man United fans are younger, becoming devoted in the Nineties when Fergie was in charge.

Leo said he didn’t care who won, he just wanted a good game. In that case, I said, don’t talk, unless it is directly about what we are watching. That is my house rule when I am with my son. OK, it was Leo’s house not mine – but being a good hotelier, willing to please his guests, he went along with my rule.

Then my attention was distracted by a young woman in very short shorts and a T- shirt who suddenly appeared and stepped onto one of those stupid treadmill things. I don’t know why people who want exercise can’t just walk in the open air instead of getting astride a piece of spaceship apparatus and pounding away, getting nowhere. The hum of the treadmill and the sound of her feet was perfectly in tune with my own heartbeat. Except when Arsenal went two goals up and my heart began beating faster in fury.

At half time, my other house rule is never to watch the studio guests and their boring views. I have enough of my own. So I left the gym. At home, I usually go into my garden and talk to the tortoise, a much better class of conversation than Alan Shearer telling us what we can all see.

I had forgotten I was still in the Caribbean. Outside, I had to shield my eyes, shelter from the glaring sun, after the air conditioning of the gym. I ran into the sea and had another swim.

In the second half, Spurs still did not get into the game – not that Arsenal were much better, but they won 2-0. All that fuss, just to make myself miserable.

But when it was over, and I dragged myself out into the real world, the real world was a tropical paradise. In London, walking round the block after that game, there would have been clever-clog neighbours asking sarkily: “How did Tot-ing-ham get on then?” In Grenada, I could wipe the result from my mind. Well worth going all that way. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.