Until last September Michael Carrick had won more major trophies at club level than he had won caps in competitive internationals. Before Roy Hodgson selected the midfielder in four of six World Cup qualifiers last season, he had made just one competitive international appearance – a 2009 World Cup qualifying defeat to Ukraine, where England return next Tuesday in desperate need of a positive result – in six years, and five in total since his debut in 2001.
At the age of 32, Carrick can look back on a strangely disjointed international career. Most Englishmen at Manchester United need only sneeze with style to earn a call-up, but Carrick has been repeatedly ignored, to such an extent that he has collected five fewer caps than his international team-mate Theo Walcott, who is eight years his junior, and the same number as the 28-year-old Ashley Young. One of his predecessors in United's midfield, Nicky Butt, was nearly three years older than Carrick when he made his England debut, was three years younger than Carrick is now when he made his final appearance, and still won 39 caps, 10 more than Carrick's current total.
In the circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising that Carrick feels his finest days as an international may lie ahead of him. "I haven't given any thought to the World Cup being my last major international tournament," he insists. "You never know what's around the corner. It's the next big opportunity, a massive opportunity, but in terms of it being my last one, I wouldn't say so, no." Retirement, it seems, is a long way off for Carrick: "There's no reason why I'd look to pack up anytime soon."
It is not just Hodgson who has found his recent performances difficult to ignore – last season Carrick was named for the first time in the PFA's Premier League team of the year, while Sir Alex Ferguson acclaimed his "magnificent" displays during his "best-ever season at the club".
"For me personally, I don't think last season was any different to the two or three years before that," he says. "I felt my form was good, it was consistent. I'm not denying that I was happy with the way it went last season but it wasn't like I suddenly jumped from one level to the next.
"I probably did have my best season, but it's hard to judge. It's other people judging you. I didn't go about my business any different. It's how it's panned out. Sometimes there's not an awful lot of difference between things going well and things going not so well. It's a fine line at that level, the little details that count I suppose."
Carrick believes that he has learned over his career to handle acclaim and criticism with equal levels of disinterest. "You have to take a bit of a back seat, or a backward step," he says. "You have to take a balanced view. Otherwise it's a rollercoaster, through a season and a career, ups and downs. The ups you get are so high, it's the best thing in the world, and all of a sudden a few bad games, a few bad results, it can be the worst thing. You have to take the middle ground as a player or you won't be able to perform."