'Boy Wonder' James McCarthy still striving to realise great expectations
Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30
It's safe to say that the evolution of James McCarthy was never supposed to reach a point where he was filling in at centre-half for a team getting humiliated at Anfield. Wednesday's Merseyside derby truly was a night to forget.
However, his first experience with Liverpool was actually a positive one. It came during his teenage years when every door seemed open to him.
McCarthy played in a trial game where he scored with a stunning strike from distance. His propensity for getting on the scoresheet was a factor in his burgeoning reputation at the time. Loose comparisons were even drawn with Steven Gerrard.
The decision to turn Liverpool down was taken in conjunction with his close family and advisors that have carefully plotted a path since his talent became apparent.
They took the pragmatic approach to move step by step up the ladder and, with over 200 top flight appearances under his belt at 25, that strategy has been vindicated. Countless 'boy wonders' have fallen by the wayside without reaching a 10th of that figure.
There is a sense, however, that the Glaswegian is nearing a crossroads where he has to seriously think about taking a leap into the unknown.
Last year, Jamie Carragher, a member of the Liverpool squad that McCarthy trained with during Rafa Benitez's tenure, said that the Ireland international was the one player in blue he would like to see lured across the city.
Everton's miserable campaign, which can be only be salvaged with victory in this evening's FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, has calmed the transfer speculation. As he approaches his prime, his next major career decisions are of immediate importance.
From the moment he was thrown in for a first-team debut at the age of 15, it became clear that the red haired midfielder from Castlemilk, an Irish area in southern Glasgow, was no ordinary footballer.
It was September 2006 and a Scottish First Division meeting of Hamilton and Queen of the South. Hamilton had a good reputation for producing youngsters, but it was still an eye-opening education for a schoolboy pitched in against hardened pros.
By the end of the season, McCarthy was a regular - his school let him leave on 'extended work experience' - and already accustomed to media attention, primarily because of his choice to follow the wishes of his late grandfather Paddy Coyle and declare for Ireland.
Bigger clubs were circling with Celtic, the club his family supported, wondering how they'd managed to let him go a couple of years previously.
This was one of the topics covered when this reporter visited his family home where his parents Willie and Marie accommodated guests who wanted to speak to the youngest of their four children. He was shy, but self-assured.
"I was upset about Celtic at the time but I just get on with it now," he shrugged.
That attitude was his stock answer for dealing with fuss, particularly the Irish declaration which exposed him to terrace taunts.
"It's always the same when you get an interview here in Scotland," he sighed. "It's at the stage now where I just say 'we'll see what happens' to put them off and get them off my back."
Sean McCaffrey, then manager of the Irish U-17 side, played the leading part in his recruitment. In January 2007, McCarthy reported for duty in Dublin for the first time. Italy were the opposition and the existing squad were unsure what to expect from a highly touted newcomer. Galway United midfielder Eric Foley, then of Celtic, was his room-mate.
"You're expecting this big headed young fella that loved himself because he was in the news," Foley recalled. "Instead, he was so down to earth. Despite all that attention, he was the nicest young fella you'd ever meet."
On the pitch, he had to endure a frustrating introduction.
"I remember after our first training session, he was giving out because nobody would pass him the ball," said Foley. "I was telling him not to worry, that maybe people were trying to get to know him. And maybe some people were jealous, you'd never know.
"The next day, he knew he had to demand the ball. But he was miles ahead of us. You could tell with the way he carried himself on the pitch, with his positioning. He mightn't have come in behaving like the big dog, but you could see when he was on the ball just how far ahead he was of us even at that age - he'd already played in first teams and been training with them for most of his career.
"We'd wondered about him but you knew then that it wasn't hype."
The lesson of this anecdote could easily be applied to his overall international career.
Players who have worked with him on the training pitch recognise his ability, but the absence of a naturally forceful personality has created doubts.
Critics argue that he still doesn't demand the ball enough with John Giles leading the chorus. Giovanni Trapattoni was unconvinced because of what he perceived to be a timid nature.
At club level, he hasn't quite faced the same scrutiny because of his consistency over a long period.
Roberto Martinez brought McCarthy to Wigan and has naturally been a big influence in his development.
In the confusion that surrounded his international intentions, McCarthy's close knit family trusted the Spaniard.
The player didn't enjoy a strong rapport with Trapattoni and he didn't know the established members of the Ireland dressing room.
Unlike a young Robbie Keane who swaggered in from day one, he was always going to be a slow burner.
McCarthy now has good friends in the current group, particularly Seamus Coleman, James McClean and David Meyler. His aversion to the limelight has made him guarded with the press, mindful of giving too much away. He can always be relied upon to 'take each game at a time.'
Homesickness was an obstacle to moving away early in his career and his loyalty to his nearest and dearest was evident when he skipped Euro 2012 to be with his father when he was diagnosed with cancer.
When he followed Martinez to Everton and secured a life-changing £13m transfer, he bought his parents a six-bedroom mansion in an exclusive area of Glasgow.
With Martinez in the dug-out, he is an automatic pick at Everton - a safe pair of hands with a brief that calls on his defensive awareness. He covers a huge amount of ground and the toughness that allowed him to thrive as a boy against men at Hamilton is an under-rated part of the package; he is no shrinking violet.
Goals, however, are not a major part of his repertoire; his combined total from Everton and Wigan (12) is still short of his teenage Hamilton tally (15). He is yet to get off the mark in Ireland colours.
Carragher marked it out as a flaw, observing in detailed analysis last year that McCarthy had the raw materials to be a complete player and should be encouraged to be more adventurous.
"He spends half his time at right-back when I watch Everton," he said.
It feeds the suspicion that there's more in the locker and it's tempting to ask how he would progress under the regular tutelage of a different boss.
The glass half-full take on his disappointing season is that he has suffered by diligently accepting a role as a cog in a faltering wheel.
When he was 16, he confessed to occasionally lying awake in bed at night thinking about his future. He may need to engage in a fresh bout of soul searching to ensure he draws the maximum from the next decade in the game.