Big guns circling for wanted man McCarthy
Chelsea and Arsenal are both considering a summer move for Wigan's Ireland midfielder James McCarthy.
The 22-year-old is currently trying to direct yet another escape from relegation for the Latics, in which victory tonight against Swansea would be crucial.
His bravery, skill and vision in three consecutive relegation battles has been noticed, and some of the biggest sides in the Premier League are interested in him. Whether Wigan survive or finally drop, there is certain to be a fight for his signature this summer.
McCarthy, yet again one of Wigan's most impressive and consistent performers this season, is thought to be open to the possibility of a summer move for the sake of his career, but not necessarily desperate to leave yet.
Should Wigan go down, though, it is implausible that he should play Championship football next season.
There are few midfields in the country that would not be improved by the Glasgow-born Ireland international. In an age of specialists he is a genuine all-rounder, who would add authority where it is lacking at Stamford Bridge and bite where it is missed at the Emirates. He may even prefer a less high-profile club, in the interests of playing more games, as he did in choosing to sign for Wigan in 2009.
But there is a sense that after four years at the DW Stadium, now might be the time to take the next step and move up, especially given the climactic finish Wigan have this season, with their crucial game tonight, their FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday and then league games against Arsenal and Aston Villa left to save themselves.
Those who know McCarthy will feel this too. Billy Reid, who gave McCarthy his Hamilton Academical debut at the age of just 15, said McCarthy can go on to a team at the opposite end of the table.
"I still don't think he's realised his potential yet," Reid said. "I think he can go and play for one of the top teams in England."
Ray Houghton, an old friend of McCarthy's family, also from the Castlemilk district of Glasgow, agrees. "He's at a good age now," he said. "He's probably at a stage now where he might need to move on to improve."
What has really impressed is just how much McCarthy has improved already. He has grown, under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, into a remarkably complete midfielder. Martinez insists on a very high technical and tactical level from his players, but McCarthy has the brain as well as the touch required to run their midfield.
He is beautifully balanced, able to pass incisively with either foot and seemingly able to see through the holes of his ears. He is also a ferocious worker, able to call every part of the pitch his own, and a great tracker and marker, as he showed against Gareth Bale last week.
That talent has never been in doubt. It is the growth of McCarthy's confidence and assurance that has made the difference. "James has good qualities," Giovanni Trapattoni memorably said earlier this season, "but I have told him, 'I will punch you if you don't stop being shy.'"
It has been a long journey for McCarthy already. He had brief unsuccessful spells as a boy at Celtic and Livingston but was back playing boys' club football at 14 before Hamilton's scouts first saw him.
"When I saw him for the first time I couldn't believe it," Reid, then Hamilton manager, remembered. "He just had everything: he had balance, two-footed, he could cover the ground, he was a winner. I asked to speak to his mother and father straight away, we asked to get him off school and get him into training, and the rest is history."
Reid gave McCarthy his Hamilton debut at 15, against Queen of the South in the Scottish First Division. In his second season Hamilton won the title and were promoted, and in his next, in the Scottish Premier League, he won Young Player of the Year.
"He never missed a minute for me," Reid said. "He played every game. I used think about moving him about but you couldn't leave him out of the team, all the way through from 15. He was so good at that level. He was just a model of consistency."
Those performances were soon noticed by big clubs in Scotland and England. But a teenage McCarthy rejected moves to Celtic, Liverpool and Reading to continue his development at Hamilton. Eventually he moved, in 2009, to Wigan, in Martinez's first summer in charge. Martinez's assistant, Graeme Jones, used to work at Hamilton.
The move to Wigan was difficult at first, and the 18-year-old McCarthy struggled on his debut, in a 4-1 Carling Cup defeat at Blackpool.
Given a few months out of the team to develop, Martinez brought him back in January 2010 and he has played fairly consistently ever since, taking on more and more responsibility to the point now where few midfielders in the country carry as much on their shoulders as McCarthy.
Liverpool have tried to sign him from Wigan in the past, but he stayed, though scouts are routinely looking at the quiet young man in the middle of midfield. He has other immediate concerns, but the attention will not go. (© Independent News Service)