Sunday 26 March 2017

James Lawton: A good job, not a great job

Mick McCarthy gave himself a pat on the back this week but, with Wolves lying 16th in the Premier League and having lost six of their last eight in all competitions, that’s simply a claim too far ...

James Lawton

James Lawton

Sometimes you have to wonder if the quality of defiance is stretched a little too far -- even dangerously beyond the old advice that, if you want to pick a fight, it is sometimes wise, however grave the provocation, to pick your own ground.

This is especially true in big-time football management and, just now, doubly so if your name happens to be Mick McCarthy.

The Wolves and former Republic Ireland manager has, let's be honest, made something or a career of it: defiance, that is.

He defied, with some interest, those who said he was poorly equipped to succeed Jack Charlton and, when things turned ugly in the Far East nine years ago, he shrugged off the assessment of Roy Keane that he was "a crap player and a crap coach."

Similar charges were made when he suffered a despairing run at Sunderland but, in the Keane-McCarthy hand-to-hand battle, the latter had no reason to bend his head last season when he fought to survival at Wolves, albeit by the finest margin, while his adversary was judged a failure at Ipswich.

On each of these occasions it was not difficult raising a touch of admiration for the man who learned his survival instincts among the hard men of the South Yorkshire coalfields. Yet, when does the cussed streak become not so much a virtue as an invitation to folly?

Maybe, you have to say, when it leads you into open warfare with the football class who tend not to lose -- not in the long run anyway -- the mob who find a weakness and then just gnaw away at every opportunity.

McCarthy may have been revolted -- along with much of the football nation -- when he saw TV close-ups of the demeanour of the section of the Molineux crowd who yelled for his head when Wolves slid 2-0 down at home to Premier League new boys Swansea City. He may also have been right to categorise that behaviour as rather more than borderline idiocy.

But where he went wrong -- and some of his warmest admirers might now worry that it was critically so -- was inviting his persecutors onto a roughly level playing field. However much he scorned them, he also engaged them -- and made certain claims, in blood that was still running hot, that were frankly less than watertight.

His bitter comments have been well aired now but unfortunately one or two of his assertions are unlikely to be swept away on the usual tide of post-game recrimination.

Having claimed that he had given himself a little time to reflect, he then argued: "Let's not give any credit to the mindless idiots that do it, whether it's at me or Karl Henry or Andy Keogh or Stephen Ward.

"Do not give them any credence for getting us playing well or getting a result. I'm taking the credit. I got Jamie O'Hara further up the pitch -- and made the substitutions."

It is a claim that screams out for a little analysis, not while bellowing insults but taking time to measure those boasts which a beleaguered manager can make make without risking further ridicule.

Getting one of his most important players "further up the pitch" and making substitutions when his team is being thoroughly outplayed in front of their own people surely do not make an unanswerable case for inclusion.

A manager deploys his forces, fields his best team, and when he is required to change for reasons other than injury it is a kind of defeat -- one suffered frequently, of course, and sometimes rectified with full credibility and honour retained. But it is not necessarily a point of triumph.

McCarthy's over-reaching didn't stop there, however. He also maintained: "The players are with me and I'm with them. Does anyone think any different? They are great characters who never give up and hopefully I give them a lead. We've got a great spirit among us but I think some of them (fans) turn up hoping they can have their whinge and get a shot at the manager.

"I've done a great job here. Five years ago we had a million quid and 10 players. Now we are building the new stadium, but we are having a tough time."

Tough time is the euphemistic way of putting it. Free-fall is another. No doubt McCarthy has shown an impressive obdurate streak in the Black Country, as he has indeed in all his football assignments, but such a quality always has to be an aspect of the job, not its key.

McCarthy claims he has done a great job at Wolves, which of course he is not quite in a position to say -- not when a promising start unravelled to the point of a sixth straight defeat until the second-half rally which brought a point last weekend.

In such circumstances, McCarthy's claims on his own behalf are all the more hazardous. They invite his supporters as well as his critics to run back through the five years of his regime.

His first two seasons, on slender resources, were highly competitive, the first bringing a championship play-off spot, the second failing to match that achievement by one place and goal difference. Three years ago he won the Championship title. In 2009-10 there was the heady sensation of not just Premier League survival but 15th place -- Wolves best position in English football for 30 years.

So, yes, McCarthy could say that if the job he had done wasn't great, it certainly spoke of impressive progress and, anyway, where has great achievement ever been more a selective matter than in the old vineyard of professional football?

The trouble is that a key component of great managerial achievement is a hint of upward development, a sense that yesterday's horizon is today's reality.

You do not claim a great job, in all seriousness, when you missed relegation on the last day of the previous season on which you lost to apparently doom-laden rivals -- or from the middle of a slump which promises a fresh dimension at the hands of the plutocrat champions-elect Manchester City tomorrow.

There is likely to be no fresh disgrace at Eastlands, only maybe more recognition that McCarthy has always tackled a tough job with commendable spirit.

Such acknowledgment has never been a hardship. The difficult comes when he seeks endorsement for what, honesty insists, is a claim too far.

Irish Independent

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