Last of the great survivors
McCarthy savours great escape but Wolves boss will have to prove himself all over again
Published 23/05/2011 | 05:00
It was, perhaps, an afternoon to sum up Mick McCarthy's managerial career. A rollercoaster of emotion, of unpredictable drama. He got knocked down but, somehow, he got back up again.
Even in celebration, a question mark remains. Keeping Wolves in the Premier League was the aim at the start of the season and that mission has been accomplished.
But it was achieved with a large dollop of luck. McCarthy had described the visit of Blackburn as the biggest game in his tenure at the club. To concede three goals in a torrid opening half would indicate a failure in terms of preparation.
Not surprisingly, there was a spirited response after the half-time team talk which no doubt featured some strong words. The two goals that they produced in fightback were keeping the Midlanders up on goal difference until the injury-time winner for Spurs over Birmingham allowed the Molineux crowd to breathe a sigh of relief.
The margin between success and failure is slim. Seconds before Roman Pavlyuchenko's decisive strike, a corner from Birmingham was steered across the penalty area, inches behind the unmarked Liam Ridgewell.
With better timing from the defender, Wolves could have gone down, and McCarthy's men -- who entered the last day in the best position and as the only relegation-threatened side at home -- would have blown it completely.
McCarthy has come under criticism from sections of his own supporters and some will argue that his team should never have been in this situation.
His followers would say that, with relatively limited funds, in the bigger picture, he deserves great credit for keeping this bunch of players in the top flight and inspiring them to unlikely victories over Manchester United and Chelsea.
Overachieving or underachieving? Sounds a bit like Ireland's 2002 World Cup adventure. This week, McCarthy had spoken of his desire to avoid this kind of nailbiting pressure in future.
He was certain that a second successive survival would finally give the club the platform to move to the next level.
"I'm three points away from being able to improve the club," he stressed." "Every year I've been here, we've improved. If we survive, then I won't be looking for that experience again -- I'll be looking for the experience of trying to finish in the top 10 rather than out of the bottom three."
For McCarthy, that is the promised land. He can only look with envy at a manager like Tony Pulis, who has grafted his way to the big time and got a taste of Wembley last weekend. The Stoke boss operates under a different kind of pressure now, at a club that is secure in its standing.
Wolves need to move beyond living on the edge. For McCarthy, that would be uncharted territory. Since he returned to club management, every season has either involved a promotion or a relegation battle. While sections of his own support are unconvinced, he retains the support of the club hierarchy. This week, he received a glowing tribute from chief executive Jez Moxey.
"The whole club is calm -- it's stable," said Moxey. "We understand what faces us -- we face adversity in the same way we face victories -- not getting too excited and not getting too depressed when things don't go our way.
"Mick exemplifies that perfectly and that gives our players the confidence to know we're not like some clubs, where people talk about firing their managers if they haven't done very well. Calm, stable, sensible, sustainable management is what we want.
"Mick exemplifies that extremely well; he's done a great job and creates confidence in the team to keep believing in themselves even though we've been in the bottom three for a lot of the season. We never say die and often come up trumps when we need to."
The process of consolidation will involve difficult decisions. Kevin Doyle, whose absence was central to the erratic form in the final quarter of the season, is on the radar of more established Premier League clubs. Matt Jarvis, who was bought from Gillingham for a snip, and is now in Fabio Capello's plans, will also be courted. With a modest enough budget, Wolves may have to contemplate selling in order to make room for new arrivals. If McCarthy really is the man to bring the club to the next level, he will have to make a statement with his transfer business.
Last summer, he was criticised for spending a large portion of his funds on the £6m purchase of Steven Fletcher, who ended up on the bench for parts of the campaign, although he arguably justified the fee with some important goals in recent weeks.
That was because McCarthy favoured a system with Doyle as the lone frontman in a hybrid 4-5-1. They entered big matches as underdogs and got big results against teams from the top half of the table. Yet, when it came to breaking down those around them, a certain subtlety was lacking. Finding the right balance is the next challenge. It will require ambition to change the mindset that 17th is the pre-season target.
There will be little time for rest over the summer. His situation will always be compared to his old foe, the unemployed Roy Keane, who came to understand McCarthy better when he himself graduated to the dug-out.
Still, you have to wonder what the Corkman would say about yesterday's post-match pictures from the Wolves dressing-room, where champagne corks were popped after a defeat which could have had grave consequences.
It's likely that Keane will be back in football when next season gets under way, but it won't be at the top table. Post-Sunderland and Ipswich, he has cited a bad relationship with figures of authority as reasons for his departure. McCarthy, by contrast, is regarded as the model employee. The 52-year-old plays the political game well, but there is more to his staying power than that.
For him, Survival Sunday is just another weekend. In a way, it's where he is most comfortable.