It started, starts, with a photo that was sent from Cagliari at Italia '90. Mick McCarthy and Chris Morris are sitting on a shaded terrace of the team hotel with their feet up and two books. Morris is reading a Sidney Sheldon novel; McCarthy is reading a just-published book about professional cycling called Rough Ride.
The magic is the caption written by McCarthy:
Paul, I really enjoyed your book, it was a great read. Makes life as a professional footballer seem easy. By the way - who's Sidney Sheldon?
Thirty years later, he still makes me laugh.
It was the thing you noticed most at the Ireland training camp last week, watching from the sideline of The Campus at Quinta do Lago. The laughter. The unity. The way McCarthy works his wand. The subtle handshakes. The quiet words. The rip-roaring piss-takes. He has a remarkable ability to connect with people and get the best from them.
It's called the Tao of Mick.
I tried to explain it to my boss during the week. "You know," I said, "I've spent more time talking to Mick McCarthy than any other sportsman."
"Not Harrington," he replied.
"No, it's definitely Mick. I'd like to write about it. I've got the theme: the Tao of Mick."
"What do mean by Tao?"
"Well it's . . . No, it's . . . I guess it's…Ummm . . . Yeah it's . . ."
The month is June 2001. We're sitting in a lobby of the Olympia Hotel in Talinn on the morning after a 2-0 defeat of Estonia - a World Cup qualifier - and a sharp-suited Englishman with a briefcase has just appeared on his shoulder. "Hi, how are you," the man announces, in a ripe plummy tone. "Fine, thank you," McCarthy replies, in his flat Barnsley brogue.
A pause ensues. McCarthy is confused. He does not recognise the gentleman and is sure they haven't met.
"Are you over for the meeting this afternoon?" the man inquires. "The conference on the structural funds?"
"No, no," McCarthy says.
"Oh, I'm sorry . . . Why do I recognise you, then?"
"I have no idea. Mick McCarthy is my name. I'm manager of the Irish team."
"Oh yes, of course, sorry, it's just . . . I'm meeting someone that looks a bit like you this afternoon."
"Well it's definitely not me mate. I've had all the meetings I want for one week."
The man raises an arm and begins to retreat. "I'm sorry," he says. "I can see you're being interviewed. Congratulations on the win last night."
McCarthy waits until he's out of range and shakes his head. "Isn't that strange?" he says. "A man walks into the lobby and sees two others dressed in suits. He doesn't know you but he recognises me, and because he recognises me, he puts two-and-two together and comes up with 68!"
Strange? Not at all, it was the story of McCarthy's life - people had been adding him up and getting him wrong for years.
Mick McCarthy was also on that team. Mick didn't have Brady's class and wasn't a superstar like Stapleton, but there was a steel about him I didn't always appreciate although I often admired it. Three months earlier, he'd played against the Swiss in Dublin and as we left the hotel for the game, he warned me about their big centre half.
"Watch Egli," he said. "He hits off the ball, dirty bastard. We had a right old battle in Dublin."
"He can't do that," I gulped. "He'll get sent off."
"Naah, crafty buggah has it down to a fine art. Don't let him push you around.
We arrived at the stadium and sure enough, during the warm-up, I noticed this huge hairy bear of a man staring at me. He reminded me of Brutus from Popeye. Mick noticed him too and ran across. "That's 'im!" he thundered, pointing his finger. "That's the fucker there!"
The month is February 1990. It's our first time to meet and we're sitting in his home in the suburbs of Lyon, eight months after his move from Celtic to Olympique Lyonnais. His wife, Fiona, has shipped all of their furniture from Glasgow. Their daughters, Anna (6) and Katie (5) are attending a local school. They've had a cupboard of baked beans and spaghetti hoops shipped from England. He is struggling with a knee injury and playing in the reserves.
The transition has not been easy. He was instructed to play as a libero at first - a floating back with responsibility to liaise between defence and attack - but that's not how he made his name. He's Mick McCarthy not Patrick Battiston but it was ages before the Lyon management allowed him to play his normal game.
In his tenth game against Cannes he marked the French international, Yannick Stopyra. "The first thing he did was stick his elbow in my face," he says. "Boff! Off the ball! No reason whatsoever for it. I thought, 'Okay, if that's the way you want it,' and started hitting him back. After a while he got the message and stopped the hard stuff . . ."
He pauses for a moment and fixes me with a grin.
"But I didn't."
We jump into his car and drive to the local 'Darty'. He bought a CD player from them last week and the bloody thing has been skipping. A security man on the door recognises him immediately. "Ohhh! Ces't Meek Mac-kar-tee! Comment ca va, Mick? Le genou? Toujours blesse?" (How's it going, Mick? Is your knee still injured?)
"Ca va mieux (a bit better)," he replies.
"Bien," the man continues. "I was at the game when you were sent off against Montpellier - you didn't deserve the second yellow card. I was at the game last Sunday too. We really miss you at the back."
McCarthy nods in appreciation but is laughing as we enter the store. "The lads played really well last Sunday," he says. "In fact, they needed me at the back like they needed a fucking toothache!"
It's the money shot. The clincher. The moment I'm sold.
Mick McCarthy is my kind of guy.
When his playing days end, Mick wants to manage. About him there is something which suggests he could manage well. Maybe it's a straightness, a refusal to be dishonest with himself or others. Recently, he wrote a letter to a football supporter in Glasgow which reflected McCarthy's desire for people to get things right.
His letter was, in fact, a reply to a letter from Scotland. In the original letter the Celtic supporter had complimented Mick for two magnificent years at Parkhead and criticised the club for selling him to Lyon. That was unfair, thought Mick. So he wrote to the man, thanking him for his kindness but saying that it was wrong to blame Celtic:
"I told the man that it was my decision, not Celtic's, to take up Lyon's offer. I explained that I felt it was in my family's interests, from every point of view, and that he should not think badly of Celtic."
It is easy to see what successive managers have seen and liked in McCarthy.
The month is September, 1995. Almost four years have passed since he became a manager at Millwall and they're top of the league (Championship) and pushing for a win against Luton at the Den. It's nil-nil in the 88th minute and the crowd are getting restless. Luton have hit them on the break and almost scored.
McCarthy watches from the bench with his stomach in a knot. Some fans are screaming abuse at him from the terraces. He's thinking: 'Blow the fucking whistle ref. I'll take the draw,' but his team have seized the initiative again and Chris Malkin has a chance.
McCarthy watches, breathless, and ponders dropping to his knees:
'Please God let him score!'
'I'll go to church every week.'
God is listening. Malkin scores. The Den erupts.
'There's only one Mick McCarthy!'
The game ends. He rises from the bench, totally drained, shares some thoughts with the press and slips upstairs to a lounge where the directors are delighted. He is not delighted. He can see beyond the result. His team have not performed. They could not break Luton down.
He's in the car now, lost in thought, driving home to Orpington with Fiona. They've reached the Esso garage in Lewisham and the folly of his chosen path has been gnawing at him since they left the ground.
"Do you know what really does my head in?" he says.
"What?" she asks.
"The way our whole quality of life depends on that poxy leather spherical thing going in the back of the net. That can't be right, can it? That can't be natural."
"You should just be glad you've won," she replies.
Five months later, he had a new job.
It was late on Wednesday evening when Mick McCarthy got the call. Five or six hours had passed since the second 'interview'. He had jumped into his car, driven directly to Southampton to watch their reserves play QPR and was on his way back up the M3 when Louis Kilcoyne phoned: Would he accept the position as manager of the Republic of Ireland? Delighted but a little stunned, he was unsure how to reply.
The selection, after all, had been a long and tedious process. Seven weeks had passed since the defeat to Holland at Anfield. Seven weeks of rumour and speculation, of conflicting headlines and fluctuating odds and almost hourly inquiry from journalists and friends: 'Did you hear anything? Have you had any word?'
It was over now. The job was his if he wanted it - and he wanted it - but a couple of lines in the small print had left him with reservations. The first was a cut in salary, and the question of who would assist him hadn't yet been sorted out. Reason enough to turn it down? Perhaps not. But reason enough to want to think about it.
Thursday was spent in conclave with Fiona and closest friends. He tried to step back. Tried to think logically. Ten years ago, when Jack Charlton had picked up the baton, it had not stressed his fingers. He had inherited a bad team with good players, but those players were aging now and the stakes were higher for Mick.
A hero from his playing days, he had a lot to lose if he failed, and the thought weighed heavily on him, but by Friday he had made up his mind. He phoned Kilcoyne, booked a Sunday evening flight to Dublin, and thought of a man in Barnsley who should be the first to know. Born and reared in Tallow, Co Waterford, Charlie McCarthy had been wondering if his second-eldest would call.
"Any news," he asked, when Mick came on the phone.
"Yes," his son replied. "You're talking to the new manager of the Republic of Ireland."
The month is August 1996. Two of our most experienced players are chewing the fat in a hotel bedroom on the eve of McCarthy's first competitive game - a World Cup qualifier away to Liechtenstein.
"So, what do you think then?"
"Of Mick? Well, at least we're playing football. I thought he'd have us lumping it forward like Jack. I thought it would be a lot more direct."
"Yeah, but what about the results? How many games (friendlies) have we lost?"
"And he's what . . . five months in the job?"
"Not easy is it?"
"No, but it was never going to be. What age is he? Thirty-seven? And how does anyone follow an act like Jack?"
"I can't believe I'm still here to be honest."
"No, me neither. Bryan Adams concerts! Travelling everywhere as a group! Eleven o'clock curfews on Sunday evenings! For fuck sake we used to be only driving into town at that time in the old days. It was a lot more fun under Jack."
"No, I don't mean that."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't believe he keeps calling me into the squads. As soon as he got the job I was sure 'that's me gone'."
"Naah, he needs all the old boys on board, doesn't he? Look at the ages of some of these kids! What's Hartey? Nineteen? And Shay Given and Keith O'Neill can't be that much older. He's not going to win much with a team of kids. You've got to get the blend right. It has to be a gradual transition."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"I do think he's going to struggle with Roy though."
"In what way?"
"Well, do you remember that row they had in '92? I thought Mick was going to chin him. And look at how it's started: Mick makes him captain for his first game in charge and not only is Roy sent off but he then goes AWOL for the US Cup!"
"Yeah, but what's new? Jack struggled with Roy; Alex Ferguson struggles with Roy. Even Roy struggles with Roy!"
"Yeah, true enough."
"I tell you what has surprised me - the training and how well organised it is. I didn't ever see Mick as a coach."
"Fuck me, you can say that again. What about all these cones?"
"The pitch this afternoon was like the M25."
"There was none of that with Jack."
"No, you're wrong, there was two at each end to make the goals."
"Have you heard the latest innovation?"
"He's showing us a video tomorrow."
"What? A Liechtenstein game! No thanks, I was here last year."
"No, an instructional video on how to sing the anthem."
"I'm not. He wants us to act more patriotic. He wants us to show more respect for the shirt. He wants us to learn the words of the national anthem."
"What? In Irish!"
"Naah! Are you sure?"
It started with Fiona, two days before his debut for Ireland in the summer of 1982. She had relatives living in Portmarnock, it was his first time to visit and they spent the evening in a pub. He can still see them now, gazing in wonder through the smoke-filled haze from a seat in the corner: the guzzling, the laughing, the singing and then, at the end of the night, the strangest part of all.
Everybody standing bolt upright for the singing of the national anthem!
He had never seen that before. No one ever stood up for the national anthem in England. And just as curious as the act itself was the song and the sound of the words:
Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall ag éirinn.
Buíon dár slua . . .
What exactly did it mean?
For the next 15 years, the question was to haunt him. He remembers the summer of 1990, leading the team out onto the pitch in Cagliari to play England at the World Cup finals. He remembers the lump in his throat and the tear in his eye; bursting with pride that Jack had awarded him the captain's armband. Bursting with pride for his team-mates and the shirts on their backs.
Bursting with pride for Charlie, his Co. Waterford-born father. Bursting with pride for Fiona and their three children at home. Bursting with pride for the fans who had travelled and the people of Ireland. Bursting with pride. And then they turned to face the flag for the playing of the national anthem and he found himself frustrated again. He was bursting with pride but unable to express it.
Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall ag éirinn.
People wrote letters to him regularly disgusted that the Irish captain, and most of the Irish team, spoke like 'Brits' and couldn't sing the national anthem. It used to drive him absolutely mad. 'Nobody has ever given more than I give playing for Ireland. A few poxy words won't make me play any better. I regard myself as a full-blooded Irishman but I was born in bloody Barnsley, and I'm sorry if people take offence but there's nothing I can do to change it.'
But he knew, deep down, there was.
In the summer of '96, shortly after he took over as manager, another letter arrived from a 'Liam O'Sullivan.' McCarthy opened it, saw the words 'national anthem' and thought at first it was from another crank. But there was something different about it: the stamp on the envelope, the address inside. Liam O'Sullivan, born in England and living in Coventry, was offering to teach him 'Amhrán na bhFiann'.
Curious, McCarthy decided to give him a call.
"Look, I can teach you," O'Sullivan assured him, in a thick English accent. "Believe me, it's not as hard as it seems."
A few days later, a video arrived in the post: 'Teach Yourself To Sing As Gaeilge: A Cowboy Production for Chancers Video.' McCarthy shook his head in disbelief: 'Oh God, what have I done?'
He slipped the tape into his recorder. Suddenly, the amazing Liam O'Sullivan was grinning at him from the screen with a bunch of cards in his hands. Each card was a line from the anthem and the key to learning it off was to ignore how the words actually looked and to sing them phonetically.
"Take the opening two lines: Sinne Fianna Fáil, atá faoi gheall ag éirinn."
O'Sullivan announced. "Try saying that with your gob and you've got not chance. So forget everything you've read and try this instead.
"SHEENA FEE-NA FALL,
A-TAW FAY GALL EGG AIR-IN
BWEEN DAR SLOO . . .
McCarthy got it. And by the time he had reached the last two lines he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He would do it. He would learn the sounds of these words. But then came the twist. "Now Mick, I'm sorry but you'll have to excuse me," his instructor announced. "I haven't a clue about the last two lines because you know what always happens then, don't you? The band plays on and the crowd always shout, 'Come on fucking Ireland.' But I'll find out and let you know."
Summer rolled on to August. McCarthy brought the video to Liechtenstein and showed it to the players on the eve of the game. A rehearsal was organised in the dressing room before kick off. When the chorus reached its climax, a deafening roar shattered the singing. It was Keith O'Neill: "COME ON FUCKING IRELAND."
McCarthy would never forget that moment. It epitomised everything he had achieved as a player and a critical element of what he aspired as a manager to build. A team that never lay down: a team with unbreakable spirit.
It will take him five years.
In March of 1992, on the morning he took his first step as a manager at Millwall, a close friend, Ian Evans, gave him some advice. "Never become emotionally involved with the team - be passionate, but not emotional, because if you take the game home with you at night you'll end up a wreck."
It was never going to work in his second job.
"Things might have been different if I hadn't played for Ireland," he says. "I think if I was doing say . . . the German job, I would have the same desire to succeed but I wouldn't have the same passion for it. I want to win for our supporters - I've had such good times with this team, such affection from the Irish people, and I don't want to let them down. Someone asked the other day if I was emotionally involved. Of course I fucking am!"
The month is October 2001. We're sitting drinking coffee in the airport hotel in Dublin and I'm reflecting on some of the conversations we've had during five tumultuous years. The scoreless draw at home to Iceland in November '96 - a World Cup qualifier and his third competitive game:
"I had just finished with the press conference and had returned to the dressing room and was putting my leg in my trousers when John Aldridge came up and told me he was retiring. I couldn't believe it. It was a real bolt from the blue and just about put the tin-hat on the result.
"Afterwards, there was a reception in the Burlington - the awards dinner - and I went up to the bar and ordered a drink and after a few minutes I realised that there were groups of people all over the place but I was standing on my own. In four years as a manager I couldn't remember that happening before. And it had certainly never happened as a player. I thought 'Fucking 'ell this is new. Talk about being alone in the crowd."
The fall-out from a narrow defeat in Bucharest - and a missed penalty against Romania - six months later:
"Let's have an inquest. Let's ring one or two ex-players. Let's scrape the bottom of the barrel and hang Mick out to dry. Did we have a designated penalty taker when we played Romania in Genoa? No. Did we win it? Yes we did. Why? Because five blokes fancied taking penalties and they scored.
"Do you honestly believe that when a player like Roy Keane puts the ball down to take a penalty, that I should be responsible? Okay, so I should have held a penalty competition on the day before the game. We might have had a winner. David Connolly - best penalty taker. Do you think it would have been right to ask him to take it in the heat of the game?
"I had Andy Townsend on the field - he's 34. Stephen Staunton has played 67 times for his country - he's 28. The player who stood up to take it is one of the best players in the world. Roy Keane plays in front of 55,000 every week. When he said he wanted to take it, when he put the ball on the spot, I was delighted. But the 'keeper made a good save."
A European Championship qualifier in September '99 and crushing defeat in the 94th minute to Croatia in Zagreb:
"Everyone was looking at the clock. It's tempting faith to think, 'Oh we've got a point here,' but the longer it goes on, the more you think about it. I couldn't believe it when they put the five minutes (of added time) up. After 93 minutes I was being lauded as a tactical genius, after 94 I was a bollox because of how the team had played. But hey, no complaints, I'm a realist. I know the game and how it works."
A heart-breaking concession in the final minute against Macedonia - and a trip to the Euros - a month later:
"If people want to suggest I've failed then let them do it. They've all got their opinions. I am not going to get into an argument. Because as far as the bigger picture is concerned, I'm pleased with what I've achieved.
"If we had qualified in Macedonia, everybody would be saying what a great job and what a great coach and manager I was which, in my opinion, brings it down to complete nonsense when they're saying the opposite now.
"I never thought I was a great bloke or a great manager when we were 12 seconds away from qualifying, I had just done my job, that's how I saw it. And up until that moment, I had done a good job and I can't allow that to change because we conceded a goal in those last 12 seconds."
Under the old rules (first two to qualify) his team would have played in two championship finals. The old rules favoured Jack. So did the players at his disposal. McCarthy couldn't catch a break but those bad times were forgotten now. Ireland had just defeated the Netherlands and Iran and had qualified for the World Cup in Japan.
The month is February 1996. It's his first week as Ireland's manager and he has travelled to Valetta to watch a quadrangular tournament involving Russia (visitors soon for his first game at the helm), Iceland (drawn in our World Cup group) Malta and Slovenia. We're sitting in a restaurant in Valetta chatting about his plans and I'm commending him on how amenable he has been to the press.
"I don't know," he replies. "Just try to get hold of me if we get beat in our first two games. There'll be a message on my answering machine: 'Fuck off Kimmage you little bollix'. It will be no more Mister Nice Guy."
He gets beat in his first three games but keeps taking our calls.
That got harder over time but he always made time for us, always made us smile:
"I do apologise but there's not a lot I can say. They all went to bed last night, they all got up this morning, they all had eggs, sausage and beans for breakfast, and they all trained except for Steve Staunton who has a bit of a niggle and decided to sit it out. In fact, the only thing that worried me today was that no one passed the ball to me in training, but I'm not going to read too much into that."
"You'll have to excuse me for speaking with this sweet in my mouth. I've just been handed it downstairs and it's really nice and I'm not spitting it out."
"I was in the bath with Tommy Burns one time after a game at Celtic. We had just won narrowly against Clydebank or somebody in the Cup and Tommy was moaning about how bad we were and how horribly we'd played and that it wasn't the 'Celtic way'.
"I said 'Look Tommy, forget about it, we won the bloody game. We're in the next round - they're out.' For sure we were a much better team than the performance that night, just as we are a much better team than the one that beat Malta tonight, but the most important thing is that we've won.
"And okay so we were lucky, but it bugs me to have to remind people that we won the bloody game despite how lucky we were. What about our luck when we lost in Belgium? And what about how unlucky we were to lose in Yugoslavia and Croatia? So please, don't come to me and ask me to feel upset, because I'm not."
Through good times and bad he was always honest, engaging and generous with his time until we travelled to Saipan and the 'Roy' thing exploded (Even Roy struggles with Roy) shattering his faith in the media and inflicting wounds that would take years to heal.
But they did.
"I saw a lot of the journalists at the (2010) World Cup in South Africa and shook hands with them . . . although I might have squeezed one or two fingers slightly tighter than the others, just to show I hadn't gone completely soft."
What exactly is the Tao of Mick? Good question.
Well it's . . .
No, it's . . .
I guess it's . . .
Ummm . . .
Yeah . . .
The month is October 1997. We're sitting having breakfast in Dublin at the airport hotel in and he's telling me about a prayer that Fiona has pinned to the kitchen. He's not sure if it's because he's been moaning a lot recently, or what exactly prompted his wife but he's taking the words on board. It's his new creed.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the, ehh, (scratches his head) . . . the something else to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
"Yeah, I've heard that before," I say.
"What's the bit in the middle?"
"I'm not sure."
He reaches for his phone and calls his wife: "Fiona. Hi. What does that thing say up in the kitchen . . . Yeah, read it to me . . . God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference . . . COURAGE . . . That's it . . . Thanks love . . . See ya . . . Bye."
He puts the phone down and rewards himself with a cup of steaming tea.
"You see?" he grins. "I was almost right."