Thursday 26 April 2018

Brian Kerr: Mick McCarthy far more than just a great survivor

Style of play and attention to detail often overlooked of a man who would have loved the opportunity to loosen the purse strings like so many of his less successful peers

Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr pictured together at the Burlington Hotel in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr pictured together at the Burlington Hotel in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

On Tuesday evening, Pep Guardiola, surveying his slowly crumbling Champions League dream from on high, issued the instruction to draft Sergio Aguero from the bench.

For Pep, this was his last roll of the dice.

But the game was already up, the possibility of yet another miraculous midweek comeback ended by yet another of Mo Salah's goals.

Across the country, 10 minutes earlier, Mick McCarthy had also summoned a substitution, removing the tired-looking teenage defender from Clare, Barry Cotter - who first impressed me for Limerick against St Pat's only last October - as his team stubbornly held on to a 1-0 advantage against Barnsley.

For Mick, this was the last straw.

As the home crowd howled abuse, he knew deep down that his time was definitely up now. Within minutes of the full-time whistle, he fast-tracked his decision to leave the club.

Little would seem to unite Guardiola and Mick. One, an urbane midfield artist turned superstar coach, oozing Latin charm. The other, a perceived gruff northerner, a no-frills centre-back who established himself as a Championship manager, not a Champions League one.

They may inhabit vastly different footballing galaxies but they have - and will continue to - remain steadfastly loyal to the principles that have served them well in the past.

And, though it may be somewhat insulting to suggest that McCarthy might never have been able to manage at the exalted level of a Pep or a Jurgen Klopp, we will never know because he never got the chance to do so.

"I've not yet been named where there's been a Qatari billionaire and somebody says, 'Mick McCarthy would be great for that job'," he told us with more than a little tongue in cheek a while back.

On the flip side, it would be an interesting experiment to see how Pep might get on were he to be handed a transfer budget of half a million in the Championship.

They may share the same profession but they do different jobs.

Pep has built his reputation on being a fire-starter with the super rich clubs; Mick has forged his on being a firefighter with those who have fallen on harder times.

Each can claim to have thrived at their own level.

Alerted

Already, it appears, West Brom have been alerted to the prospect of McCarthy's availability - and ability - to provide them with the immediate chance of regaining their Premiership status at the first attempt once their impending relegation is confirmed.

We'll watch that space. Some have spoken of an Ireland return but Mick will feel his race in English management is not yet run.

When McCarthy followed Jack Charlton into the Irish job in 1996, many felt that another no-nonsense centre-half would also shape the team in his own image but it was anything but.

He wanted football to be played with some sense of style, sensibly through the middle with a focus on using wide players. He was always willing to give young players a go and encouraged them to get on the ball.

When I became youths' manager shortly after his arrival, I tried to replicate that philosophy with the under-age teams also. It fitted easily for me.

Our working relationship was quite positive. Unlike now, when the senior manager has four assistants and a wide variety of other staff, Ian Evans was the sole assistant and also doubled up as U-21 manager until Don Givens took the role in 2000.

They would attend many of our games where possible, and Ian was at the 1997 U-20 World Cup in Malaysia on Mick's behalf. He didn't interfere and would have noticed the performance of a young Damien Duff who would soon make his debut for the seniors.

The main communication was with Ian and we would exchange information on scouting players and games.

As Technical Director, I travelled to the senior games and I was conscious that the success we had achieved might have made the situation somewhat awkward.

Even if it was mostly engineered by media talk or some people close to him, he may have felt a sense of insecurity.

But there was never any intention on my behalf to covet Mick's job or anyone's job. My role was devoted to producing players who might be able to play for Ireland in the future and that was where my loyalty lay.

I admired the way he operated, his interest in the domestic scene here and the way he worked so hard.

Training sessions always had a purpose. There was an interesting mix in terms of keeping the morale high amongst players but there was also always a structure and intent in sessions relative to the next game.

There was a clarity in each player's roles and he was meticulous in terms of finding players who could be suited to the higher level.

A bit like the personality which only the public gets to see, his teams have always been far more nuanced than what meets the eye.

Of course, there was a sadness about what happened at the World Cup which need not be rehashed again here. It is difficult to imagine what it might be like to be in the middle of such a storm.

With two strong characters like Mick and Roy Keane, it was a pity that there wasn't someone closer to him - and indeed closer to Roy - who could have talked them away from the cliff-edge.

But Mick emerged from it well because the team performed for him after that and they were very unlucky to be eliminated by Spain.

After succeeding him as Ireland manager, our contacts when he was at Sunderland were always professional and there was never a sense that his enthusiasm for the well-being of the Irish team waned.

Shoestring

Since returning to club management in 2003, he has had three jobs in 15 years but the frustration for him must be that he has never really received the backing and support other peers have enjoyed.

Whether it was Sunderland, Wolves or Ipswich, it always seemed as if he arrived just after the money had been spent or else just before the cash tap had been turned on.

At Sunderland, he was much pilloried for being relegated twice, on the latter occasion with a record low points total, but less appreciated for stabilising the club and winning one promotion on a shoestring budget.

When he left - ironically replaced by Keane - the club drowned in a sea of Celtic Tiger money.

Like the Celtic Tiger, Sunderland's brief surge didn't last and they now find themselves braced, after another change in ownership, for the third tier of English football.

Following Glenn Hoddle at Wolves was no walk in the park but, despite cobbling together a squad of free transfers, lower league signings and youth players, he achieved another promotion and then managed to stay in the top flight for successive seasons.

Again, he was stymied by indifference from those in charge, who willingly off-loaded players for expensive fees without re-investing; neither his departure from the club, or theirs from the Premier League, was at all surprising.

He couldn't help but be amused at how, five managers and five years later, Wolves have this season splurged in what is now an inevitable promotion back to the Premier League - spending £15m on a holding midfielder one of their many extravagances.

Since staving off relegation to League One with Ipswich, McCarthy has punched above his weight at a club who, despite the ownership of multi-millionaire Olympic ticket man Marcus Evans, have failed to spend.

He almost reached the play-offs two seasons ago, propelled by the goals of Daryl Murphy, but then had to sell him on to Newcastle who - surprise, surprise - spent enough money to escape the Championship, even if their use of Murphy was rather sparing.

Success

In an era where club owners crave instant success, McCarthy's deliberate method of making solid and steady progress, working within a budget and developing young players, seems sadly out of kilter. I don't understand that perspective.

Even the Ipswich fans, perhaps still pining for the glory days of the 1980s, grew tired of seeing the same old face and they demanded change because they always think change makes success more likely.

Perhaps Mick thought the same when he heard the reaction on Tuesday.

It was ironic that the ire was directed towards his substitution of Cotter, another example of how he has both remained in touch with the Irish game, as well as his ability to pick up the occasional gem.

It has to be said that he has had a long life in management and, given the average shelf life of managers these days, he has done remarkably well to persist for long periods at each of his clubs.

Last year 44 managers across all four leagues lost their jobs. The average tenure of a manager is less than a year in the championship. Harry Redknapp only lasted 151 days at Birmingham!

Such longevity suggests McCarthy's substantial qualities at this game.

Who knows how things might have panned out had he been given substantial support? Leeds or West Brom may soon find out.

Ireland remains a distant prospect, perhaps, although the ancient history that is his last stint in the job will surely be irrelevant if that prospect ever returns again.

McCarthy once played for Manchester City but that club, too, has been transformed since he left.

If he often feels as if his most recent employers hadn't enough money to fill his petrol tank, City's managers are backed with enough petro-dollars to fuel an entire continent.

While Mick may be a championship manager in some folk's eyes, it often seems as if Pep is playing championship manager on Playstation.

Another season without the Champions League has raised questions about his inability to balance his dreamy philosophy with football reality.

There is a purity about his approach I admire but if he wants to achieve the ultimate club prize again, he must temper the crusade to find the unbeatable, perfect attacking play.

It seems impossible to eliminate the need for a balance between defence and attack but that seems to be his aim, as if he'd rather lose a game 7-6 than win 1-0.

Jurgen Klopp has had to adapt and accept that the "gegenpressing" can't be used three times a week against every opponent with the same players.

One wonders if given the chance to play the tie all over again, would Pep change anything? Probably not.

Principles are admirable to have but as much as you can live by them, you can suffer because of them too.

Mick McCarthy could tell him that much.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport