Wednesday 19 December 2018

Face of the future

James McCarthy, pictured above and below, at his home in Glasgow was hugely influenced in his decision to play for Ireland by his grandfather and has impressed in their under-age teams
James McCarthy, pictured above and below, at his home in Glasgow was hugely influenced in his decision to play for Ireland by his grandfather and has impressed in their under-age teams

MARIE McCARTHY is getting used to the chore of welcoming strangers into her home and making them cups of tea. Rarely a day passes without some unknown face arriving onto her doorstep.

From the outside, their two storey home looks no different to any other in the vast working class housing estates on the outskirts of Glasgow. Within the four walls, however, there has been a wide array of visitors who have travelled from afar in search of their own Holy Grail.

That's what happens when you house one of the most sought after teenage midfielders in European football. Seventeen-year-old James McCarthy may ply his trade with the modest artisans of Hamilton Academicals in the Scottish First Division but his prodigious talent has alerted every major scout in the game.

Representatives of all the top Premiership clubs have visited at some stage or another in a bid to secure the signature of the hottest property in Scotland. The locals claim that Hamilton's average attendance has doubled with all the observers who come to watch the red haired central midfielder with a goalscoring touch.

Surreal

As we speak in hushed tones in the kitchen while a surprise visitor from the BBC interviews James in the adjoining living room, Marie's husband Willie explains that Brian Kidd had recently been in this spot bartering on Sheffield United's behalf. For the hosts, it was a surreal experience.

The day after our meeting, a representative of Sunderland was on the guest list. And, in addition to the Premiership Big Four, there has even been a visitor from Spain where Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna have been watching his progress with interest.

They are giddy times but the story has an added twist. He may be Glasgow born and bred in but the photos on the wall make it clear where his international allegiances lie. Fittingly, the postman drops by with a delivery of custom made football boots from Nike for his elder brother Paul. At the heel, the chosen emblem is the familiar tricolour of green white and gold.

McCarthy has declared for Ireland and is not for turning on the matter.

The natives aren't happy but then maybe they don't quite understand where he is coming from. Either way, they will have to accept it.

****

Paddy Coyle's story was a common one amongst his generation. In the early 1930's, as a teenager, he left his home in Donegal to move to Scotland in search of work and link up with some of those which had gone before him. Economical truths were told about his age in order to secure work labouring and doing whatever was needed to make a few bob.

He was the eldest of eight children and, as circumstance would have it, when he married he would father eight kids of his own. The family set up home in the Castlemilk area on the south east of the city, a part of town established by the local Corporation to find housing space for people living in the overcrowded inner city slums.

Over time, the area has developed considerably in terms of amenities for the locals and is unrecognisable from what it once was.

What has remained constant is the suburb's distinctly Irish feel. The shop fronts and businesses bear names like McDaid and Farrell and other clans of Irish origin. In some respects, it has become a home away from home.

Throughout his life, Paddy never lost touch with the land he left behind. He'd been a handy enough GAA player in his day and represented Donegal at underage level so always kept in touch with their exploits.

Pleasure

In his new home, Glasgow Celtic and football became a passion and in his latter years, he took immense pleasure from Ireland qualifying for three World Cups and made sure that the ever extending family circle clearly understood the significance.

For the exiles of Castlemilk it had a special resonance as a central figure in those glory days was someone who had grown up just around the corner.

The Houghton family were near neighbours and Ray's brother John had dated one of the Coyle sisters in their youth. To this day, the families remain in touch -- albeit from afar as the Houghtons moved south with Ray when football took him there.

Not that the Coyle kids needed much reminding of their Irishness. Through their father's storytelling and interests it was never far away.

Honour

Even as they grew up and flew the coop they were never too far from his side. All but one still live in the general area and, despite his passing, the offspring still gather every Saturday night in the family home to honour a tradition which was part of their upbringing.

Those Saturdays were special. The lads might go out for a pint while the women would stick around the house having a chat as the brood marauded around the place.

Now and again, there would be the odd singsong while some of the younger ones engaged in Irish dancing. It may sound like a cliche, but this was the reality for the tight knit Coyle clan and so much of the Irish diaspora who made this part of Glasgow their home.

Marie was the third born Coyle child and the first daughter. She grew up and married Willie McCarthy, a Scot who has Cork blood back in his family tree. They settled, unsurprisingly, in Castlemilk and have four children. First came Paul, then Brian, then Lisa and last in the line was James.

As it became abundantly clear that James was a special football talent, Paddy said nothing would make him happier than to see his grandson represent Ireland. Scotland had consistently dithered over including him in squads but when Sean McCaffrey was made aware of his availability two years ago he was on the next plane over and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, Paddy would not be around to witness his dream come to fruition. Early last year, aged 89, he left this world with a dying wish that James would stay true to his Irish ambitions.

After making that promise, there was never any chance of James turning back. And there never will be.

What he didn't expect was the furore that it would cause. He's well used to being asked by the Scottish press about his intentions and a recent presentation of a Player of the Month award was hijacked and turned into a grilling on the topic.

"It's always the same when you get an interview here in Scotland," says James.

"They're always asking so 'what's happening, are you going to change?' and it's at the stage now where I just say 'we'll see what happens' to put them off and get them off my back.

Happy

"I won a Player of the Month Award but spent my entire time talking about that. But I'm happy where I'm at, with Ireland. The fuss can be annoying, but it doesn't really bother me."

He'd rather just play football. Yet the nastier side of the fall-out behind his decision has angered the family. At certain away grounds, they've sat and endured the pain of hearing abuse being rained down upon James with trips to Stirling and Partick in particular bringing back bad memories. To the uneducated, he is a traitor and many more unprintables.

After one particular game, Paul and Brian stumbled upon an internet forum where the accusation had been made that James had blessed himself twice during a match as means of provocation. It was absolutely groundless but the legacy of the courage of his convictions is that such innuendo is likely to follow him.

It would be diff-erent if he moved away from Scotland and privately his family are accepting of that fact. Realis-tically, it will come into the equation when big decisions are made in the New Year.

There are no regrets though. He has been involved in McCaffrey squads at under 17, under 18 and under 19 level and has settled into the group quickly, keeping in contact with his team-mates between call ups. Their camaraderie helped ahead of his first outing against Italy.

"They just laughed about everything that was going on around the time. Yeah, there was a wee bit of pressure and nerves but once I get on the park I don't really get nervous."

The last statement -- like most of McCarthy's words -- is spoken softly rather than with youthful brashness. There is confidence in his ability, but no trace of arrogance. All the same, it is reassuring that when asked his opinion of the prodigy, ex-Dunferm-line boss Stephen Kenny speaks of his toughness on the park as a principal attribute.

His unassuming nature could fool one into possibly thinking that the necessary hard edge to mix it with the big boys might be lacking. On the other hand, it's doubtful that any player -- let alone one who made his debut at the tender young age of 15 -- could excel in the tough world of the Scottish First Division without having the necessary aggression.

Personally he believes his two years scrapping it out have been a far better education than what would have awaited him at Celtic who opted not to take him on as they were over-subscribed numbers wise. Considering they are now amongst his suitors, it was an unfortunate call on their part.

"I was upset about it at the time but I just got on with it and it's worked out better," recalls McCarthy. "I'm playing first team with Hamilton and I've enjoyed it. The set up is great and it's a fantastic stepping stone."

After a flying start to the campaign, the Accies are fighting it out for top spot with Dundee. There's a young nucleus to the squad which has made the bedding in process far easier than it might have been in different environments.

Ambition

As a debt of gratitude to the faith his manager Billy Reid and all at the club have shown in him, McCarthy is desperate to stick around and deliver promotion even if he knows that there's little prospect of him still being around for the SPL if that ambition is achieved.

Instead, he will be employed in more salubrious pastures but isn't sure where. He has already spent time on trial with Reading, Celtic and Liverpool and enjoyed the various experiences. The opportunity to join the last and most illustrious of those was there in January but all concerned felt it would be better if he stuck around home a little bit longer.

"I didn't want to leave home," he concedes. "I'm happy here with the family, they keep my feet on the ground but at the end of the season I'll see what happens.

I just enjoy being here at home but I know something might be around the corner.

"I leave it to my advisor (George Gray) to deal with it because I just want to concentrate on football. It's good to be mentioned in the papers about who wants me and this and that. And, yeah, sometimes I might be lying in bed thinking about what might happen but I've got to focus on my football and not let the talk get to me."

Instead, it's Willie and Marie who are left to ponder the heart rendering decisions that have to be made. Like the Houghtons all those years ago, every offer from a club in England comes with the carrot of free accommodation for the family to ensure maximum stability for James. They accept that life as they know it may never be the same again.

The excitement about what may lie ahead is palpable but it's tempered by the reason that comes with solid upbringing.

Promising teenagers who have been touted as the next big thing but disappeared just as quickly are ten a dozen. In football circles, though, there is strong belief that this kid can be one of the other two.

Paddy Coyle would be proud. His love for Ireland never wavered and now his legacy to his country will be stronger than he ever could have imagined when he headed for the boat all those years ago.

As James knows more than most, home is truly where the heart is.



James McCarthy: Factfile of a star in the making

Born: November 12, 1990: Glasgow

Club: Hamilton Academicals

Position: Central Midfield

Appearances: 46

Goals: 7

Debut: September 30, 2006 v Queen of the South

Ireland Debut: January 23, 2007 Ireland U-17 v Italy

What they say about him

Billy Reid, Hamilton manager: "I have heard a lot of young players getting hyped up over the years and for any youngster to be compared to established international stars is unfair but this isn't just hype with James. We have something special."

Sean McCaffrey, Ireland youth boss: "There's no question James has all the attributes needed to become a top player. He's special but his next career move is very important."

What he says about the future

"I just want to concentrate on football. It's good to be mentioned in the papers about who wants me and this and that. And, yeah, sometimes I might be lying in bed thinking about what might happen, but I've got to focus on my football and not let the talk get to me."

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport