Sunday 20 January 2019

Comment: McCarthy may have bowed out in his own unique way but his legacy will last for years


Former Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Former Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Colin Young

Mick McCarthy has never gone through the motions. How could he pretend to be the manager of Ipswich Town to his players when they knew he was no longer the manager of Ipswich Town? And his players will always come first.

After last Saturday's defeat at Brentford, having enjoyed a quick post-match drink with his opposite number Dean Smith, McCarthy was approached by two police officers. A small group of Ipswich fans, not much older than McCarthy's son, had gathered at the front entrance of the ground to say farewell. They were armed with cans of beer and McCarthy's escorts could not guarantee he would leave west London dry.

Reluctantly, the 59-year-old Ipswich manager left via Griffin Park's back door, his would-be attackers thwarted. But as he headed home to wife Fiona last Saturday night, McCarthy's mind was made up. He had had enough of Ipswich Town and their supporters. But he would leave via the front door, on his terms, head held high, tongue in cheek.

On Sunday, he contacted the club's distant owner Marcus Evans to tell him he would be taking charge of the team for the last time against Barnsley on Tuesday night. The denouement may have been unexpected, but the lead-up summed up everything about Mick McCarthy and Ipswich Town in 2018.

He gave a debut to a new wing-back Barry Cotter, yet another young star on a long list of players from across the Irish Sea who McCarthy and his trusty sidekick David Bowman have unearthed and introduced to the English game. Cotter, just 19, had been outstanding in the first half against Barnsley, but he was exhausted. Ipswich fans booed his substitution just after the hour, followed by the 'you don't know what you're doing' chants.

McCarthy, who had reacted angrily towards Ipswich fans the previous month when his side took the lead against Norwich City, took it all in as Ipswich held on to beat his home-town club 1-0.

When he entered the dressing room after the game, he told his players he was leaving immediately. He then told his players to wait for 15 minutes before anyone could make the announcement for him via social media.

He had one last surprise for the Suffolk media and practically ran to the Portman Road press room with club press officer Steve Pearce. Incredibly, nothing appeared on Twitter until McCarthy had said his piece. Even in his final moments as their manager, he had their trust, loyalty, respect.

Radio: "Pre-determined substitution for Barry with it being his debut?"

McCarthy : "Not at all. He was struggling. I said to him when he came in at half-time, with his socks half-down, if you are struggling, just let me know. And then he just let the wide player get a run on him twice, and of course he was not going to tell me because he wanted to stay on the pitch. But then, that's the art of management, knowing when to take him off. Wardy, who came on for him, was brilliant."

Radio: "Fans as understanding as always ..."

McCarthy: "Disgraceful reaction to that. But listen. I won't have to listen to it again cos" (Tea cup clatters down) "That's my last game."

Fist bangs on desk, he gets up. "I'll see you when I see you. I'm out of here." And he was off. He deserved a more dignified exit but at least he enjoyed it. McCarthy and Pearce had a fit of giggles behind the closed door as they listened to the shouts of "Mick, Mick, Mick, please explain . . . "

On Wednesday morning, by 6.30, McCarthy was on his bike, literally. As he has nearly every day for the last six years, the former Ireland manager cycled to work, only this time rather than head to the Ipswich Town Playford Road Training Centre, he had to head home.

That night, a leaving do was arranged. Every player and member of staff attended and there were tears. And that was just the former manager.

Portman Road is worth a visit. The club shop overlooks the pitch and there are pictures of the legendary Bobby Robson FA Cup and UEFA Cup-winning team everywhere. Bobby and his predecessor Alf Ramsey have statues outside.

McCarthy's battles are barely recognised at the ground. Nearly six years ago, he took over a club on the brink of relegation to League One but since survival has faced the reality of being employed by an owner whose budgetary constraints are closer to Robson's era.

McCarthy's real presence was at the training ground on Playford Road, a rambling country lane a few miles from Portman Road. Every single person had a firm handshake, a rule their manager insisted on, few football HQs are more welcoming. That stamp will remain for some time but the club will be someone else's domain during the summer. More than 100 managers have applied for the job since Tuesday.

But very few will be able to match McCarthy's experience and the ability, along with Bowman and his assistant Terry Connor, to spot a player, nurture him, give him a chance and embrace him into Mick's Family. Very few will be able to work within those financial constraints and keep Ipswich in the top half of the Championship.

For the first time in a long time, Mick McCarthy was not involved in a professional football match this weekend, neither did he go and watch one for entertainment or information. He was packing for a Caribbean holiday with Fiona, planning to recharge the batteries and get back on the bike in the Antiguan hills. When he returns, he plans to get back into management.

Jobs in Yorkshire will come up in the next few weeks and Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley would all suit him. He might even find an owner who is willing to back his judgement in the transfer market with proper funding.

There is unfinished business in England and Ireland. Another crack at club management, another attempt to build a club and all would offer a challenge and an opportunity to return to the Premier League, on his terms, with a potential Yorkshire giant. And then there is the international scratch to itch.

When Martin O'Neill goes, of course he wants to be considered and wants another crack at managing his country.

* * * * *

When I was the Hull City reporter for the Hull Daily Mail in the early '90s, I was invited to a fortnight-long summer trial by a tabloid national newspaper sports editor looking for young, hungry writers who could get stories. I was young at least.

On my first day in their London offices, one of the staff men came off the phone from an agent who had tipped him off that Nick Barmby's proposed transfer from Tottenham to Everton had fallen through. He called the sports editor over, gave him the outline of a tale and he got very excited very quickly.

"He wants to go north but no one wants him," the boss said. "That's Everton, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle. They've all pulled out. He'll have nowhere to go.

"It's 'Barmy Barmby'. There's our back-page headline. Now, is it an exclusive?"

The reporter paused and gave it some thought. "Yeah. I think so," he said. "It f****** better be," the sports editor replied. "We just f****** made it up!" and he walked off to get his back page ready.

I was completely out of my depth, and aside from re-writing magazine pieces, struggled to make the paper under my cod-name, 'Mike Lewis'. On the advice of Hull manager Terry Dolan, and with no club press officer to bypass back then, I volunteered to visit Millwall's training ground in Bromley, south-east London where pre-season had started. This is when I first met Mick McCarthy.

The first impression was the firm handshake and he welcomed me in. My Yorkshire accent helped, as did my honesty. I had no idea what I was doing there, or what I was hoping to achieve and that's what I told Mick after he'd invited me into the canteen where the players and staff were having lunch. He introduced me to Ian Evans, asked for my story and listened.

Mick doesn't do exclusives but he called over Lucas Neill, an Australian player who was new to the club. "We might be signing 'im," he said. "You can have that one, Youngie."

Mick gave me a couple of stories to use during my week and before I left for Hull and third division football, I returned to Bromley and took cakes for Mick and Taff. He didn't give me any more stories but he loved the cake.

A few years later, and unbeknown to me, the same sports editor, by then my boss, was looking for a new England-based, Republic of Ireland reporter to replace someone who was a trusted, long-time confidante. They met Mick at a dinner in Manchester and my name cropped up. "I can work with him, he's a good lad," was the feedback and I was offered the role.

My first games were Malta and Macedonia away in 1999 and Goran Stavrevski - who younger readers might not recall - denied Ireland a place at UEFA Euro 2000 with a last-minute equaliser for Macedonia. When we met up for an interview last year, Mick couldn't remember his name. But Skopje '99 will live with him forever.

"That's the one game that still hurts me, stays with me," he said. "Oh yeah, that hurts still, even thinking about it now."

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