Daniel McDonnell: No room for cocky Charlies in Mick's Ipswich family
Visitors to Ipswich Town Football Club are quickly informed there is one specimen they will not find in the first team squad.
"There's no big-time Charlies here," asserted experienced midfielder Jay Tabb as he shot the breeze with local media at the Playford Road training complex last Thursday. "No bad eggs. I've been a pro 13 years now and this is the best group I've been in."
Five minutes earlier, in a room down the corridor, top scorer Daryl Murphy told the Irish Independent why the spirit at the club was so strong.
"There's no big-time Charlies," he explained. "I think if one came in, we'd soon put a stop to that."
The message is consistent. This is Mick McCarthy's club and Charlies need not apply. Easy to say, perhaps, but the results and the incredible use of resources back up the soundbites. With a team made up of free transfer acquisitions and a £10,000 buy turned multi-million pound transfer target in the form of Tyrone Mings, Ipswich are genuine promotion candidates. It's hard to root against them.
In McCarthy, they have a manager who understands the terms and conditions of adversity. His old foe Roy Keane struggled to adapt to the Ipswich experience, the personality of a sleepy town with a different pace to his previous abodes.
"I acted a bit," he says in his book. "And I was 'I'll rock this place, I'll bring them to the army. We'll eat pigs all night'. It backfired a bit. I made the point about Ellis Short [Sunderland owner] talking to me like I was something on the bottom of his shoe. I think I spoke like that to some people at Ipswich."
McCarthy, on the other hand, has warmed to the idiosyncrasies of the environment. Even on the morning after the defeat to Southampton, there is a relaxed vibe. When his players finish their duties, he walks into the press room and surveys the attendance. Seven. This is bigger than usual.
After offering handshakes to all present, he realises that two Irish faces have bumped up the crowd and you sense he's wary about that. There's only so many times you can answer the same questions. Still, he shares a joke or two with the ever present natives and cracks on.
Earlier in the week, he'd sat down with Matt Law of the Daily Telegraph to explain how he'd come to terms with his reputation as a top Championship manager. His conclusion was that he would never be offered a Premier League job - he'll have to bring a team up to get back to that sphere.
"It's how I feel," he says, when the subject is brought up. "I don't think they're going to come clamouring for my services unless I make an anagram of my name and make it a foreign one."
There's a sensitivity behind the humour. One doesn't have to read too far between the jocular lines to find the motivation that is driving his group on. From the top down, they've all tasted a form of rejection. Ahead of Saturday's trip to Millwall, McCarthy was asked about the plight of opposite number Ian Holloway, who is on the brink of being shown the door after a dreadful run of form.
In explaining what Holloway must be going through, the 55-year-old opened a window to the thoughts that ran through his head in some of the darkest days of his career.
"You certainly have less pals," he mused. "Or you might find pals you didn't know you had because someone will ring you and tell you to get your chin up.
"It's a lonely place, walking around the town and people don't talk to you. And, you know, it's generally not because people don't like you or want to talk to you. It's because they don't know what to say and when they say something, it might upset you. How do you feel? I think it rhymes with might."
Experience has toughened the resolve, even if an attempt from the floor to discuss his standing in Ireland - with an oblique reference to Saipan - draws a half-suspicious, half-proud response which leaves the impression that certain wounds will never heal. His eye for a bargain is merged with a solid judge of character. Tabb, a former Irish U21 international, was actually told by McCarthy that he could leave last summer. Instead of accepting it, he dug in to force his way back into the picture.
"It was a justified conversation Mick had with me," he admitted, before describing his qualities in a self-deprecating way that his manager would surely appreciate. "I know what I am. I'm 30 years old. I'm not going to start doing stepovers like Cruyff, or find an extra 10 yards of pace."
Mings, the man in demand, was let go by Southampton at 15 because he was too small. A curious judgement given he now stands at 6ft 5in.
The Hunt brothers have both experienced the plight of an unwanted footballer and cheerily lived to tell the tale.
"It's bad enough having one and now there's two," laughed Murphy. "Nah, they're brilliant, always bubbly. You need that. If you're down, you won't be down for too long when they come in."
At Millwall, the double act came to the fore as Stephen teed up Noel for a pair of goals which got the show back on the road after successive defeats. The younger Hunt, a new arrival from an unhappy stay at Leeds, already looks at home.
That's because he's come to a club which feels like one. In a punishing league which tests resilience, the positive energy could take them all the way.
Old boys network help to sell the brand
On March 20, the Tallaght meeting of Shamrock Rovers and Cork City could throw up a particularly interesting midfield battle.
Once injuries or needless suspensions are avoided, we will have a match featuring four players who have sampled life at the top table and represented their country.
Hoops pair Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail will be welcoming Cork's Liam Miller and Colin Healy. It's a game which should make life very easy for those tasked with the responsibility of marketing the domestic league. The strategy should consist of more than a few posters at a train station.
As this column touched on last week, an issue with the league is the relatively low profile of individual players and it needs to be addressed. That's why it helps when familiar faces land on the scene. The aforementioned quartet have arrived back for a variety of reasons and the financial bottom line means there will never be a flood of returnees.
Still, there are individuals like McPhail who simply reach a point where they want their family to live in Ireland and, with a stint in the modern Premier League potentially very lucrative if players use their money wisely, we may see one or two more make a lifestyle choice to come home earlier. The next task is to lure Duffer back from the Australian sun.