Wednesday 21 March 2018

Macedonia still haunts him, but Big Mick keeps plugging away with a little help from his friends

Unfashionable Ipswich may be battling the balance sheet, but that's the way the boss likes it

'Click to enlarge'
'Click to enlarge'

Colin Young

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.

Serenity Prayer

Mick McCarthy's wall planner.

Outside Portman Road, in Ipswich town centre, there are statues to Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey, both former Ipswich and England managers. On the side of the stadium is an enormous portrait of a beaming Robson, looking down on Sir Alf Ramsey Way. In the club shop and in the Far Post Bar, there are images of the two great managers and their teams. Robson's men in particular - Mariner, Muhren, Thyjssen, Wark, Brazil, Burley, Mills, etc - are everywhere you look. Gaze out from the second floor of the shop, on to the pitch, and you can't fail to see large white lettering of The Sir Bobby Robson Stand.

"I do like all the old photos," says the waitress, which is just as well. "But it is time we had some new ones." That is McCarthy's job. And in the Championship today, it is proving an increasingly difficult one. But one he still loves.

McCarthy may not carry the same reverence as his two late predecessors - it would surely take a trophy or ending Ipswich's 15-year absence from the Premier League - but he has earned the same respect. His hands tied by the finances of the club, the people of the town appreciate his efforts.

McCarthy with former right-hand man Ian Evans
McCarthy with former right-hand man Ian Evans

He has a year left on his contract yet there are fears, as the considerable financial might of Newcastle United is demonstrating, that the top flight is getting further from his grasp, if not his ambitions. Owner Marcus Evans wants him to stay.

"At the end of the season I'll sit and decide what I want to do," he says. "I can't just walk away and get another job, and that's not what I want to do, but actually I want to be more competitive and Marcus wants to be more competitive.

"The discussion is 'how' - and if we're not, what are we going to do? I hope we have a good finish and supporters want me to come back, but they might not. I've been here five years, the last thing I want is them to get bored of me - 12,000 at the first game of the season. That will be no good to anybody and I don't want to be the reason for that.

"Funnily enough, I had it with Ireland and I should have left at the end of the World Cup. But I loved that job that much, why would I contemplate giving it up? We had the players to qualify for the Euros, but all the other stuff and the sidebar were always going to make it difficult for me if we didn't win games. And, of course, we didn't, and it ended.

McCarthy celebrating with Steve Staunton
McCarthy celebrating with Steve Staunton

"I think I'm still well thought of in Ireland but for those two games, certainly the last game against Switzerland, everything that I've done and achieved with Ireland, all of a sudden is gone.

"That's not the way I wanted it to end. And I wouldn't want it to end like that here either. Getting stick or the team getting stick. I probably should have walked away and got a job somewhere else - but when you love something it's hard to walk away."

There is not much sign of McCarthy around Portman Road outside of match days, nor this current group of players. One photo behind the till in the shop does stand out. It is McCarthy in full fist-pumping celebration with his assistant, Terry Connor, in the background. It was only a last-minute winner at Charlton, but the same image is on McCarthy's wall planner in his office at the training ground. It's perfect. Next to it is the Serenity Prayer.

"I think it sums up perfectly what a manager should be," he says. "A friend of mine I've known since I joined Manchester City went on to the 12-step programme and he did go into the depths of despair. I'm very proud of him now - he has three or four businesses and mentors other people so I've spent quite a bit of time with him, done work with other people and been with him and seen him go through the demons. He's through the other side, doing great.

"It just sums it up for me what a manager's job is. You have to accept some things you just cannot change. I can't do f**k all about that Lincoln FA Cup game now, can I? By the way, the results still annoy me. Was I upset after Lincoln? Yes I was, but I get over them quicker knowing there's a kick in the arse waiting around the corner somewhere. If I dwelt on every bad result, every bad performance, it would drive me into an early grave and I would be a very sad old man."

That desire to win football matches still burns inside him, and it genuinely does not matter whether it is a visit to Norwich, Northwich Victoria or Northern Ireland; McCarthy wants to win.

"I'm comfortable in my own skin. I don't have to say, 'Oh yes, it's a huge game and I want it for the fans'. Actually, I want it for me, for the team, and that feeling radiates all around us in Suffolk. It only radiates if I do my job well and we win. That's how it has to be."

It is 25 years this week since a 33-years-young Mick McCarthy took charge of a team for the first time. Port Vale were the opponents and Millwall won 1-0 at The Den. McCarthy, for once, lost his voice the dressing room.

"I started talking and my mouth dried up but Taff (Ian Evans) just took over seamlessly," he says. "I would not be sat here today if it hadn't been for him. It could have gone monumentally wrong.

"The biggest change is the money. There are a lot of players who can have a not-so-great career and they're made for life. Players like Bryan Robson, great players, you'd have liked to think he'd have been made for life. If you evolve with it you don't notice the change. So how have I lasted 25 years if I don't change?"

* * * * *

Fast forward a quarter of a century from south London to Suffolk, where McCarthy is sitting in his office ahead of the derby trip to Norwich City. Evans, Mick's loyal right-hand man with Ireland, is no longer around, with the daily duties now Terry Connor's responsibility, but he is still scouting for his old friend.

It is not the only change, of course. Although he is as lean and mean as he was as Big Jack's skipper - put down to the 6am gym routines and the bike in the corner of the office which will be back on the roads round the training ground next month - McCarthy's white hair is even whiter and the fringe has slipped further into his head. There are more wrinkles and laughter lines too, and more serenity, explaining: "I was at an age where I wanted to take everybody on but he would stop me taking everybody on and I stopped him when he wanted to. I was fortunate I had Taff with me, he was a big difference.

"I leaned on people because I had really good guys around me. I made all the decisions but the experience overhead was priceless."

You are rarely more than 10 seconds away from a handshake at Ipswich Town. It is Mick McCarthy's handprint at a club he has managed for nearly five years. Walk into any corridor, any office or by the side of the many pitches and chances are your hand will be firmly gripped by player, coach, staff or the manager in an instant. He insists on it.

"That's down to me. When I went to France we did it every day. I got into trouble on my first day because I only shook a couple and you had to shake the hand of every player, but no one told me.

"And I thought, it's a nice custom that, it's a good thing to do, because you look someone in the eye to shake their hand, whether you are playing them in the team or not.

"In any walk of business, in buildings, you can be an absolute ghost if you want to be, let me tell you. You can come in, do your bit, and go and no one knows you or what you've done. Every morning, they have to come in, shake each other's hand, shake my hand, TC, or else I'll go find them - and they are all open to it now because it's all they've known.

"There's the odd time I get the old 'wet fish' handshake and I'll say, 'Hold on a minute . . . last week, you're playing I get the firm handshake, this week you're not playing and I get that? F**k off. Do it properly. I have nothing against you, I just pick the team, and they have to front it with me.

"Let me put it another way. I think people, managers, don't shake hands with players, some don't talk to them. Well, you can do what you like with them then, ignore them, show you're a tough guy who's not bothered, so are they going to be bothered about you? I'd rather call them into the office, tell them I'm not picking them, listen to him telling me I'm wrong, and explain why. It adds to the anxiety for me having to tell a player but at least I know every player will walk away from here and say, 'He's not a bullshitter'.

"Footballers generally are insecure, about their health, fitness, position, contracts, wages and being cold and hard with them. They would be happy to walk in here every morning, peak-cap pulled down, earphones on and take not a blind bit of notice of me or anybody else. Just train and go home. That's not right for me.

"Twenty-five years ago there was no social media, no mobile phones. I walk into the dressing room now and they are not allowed to use telephones anywhere else in the building. It didn't sit easy with me that, but when I walked in we had seven points and we were rock-bottom of the league.

"You can change some things but if you change everything then you are suddenly a dick. There are some things you might leave it alone, pick your battles, so it's still the same. But sometimes I walk in and they are all on f**kin' phones looking at something. And I'll be, 'Alright lads, see the game last night, see that hat-trick? No? Hello? Anyone watch the football last night? Any chance of talking to somebody?' And they'll all laugh at me and I'll walk out, but I've made my point."

* * * * *

Dubai, November 2001. It is freezing in Dublin. McCarthy is in the UAE with Taff Evans. He is a few weeks and, in football terms, 270 minutes away from the greatest moment of his managerial career.

Myself and Christopher Davies of the Daily Telegraph were on the football journalists' jaunt of a lifetime. It is the night before UAE v Iran, World Cup 2002 qualifying Asian play-off final (to determine who will play the European equivalent - Ireland). Thankfully, understanding the significance of the expense, he has agreed to see us.

It is a campaign tinged with so many what-ifs and how-about-thats. Iran won, Ireland beat them in a Tehran cauldron, successfully defending an edgy Dublin win which came through goals from Ian Harte and Robbie Keane.

Justifying his choice as Big Jack's successor at such a young age, McCarthy - whose father Charlie died during the campaign - should have been able to relish Ireland's return to the international stage in the finals hosted by Japan and South Korea. It was eventually overshadowed by Roy Keane, a very different handshake after the Holland win, his absence from the trip to Iran and impact in Saipan.

Back in Dubai, talk turned to the idea of McCarthy returning to club management. "I'll probably end up at some club scrimping and scraping and scratching around for money, trying to beat the big guns."

Back in the office now, he laughs when I recall the quote.

"Is that what I said? Careful what you wish for, eh? There is a resourcefulness to finding players and I guess it's a talent and ability and about having good people around you. You stand on your own two feet, accept your terms and conditions when you sign your contract and fulfil it or more. I don't resent it. Have a look at League One, League Two, the National League and see the jobs people are doing. It's not just me.

"I've got a great training ground, a great ground, I get well paid for my job in the Championship and am well respected by everyone in here - and well supported by the people at the club and in the area. So I am in a really good position, to be honest with you. Do I resent anybody else having more? No. It just makes me want to beat them more. It always has. It was the same with Ireland."

And it comes back to Ireland as he reflects on those 25 years - nearly 40 if you go back to his playing debut. He might be able to put aside an FA Cup shock to non-league Lincoln with impunity. But Skopje in '99 will live with him forever. Macedonia 1, Ireland 1. McCarthy doesn't want to remember, and can't anyway, but the man who scored the last minute equaliser was Goran Stavrevski.

"It is only one performance, one result that sticks in my craw. That's the one game that still hurts me, stays with me. Because we should have been in the European Championships. That would have been great, with a World Cup. Oh yeah, that hurts still. Even thinking about it now."

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