Thursday 22 March 2018

Irish blood at the heart of an English affair

Hughton and McCarthy's Molineux meeting will be one of friendship and mutual respect

The last time two Irish managers shook hands on an English league touchline, the spotlight captured Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy in stark historic relief to the shocking events which had first catapulted the pair upon the world stage.

Four years on, and, significantly, in England's top tier, another unique handshake will take place between McCarthy and another fellow Irish manager, yet this time few outsiders will cast a second glance.

At grand old Molineux today, shortly before a comfortingly traditional 3.0 top-flight kick-off, McCarthy will extend the hand of sporting friendship to Chris Hughton before their respective Wolves and Newcastle sides joust for 90 minutes.

Amidst the prevailing mediocrity of endless ex-Irish internationals trading inanities across airwaves, it is right to acknowledge that two of this country's soccer greats remain immersed in the game at the highest level.

While title triumphs and European qualification will remain beyond their reach, their fight for survival in such a competitively skewed environment deserves to be applauded as a celebration of each man's own durability.


Such a trait is even more admirable given the unseemly decline in moral standards within a game which has transformed utterly since the days when McCarthy was first tempted from the mining pits of Yorkshire, and Hughton diverted from a potential political path, to follow their football dreams.

The pair now not only share the same age -- 51 -- but a wealth of experience -- they combine 700 league playing appearances and 35 years in coaching, as well as a shared, first-generation Irishness which contributed 110 caps between them (McCarthy boasts 57 to Hughton's 53).

Both defenders, they each went to World Cups as players; Hughton, unluckily, was eclipsed by Chris Morris in 1990 in the team led by Captain Fantastic; both then managed their country, McCarthy leading his country to the finals in 2002, while Hughton assisted McCarthy's successor, Brian Kerr, albeit with less success.

"I suppose it was inevitable, given the number of Irish players who played at the high level," says Kerr, the former Irish manager who worked with both men for a decade, admiring the green hue in today's otherwise anonymous entry on the English fixture list.

"In fact it's probably surprising that there hasn't been more managers, given the standard the international team played at and the importance of their players in England.

"Maybe there's not much profile this week but all the profile is being gathered up by Man City, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, and who's signing who. These two clubs are low-key money-wise, they're not doing too much adventurous in the market."

Robbie Keane's tickling of Newcastle interest, even if Harry Redknapp is prodding rather than tickling, has added intrigue, although Hughton's response yesterday was typically stoic.

"Purely speculation," said Hughton, a man who if asked what the weather was like, would probably reply "no comment". Similarly, the repeated questions about the tenuous nature of his one-year contract were yesterday tossed back ungarnered.

"My situation has not changed. I have a contract through to the end of the season and it certainly hasn't been an issue for me."

He was much more willing to pay tribute to his old colleague McCarthy. "The two things that very much come to mind are that Mick was always a leader, and his honesty," he enthused. "He was always very straight, and how he sees it is how he says it. He has a lot of good qualities, Mick."

The shared empathy between the pair may allow McCarthy to privately share a few words of advice whatever the outcome of today's game; he knows only too intimately the perils of managing in the Premiership on such a financially hamstrung basis as afflicts Hughton this term.

Six seasons ago, Sunderland reached the Premiership in the same thrilling fashion that Newcastle managed this year but then-chairman Bob Murray steadfastly refused to allow McCarthy to strengthen his squad, with inevitable results.

Four opening defeats couldn't sway the chairman and McCarthy survived until March before being unceremoniously sacked; it was an academic exercise as Sunderland failed to stay up, disappearing with a record low points total of 15.

When McCarthy took Wolves into the Premiership last year, he ensured history could not and would not be repeated. Thanks to Kevin Doyle, amongst others, and without any nods to aesthetic beauty, McCarthy guaranteed the club's survival and another £40m in the bank.

Hughton will listen to his managerial colleague relate his differing experiences with enthralled interest, presuming both men share a beverage at around 5.0 this afternoon.

With Hughton under orders to trim before he adds to his squad, as owner Mike Ashley continues to seek a buyer without spending a penny more on the place, two separate narratives lay before the still fledgling manager.

"Chris wouldn't have expected to beat Man United, but nor would he have expected to beat Villa 6-0," says Kerr. "He's had small resources to work with, the impression is of a tight ship there, with no big wages (Keane's £65,000 salary remains the main impediment to his fantasy signing).

"Everyone's saying it will be difficult for them but last week will have given them encouragement. When you look outside the midfield, they may not have the depth after that so I'm sure he's anxious. But last week may have strengthened his hand a bit."

The mutual respect between the men, unlike that feigned four years ago between McCarthy and Keane, will be utterly genuine. On the surface, they appear poles apart -- brazen Barnsley versus canny Cockney -- but the shared Irish blood narrows the cleavage.


"Chris has invariably risen back to the top of the club without pushing himself there, just through professionalism and his decency as a person," adds Kerr. "But of course, there is steeliness to him as well as a highly principled sense of what's right and wrong.

"He has enough experience not to jump in and say stupid things that might infuriate players. He knows that he needs the players onside. But the first thing that would have earned him respect is his work-rate, when Kevin Keegan brought him in, then when he was sidelined by the Shearer-Dowie thing.

"It's just the way he is: he's not angling to keep a job and say the right things. But he'll tell you what he thinks if you ask him honestly. I'm not surprised he's done so well and wouldn't be surprised if he does well in difficult situations this year.

"Mick is more inclined to be straightforward in the way he says things, more straight Yorkshire than the reticent Caribbean in Chris. Mick is straight and he doesn't put up with any bulls**t. He knows what he wants from his players."

It is not beyond the realms that either man could once again patrol an Irish sideline in the future. Hughton retains international ambitions and McCarthy is periodically touted to return at some future date. After all, "You get better at this management business as you get older," according to McCarthy.

It may be a traditionally English meeting but the Irish influence on today's encounter cannot be ignored. Nor too the fact that the respective managers remain refreshingly old-school in a football world gone mad.

Irish Independent

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