Tuesday 20 February 2018

Mick McCarthy: Still walking the tightrope

Under fire at Wolves, Mick McCarthy still inspires devotion among his players, writes Dion Fanning

When Mick McCarthy was dismissed as manager of Sunderland in March 2006, the club were not just bottom of the Premier League, they were challenging for records nobody wants to challenge for. The day before he left, Sunderland lost to Manchester City. They had lost to most clubs. They had ten points.

In this situation, it's normal for players and officials to wear a mask of regret. They'll talk about how they've let the manager down when they honestly feel that it's the other way round, if they feel anything at all.

When McCarthy left Sunderland, it was different. One player at the club at the time said it was if the club had gone "into mourning", a feeling he'd never experienced anywhere when a manager had just been fired, especially a manager at the bottom of the league.

After his dismissal, McCarthy took all the Sunderland staff out for dinner and drinks and his popularity wasn't diminished when he picked up the bill.

Last week, as he launched an attack on the Wolves supporters who had booed and chanted "you don't know what you're doing" when they were two goals down at Swansea, McCarthy told the press that they should have no doubt that he still has the players on his side. Nobody doubted him.

It's extremely unlikely that McCarthy will lose his job despite defeat at Manchester City yesterday but it is even more unlikely that he will lose his dressing room.

McCarthy's irascibility with the media is renowned and his basic philosophy that you are either inside the tent "pissing out" or outside the tent "pissing in" hasn't changed. It's a philosophy which earns the devotion of players.

Players are suspicious of a manager who wants to court the press and in McCarthy they know they have a manager who, while extremely sensitive to any criticism that appears about him, distances himself from engagements with the media.

He is not hostile to the press but remains on guard and wary, often with good reason.

His dyspeptic post-match interviews always result in an explosion of golf-club laughter in the Match of the Day studio. McCarthy has a role to play in their production and it is a perennially dissatisfied churl, a Victor Meldew type.

He may get easy laughs from Gary Lineker but McCarthy is serious and a serious manager.

There was a time when that sensitivity was more apparent even if his attempts to win over the media were never more than half-hearted.

He could never shake his first principle that the players were the only ones who mattered, whether that was defending Ian Harte during the World Cup in 2002 -- "tell them bollocks," he said when Harte's poor form was mentioned on one occasion -- or, for some time, shielding the truth about his fractured relationship with Roy Keane from the press.

As a player in the Irish squad, he was something of an outsider, closer to Jack than he was to many of his team-mates.

As a manager, he has never had a problem being close to his players, protecting them and in a world which doesn't like to hear about vulnerability, not being afraid to listen to them.

He was always at his best with those who needed his protection. He found it hard to communicate with those like Denis Irwin who were independent and functioning perfectly well in the Manchester United empire; with Keane, he never knew what was coming next. Neither did Keane.

He was harshly and unfairly treated by some of us before and after Saipan and when the crowd began to howl and hiss at Molineux last week, he might have remembered an autumn evening at the old Lansdowne Road when a chant went up for Roy Keane and his time as Ireland manager was at an end.

The defeat at home to Switzerland brought an inevitable end. McCarthy had been burdened with huge expectation when he succeeded Jack Charlton but by October 2002, it had now twisted into resentment from those who supported Keane. McCarthy had plenty of supporters but the mood was hostile and impossible.

It was just over a year from his finest moment as Ireland manager when Holland had been defeated and a picture of McCarthy reaching to shake Keane's hand across an invisible chasm at Lansdowne Road offered a glimpse into all that could go wrong.

Plenty of it did go wrong but McCarthy summoned his record as international manager again last week when he reminded the press of his credentials.

There are a number of players within the Irish squad who still speak highly of him. He is the manager they would want when Trapattoni leaves but friends say McCarthy would prefer to wait before returning, although he would like to return.

Before that, he has to handle Wolves and their expectations. They had nine points at this stage last year. Wolves spent most of the campaign in the relegation zone before climbing out in the final weeks of the season and surviving thanks, in part, to a Stephen Hunt goal against Blackburn which forced Birmingham to chase a win at Spurs. Wolves lost but stayed up.

McCarthy has an understanding chairman but Steve Morgan's greatest gift is to understand what McCarthy has accomplished at Wolves. Since taking over in 2006, he has brought them back to the Premier League and, almost as remarkably, kept them there.

Morgan is a quiet man who believes in a certain way of running a club but there have been calls this week for him to intervene and remind supporters that McCarthy's position is not under threat.

Last week's comeback against Swansea was Wolves' first point since August but the crowd reaction when McCarthy made the tactical changes -- taking off two wingers and sending on two midfielders with Wolves two goals down -- revealed a strange dissatisfaction or a misplaced sense of where Wolves should be.

But if they have increased expectation they have McCarthy to thank for that. Wolves started the season well before their worrying slump and their game next Sunday with Wigan becomes even more important.

The supporters may not appreciate what they have but the players do. They know McCarthy will support them in their troubles and that those who are in most trouble will get the most support.

When he returned to the Premier League with Wolves after his time with Sunderland, their first win at home was McCarthy's first home win in 22 matches. A reporter pointed this out.

"I don't give a flying fuck to be honest," McCarthy said. "I've got shit stats if you want to bring them up. It's usually when I get the tic-tac, Sky put them up and say I'm the worst manager ever.

"That's life and it makes me a bad manager I suppose. I'm just doing my job and I tend to look at what's in front of me rather than what's behind me."

He may not know if the Wolves fans are behind him but the players he protects won't give up on him.

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