Rice will be first item on menu for Mc­Carthy’s se­cond bite at the cherry

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - COLIN YOUNG EX­CLU­SIVE: MICK Mc­CARTHY IN­TER­VIEW

‘There was a mis­con­cep­tion I had re­tired but I didn’t want to be out of foot­ball in the first place’

WITHIN min­utes of Mick Mc­Carthy leav­ing his Es­sex home on Wed­nes­day morn­ing for a five-hour drive to a din­ner in Sun­der­land, Martin O’Neill’s term as man­ager of the Repub­lic of Ire­land ended af­ter five years in charge. O’Neill’s swift de­par­ture af­ter the goal­less draw in Aarhus sur­prised ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing his fourth-re­moved pre­de­ces­sor and likely suc­ces­sor.

No sur­prise that Mc­Carthy’s mo­bile was buzzing for the en­tire jour­ney. Most of the text mes­sages he an­swered on his ar­rival in Wear­side were from ex-play­ers and jour­nal­ists, some long for­got­ten. At that stage, John De­laney and the FAI had not been in touch, but the ink was still dry­ing on O’Neill and Roy Keane’s sub­stan­tial with­drawal agree­ments.

We had ar­ranged to meet, pre-match, for cof­fee and a catch-up in the ho­tel next to the Sta­dium of Light. That ar­range­ment had been made weeks ago, and my orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was to ask, as he prefers, face-to-face, to write a piece about his wait for a new job, whether the in­creased me­dia pro­file was part of the plan and, yes, if he re­ally wanted the Ire­land job again. I knew it would be post-Aarhus and the out­come might harm my chances.

His suc­ces­sor Paul Hurst had just been sacked by his for­mer club Ip­swich Town when we spoke and there were other Cham­pi­onship man­agers fight­ing to stave off the same fate. It is a cruel wait­ing game and Mc­Carthy has also been a loser in it, but he had to play it if he wanted an­other crack at man­age­ment. And he did.

Sixty in Fe­bru­ary, Mc­Carthy has been ac­tive and very ef­fec­tive in the me­dia since the World Cup fi­nals, a breath of hon­est fresh air in TV and ra­dio stu­dios and, as the night in Sun­der­land and nu­mer­ous oth­ers have proved, he is very pop­u­lar with the pub­lic. But it is club own­ers, chief ex­ecs and chair­men you need to im­press.

“I can’t sit on my arse at home wait­ing for the phone to ring,” he said. “The game has changed and you have to adapt. I know the name Mick Mc­Carthy, and my record, is not enough. You are quickly for­got­ten, and with so many for­eign own­ers, they are look­ing abroad for younger coaches.

“So you have to get your­self out there and I un­der­stand that. I en­joy it, love go­ing to games, be­ing part of a team, and the feed­back has been very pos­i­tive. For­eign own­ers come in and might not know who I am, I get it. You have to keep your name and face out there, as ugly as this face is.

“There was a mis­con­cep­tion that I had re­tired but I didn’t want to be out of foot­ball in the first place. I am hun­gry to get back in but, un­for­tu­nately, that does mean some­one los­ing their job, which is sad. You do know in this pro­fes­sion that jobs will come along. Whether you get them is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.”

I didn’t need to ask the Ire­land ques­tion but I did any­way — and of course he bloody wants the job.

“And if I don’t get it now, I never will,” he told me and the en­thralled au­di­ence later that night at the din­ner, which got an­other laugh in his brief, to-the-point an­swer to host Phil Houri­gan’s ques­tion on his prospects.

Phil: “I have in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of sports­men and women over the years and Mick is one of the best. He is an ab­so­lute gent, bru­tally hon­est, in­cred­i­bly pas­sion­ate and tremen­dously funny.”

Mick Mc­Carthy’s week started with Den­mark ver­sus Repub­lic of Ire­land. Never a ca­sual TV viewer, he was an Ir­ish sup­porter, more than a lit­tle frus­trated with the team. A lack of chances cre­ated. More im­por­tantly, a lack of pas­sion. If only his dream job were his again.

On Tues­day evening, af­ter a chippy tea at home with wife Fiona, he was re­search­ing for that din­ner in Sun­der­land the fol­low­ing night. Ap­pointed man­ager of Sun­der­land 15 years ago, he lasted just un­der three sea­sons. As was the case for most of his club ca­reer, Mc­Carthy was asked/told to scrimp and scrape for sign­ings by his board, and duly obliged.

His notes on Sun­der­land brought the mem­o­ries, the sign­ings and the de­par­tures flood­ing back. He goes through the names who even­tu­ally helped win pro­mo­tion from the Cham­pi­onship at the se­cond at­tempt af­ter chair­man Bob Mur­ray fi­nally fol­lowed Peter Reid’s ad­vice on his de­par­ture and ap­pointed Mc­Carthy, four months af­ter his exit from the Ire­land job. Mur­ray had ini­tially pre­ferred to lis­ten to Howard Wilkin­son, who rec­om­mended him­self and lasted just five months.

Sun­der­land made more than £14m in trans­fers in the sum­mer of 2004 — in­ter­na­tion­als Kevin Phillips, Kevin Kil­bane, Gavin McCann, Thomas Sorensen, Jody Crad­dock and Clau­dio Reyna all left the sunken ship — and Mc­Carthy re­mem­bers clear­ing out Tore An­dre Flo, Andy Gray, Emer­son Thome and Lil­ian Laslan­des on frees and loans to trim the wage bill.

And he re­lied on frees and loans to re­build. Jeff Whit­ley, Gary Breen, Tommy Smith, Alan Quinn, Kevin Cooper, Dar­ren By­field, Colin Cooper, Carl Robin­son and teenage loa­nee Ste­wart Down­ing were signed in the first sea­son. Hardly names to strike fear into the Cham­pi­onship, but Sun­der­land fin­ished third, los­ing in the play-offs to Crys­tal Palace.

More free­bies fol­lowed the next year — Stephen El­liott, Dean White­head, Liam Lawrence, Steven Cald­well in­cluded — and Sun­der­land won the league. “When you look at some of those names, it’s a bloody mir­a­cle we went up,” he says. “But we must have done some­thing right.”

In the weeks af­ter pro­mo­tion, Mc­Carthy met chair­man Mur­ray in his Lon­don of­fices to dis­cuss the bud­get for Sun­der­land’s re­turn to the Premier

League and his first real at­tempt at the big time. It is £6m, in­clud­ing wages. He reels through some of the sign­ings again. Kelvin Davis, Jon Stead and Gray claimed £4m of the bud­get and made lit­tle im­pres­sion. An­thony le Tal­lec joined on loan from Liver­pool. “No won­der I got the sack,” he says.

He re­peats the joke to a de­lighted, packed room in the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel. His abil­ity to laugh at him­self, while de­fend­ing his record and ex­plain­ing the cir­cum­stances, will have sur­prised any cyn­ics in the crowd who have dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries of the Mc­Carthy era at the Sta­dium of Light. It is a mir­a­cle he suc­ceeded and sur­vived. The story was to be the same at Wolves and Ip­swich.

The abil­ity to work with the tools pro­vided has al­ways been his great­est as­set and the 2002 Ire­land squad he built thrived on the op­por­tu­ni­ties he gave them. As well as the ob­vi­ous names, a thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion of any player re­motely Ir­ish in Ire­land, the UK and be­yond is on the cards.

When the for­mer cap­tain took over as Ire­land man­ager from Jack Charl­ton in 1996, it was an ail­ing and age­ing squad which needed time and was to suf­fer dis­ap­point­ments.

Now, other than Jon Wal­ters, he in­her­its no play­ers on the verge of re­tire­ment, while oth­ers such as Ai­den McGeady — now at Sun­der­land — are in their 30s and en­joy­ing foot­ball again.

Mc­Carthy was never afraid to spread the net wide, or put faith in youth. Rob­bie Keane and Damien Duff were teenagers when Mc­Carthy gave them their Ire­land de­buts; he helped them evolve into Ire­land icons, and took a co­he­sive unit to the World Cup fi­nals.

The im­me­di­ate need for re­sults and per­for­mances to im­prove and qual­ify for the Euro 2020 fi­nals will not de­ter Mc­Carthy from giv­ing youth a chance again and restor­ing that be­lief and unity.

Af­ter spend­ing five min­utes with Mc­Carthy on Fri­day, John De­laney was con­vinced he should re­turn. Mc­Carthy can­celled a sched­uled ap­pear­ance for this morn­ing on Chris Ka­mara’s Goals on Sun­day on Sky Sports af­ter book­ing his flight to Dublin. The FAI ini­tially an­nounced the wrong day for his press con­fer­ence. He has been away for 16 years but some things, he may con­clude, will never change.

When he felt re­laxed enough to leave the phone, and en­joy his very warm flat white, as usual, we talked fam­i­lies first be­fore I dropped the I-bomb. I knew what he had to say would not go on the record. Mick Mc­Carthy hates ‘ex­clu­sives’ and would rather share his thoughts with ev­ery­one or no one.

But, as we as­sessed the squad, the po­ten­tial new man­ager ex­tolling the virtues of play­ers whose Ire­land ca­reers have stalled and throw­ing in names cast aside in re­cent squads, sorry Mick, but I had to men­tion it. Not Ir­ish, never a player, but even I got ex­cited. He will make time to see every Ir­ish player at his dis­posal over the next four months, spread­ing the same en­thu­si­asm and be­lief. And yes, as he will con­firm to the me­dia when he is un­veiled, that in­cludes De­clan Rice.

“First call,” was the mes­sage to his loyal lieu­tenant David Bow­man, whose own call had in­ter­rupted the boss’s flow. As the man whose con­tacts and knowl­edge un­earthed count­less League of Ire­land gems signed by Mc­Carthy, in­clud­ing Stephen Ward and Daryl Mur­phy, Bow­man al­ready knows the po­ten­tial in the Ir­ish ranks.

There are many like him in Ire­land and the UK who will be de­lighted to see Mc­Carthy back and will­ing to share their own ex­per­tise. And they’re not daft. They have seen the crit­i­cism and lazy anal­y­sis of Mc­Carthy’s cre­den­tials and his re­turn.

Af­ter his pre­ma­ture but in­evitable de­par­ture from Ip­swich, he and Fiona en­joyed a de­served, ful­fill­ing break for a few months be­fore he set­tled into the com­men­ta­tor’s chair for the World Cup fi­nals. A new agent rec­om­mended the fresh ap­proach and Mc­Carthy was the star of Talk­sport’s sum­mer cov­er­age. He has been at a game every week­end, usu­ally for Sky or Talk­sport, since.

When he sits down at the ta­ble in the Aviva this af­ter­noon, he knows one or two brave souls will go down the old route to Saipan. But he parked that 16 years ago, buried every hatchet, even­tu­ally. Truth is, he couldn’t give a toss about it and it is ir­rel­e­vant now. He’ll say some­thing along those lines to­day, I imag­ine.

This is the Mick Mc­Carthy who even hugged Ea­mon Dun­phy last month as part of his me­dia charm of­fen­sive and told him of the “shite” re­la­tion­ship with you-know-who. Not charm, re­ally, just Mick be­ing Mick. And cer­tainly not of­fen­sive. And as he told his old foe that night, “if, in two years’ time, their (O’Neill and Keane’s) con­tract is up, and the job is avail­able, and I am out of work, I would love it again.”

The slate could not be cleaner, nor Ire­land’s im­me­di­ate fate be in bet­ter hands, their fu­ture shaped by a proud Ir­ish­man who is ex­tremely keen to leave a last­ing legacy, as he will tell the Ir­ish pub­lic to­day.

‘I can’t sit on my arse at home wait­ing for the phone to ring. The game has changed’

Photo: David Conachy

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