The Irish Mail on Sunday
James McCarthy talks to Kevin Kilbane
Glaswegian James McCarthy was courted by Ireland and Scotland, but the clincher was when the FAI f lew him and 30 family members to Dublin
KEVIN KILBANE: How difficult − and big − was the decision for you to play for Ireland rather than Scotland?
JAMES McCARTHY: It wasn’t easy. A lot of people have got it muddled up and said I’ve turned my back on Scotland or even that it was my grandfather’s wish for me to play for Ireland. Although he would have loved that, it wasn’t down to that.
I broke into the Hamilton first team at 15 and Scotland and Ireland came to watch me. Scotland said ‘Nah, he’s not good enough, we’ll wait. He isn’t ready yet’. It was all Celtic and Rangers players in the team and maybe now and again an Aberdeen player would get a call-up but not someone from little Hamilton.
Ireland came to watch me once, they spoke to my agent and asked if I would be interested in going over. I got a call that night, I sat down with my family and we agreed to go over and have a look. The FAI flew me and my family over – about 30 of us – booked us into a hotel and looked after us really well. I made my debut for the Under 16s against Italy. It was brilliant.
When I started playing regularly for Wigan there were whispers that Scotland were interested. Craig Levein rang my agent and asked if I would be interested and at the time I said no because Ireland had looked after me, I had settled in, so I said ‘thanks but no thanks’. They’d had their chance, to be honest.
The papers kept saying I was going to change my mind and Craig Levein still wanted a meeting with me, so he spoke to my agent again. But I just said I appreciated the offer and if it had come earlier then I would have been happy enough to play for Scotland − but I was with Ireland, they had looked after me and I would not turn my back on them. KK: I remember when you made your debut against Brazil, there was still a lot of talk that Scotland were still trying to call you back. How did you cope with that? JM: There was talk but there was no consideration at all. Once I had made my debut for Ireland I was not going to change my mind.
I would class myself as Irish. When I was a kid I would sit in my Ireland shirt with my granddad, who was from Donegal, and watch the Ireland games. We watched Scotland games together too. I was always watching football and he’d come and join me
but he was always happier watching Ireland.
Ireland were always my main team. I still have a lot of family over there and get over to visit as much as I can. I am happy with the decision and obviously I am enjoying it.
KK: Are you expecting a bit of stick in the Scotland game? There will be particular intensity around you before the game, won’t there?
JM: Yeah, there will be, but it is part and parcel of the game these days. It’s one of those things; water off a duck’s back. Obviously, it’s never nice getting abuse or booed but when I was in Scotland and decided to play for Ireland I got it at away grounds every second week.
KK: So did I, but for different reasons! How was that when you were younger?
JM: It was difficult but I think I enjoyed it. People would ask me how I felt but it just drove me on seeing so many people standing up and shouting abuse at me. I’d kind of laugh at them.
I was always warned not to say anything or make any kind of gesture. It was harder when the team scored, or when I did, but overall it has never really bothered me.
My mum, dad and brothers came to every game, home and away, and it was difficult to watch it and hear it but they knew it didn’t bother me. They’d ask if it annoyed me but I just said it had no impact and I just blanked it out. If I had reacted it would have been different but they have always seen that I am determined to do what is best, keep working hard and kept playing.
KK: Did it ever make you think about changing your mind or did it have the opposite effect? JM: As I said, I was never going to change my mind after making my debut for Ireland. A lot of people would say to me ‘if you changed your mind, you wouldn’t get this stick’ but that would be lying down to them and it was never in my head. KK: You’re a quiet boy, but you come across as quite stubborn and singleminded. Is that fair? JM: Yeah, if I see something I want I keep battling to get it. My dream was to play in the Premier League and it was difficult at first. I had to wait for my chance, but I always had it in my head that I would get there. KK: Back home I used to get stick for being a Plastic Paddy and only being in the squad because I’d had a Guinness. And in Ireland, because there was always a big push to get young Irish lads over to England, and into the senior squad, in some ways there was initially some hostility from a minority about my call-up. Once I was established I didn’t feel it so much, and I do think the majority of Irish supporters just want what is best for the team, but what are your experiences? JM: There is always the odd comment and we’ve all heard the Plastic Paddy one too many times but most people have just come up to say how delighted they are to see me and there has not been one really bad comment. Not yet anyway. KK: I have seen Séamus Coleman develop over the last 18 months into the best right-back in the Premier League. You play with him every week. How good is he? JM: He has been unbelievable for us (Everton) this season. Even training with him with Ireland when I was at Wigan, you could see he is a good, good player. Like Gareth Barry, you don’t realise how good he is and how much he does for the team until you see him close up.
That burst of pace and his determination to get at people and get past them is brilliant. I’m on the same side as him, so if he goes forward, I just shift into cover, a nd if I get forward, he is there to help.
If you give him the ball now you expect something to happen. I pass to him and say ‘go on, beat him, whip it in’. He’s got plenty of assists as well as goals and that has been a big factor for us this season.
He has been different class and rightfully got our players’ player and supporters’ player of the season and could have won goal of the season.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a few teams are sniffing around but I think he is settled in, loving life here and hopefully we can keep him. KK: We are building a good young Irish squad and obviously at Everton we have a good core with yourself, Séamus, Aiden, Darron and Shane (Duffy). How long before we see all five of you in the squad? JM: Gibbo has been training for the last couple of weeks and he is looking strong. I only played two games with him before he did his knee and it will be brilliant to have him back.
You know Shane is a good defender and he has come back from his loan this week and you can see he has a bit of confidence about him and he has looked sharp in training.
We need Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Glenn Whelan to show us how to qualify for tournaments
It has been difficult for Aiden. He had so much time off with a couple of niggling injuries that January was like pre-season for him and now he is looking sharp but it’s the end of the season. It’s about next season for him and he is going to be a top player for us.
We have a lot of youth coming into the Ireland squad like Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. It looks good for the future and we have Gibbo coming back from a long injury so we will have real competition.
We have the gaffer, Martin (O’Neill), who is experienced at the very top and who brought in a new buzz. Training has been a lot more intense; enjoyable but intense. Everyone is enjoying it and we can really kick on.
And we can only learn from someone like Roy (Keane) and all the achievements in his career. It will be a big plus not just for me as a midfielder but for everyone to learn from such a footballing great. KK: Looking now at the Euro 2016 qualifying group, Germany will be the big favourites but it looks like a really good opportunity to qualify. JM: If we believe, we can qualify. There are a lot of good young players coming through and we need to mix that with experience.