BRENDAN O'BRIEN: More to Mick than rugged survival

So much was so different about English football when a 33-year-old Mick McCarthy agreed to step into the breach as player-manager in the wake of Bruce Rioch’s departure from Millwall back in March of 1992, writes Brendan O’Brien.

The dawn of the Premier League era was still five months away, Leeds United were soon to parade the old First Division trophy around Elland Road and a 10-year stay in the top tier was coming to an end for Luton Town who would eventually bottom out in the Conference, five rungs down the ladder, 17 years later.

Black boots were still the norm. Harry Kane wasn’t even born.

McCarthy has spent in and around 12 months away from the dugout across the 16 years since.

His longest stint without a manager’s hat on was roughly eight months, in between the time in early 2006 when he was dismissed by Wolverhampton Wanderers and the announcement of his appointment at Ipswich Town later that year.

He spent almost six years at each of those clubs and stood as the eighth-longest-serving manager in the English game at the start of the current season. That first spell as a gaffer, in East London, lasted almost four years before he accepted the offer to take over the Republic of Ireland. A never-dull six-and-a-half years later and he was the main man at Sunderland.

More to Mick than rugged survival

That three-year term in the northeast stands as his shortest in charge anywhere.

Let’s dwell on that for a bit. McCarthy is superglue in a world where attachments are severed and sundered with little difficulty and even less thought. He has been sacked, of course, but who hasn’t? He is the survivor who makes it through to safety at the end of the movie when the rest have been eaten by sharks or succumbed to despair.

He’s even working a beard now as if in a nod to Robinson Crusoe himself.

The League Manager’s Association (LMA) produce an end-of-season report every summer that highlights just how choppy the waters he inhabits are. The latest showed how 63 managers left their posts across the four divisions last season. Forty-four were dismissed, another 19 ‘resigned’. Those most at risk were stationed in the Championship, with 19 clearing out their offices.

McCarthy wasn’t one of them. And he wasn’t one of them the year before either, when 20 of his colleagues — a wincing 83% — had their names peeled from the door. The turnover is head-spinning. The average term for a manager in the second tier of English football has hovered somewhere between 0.86 and 0.95 of a season in recent times.

“The numbers only serve to highlight that the game continues to present an increasingly more complex and volatile working environment for all the professional practitioners: the players, coaches, and managers.” So said LMA chief executive Richard Bevan. And that was three years ago.

McCarthy ended his time at Portman Road last Tuesday evening. He had already declared his intent to go after the last game of the campaign but the separation was accelerated after his substitution of former Limerick defender Barry Cotter on the lad’s debut elicited a chorus of boos from some of the faithful.

McCarthy’s relationship with a rump of the Ipswich support has long been strained and the man once dubbed as Ireland’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ branded the latest jeers as “disgraceful” afterwards, thumped his fist on the desk then turned his attention to the next chapter in a story that he is keen to continue.

“Yeah, I’ll go again,” he told the club’s TV channel. “I’m looking for a job.”

McCarthy seemed to be a popular figure among most in East Anglia, but he has suffered from an image problem for most of his time as a player and a manager so the hope here is that he finds a home where his qualities are appreciated.

More to Mick than rugged survival

People remember him as the guy who once kicked Gheorghe Hagi up and down the Stade Luigi Ferraris in Genoa in 1990 but not the centre-back who could — and did, time after time — deal with long, dropping balls by back-pedalling whilst under pressure from his marker and directing a cushioned header to the feet of a friendly full-back or midfielder.

His time in charge of his country will forever be headlined by Saipan and his failure to realise that Spain were reduced to 10 men in extra-time in the round of 16 and yet his Irish teams delivered some great days and goals, among them the delicious team move from which Robbie Keane opened the scoring against the Dutch in Amsterdam in 2000 when the game ended 2-2.

The rugged Irishman of Yorkshire descent has never been the full story. The man is far more layered. He wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise.

McCarthy was one of the managers interviewed by the author Michael Calvin for his book Living On the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager three years ago and his appraisal of the Saipan incident within those pages hints at how this straight talker has lasted so long on a stage where few get to clear their throats.

“It could have scarred me,” he explained. “It certainly defined me. But it hasn’t done me any harm.”


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