Liam Daish tells a story about the day Ebbsfleet won the FA Trophy at Wembley in 2008 in front of a crowd of 40,000.
“Earlier in the season, there was a lad that played for us called Daniel Slatter”, he says.
“He’d been a regular for two or three years but damaged his knee quite severely halfway through that season so he wasn’t involved.
“But when Paul went to receive the trophy as captain, he looked for Danny, took him up the stairs and led him up in front of him just to make sure he was still part of the celebrations.
"Sometimes that goes unnoticed. But think about it. Paul would probably never get another chance to lead a team up the steps of the new Wembley but the first thing that came into his head was, ’Where’s Danny? He’s coming up with me’. And that says it all, really”.
At 36, that was one of the great days for Paul McCarthy. There had been other minor moments down through the years.
Cup competitions were always kind to him. A lifelong Liverpool fan, there was the trip to Anfield in 1991 for an FA Cup Fourth Round tie when he was just a kid at Brighton.
Memorably, they came from 2-0 down to force a replay.
A decade later, it was Liverpool again, this time in the semi-finals at Villa Park.
During that incredible Cup run, McCarthy conjured up a litany of goals for Wycombe Wanderers.
An overhead kick winner against Millwall, an equaliser against Grimsby, another one in the replay, there was the last-gasp, extra-time strike against Wimbledon that forced a shootout and the opener in the quarter-final victory over top-flight Leicester.
That season, only Arsenal’s Sylvain Wiltord scored more FA Cup goals than him. Not that he cared too much about such trivial things.
“There was nothing self-promoting about Paul”, Daish says.
“He wasn’t there to tell you about all of his yesterdays. All he wanted to do was come in, do a hard day’s graft and do the best job he could. There wasn’t a vision in front of him that he wanted to aspire to.
“He just wanted to be there, work hard for whoever he was playing for, be a good team-mate to his peers and be a good father and husband. And that was his priority”.
Brian Carey played against McCarthy quite a few times in the lower leagues. Later on, when McCarthy assisted Daish at Ebbsfleet, Carey shared a touchline with him too.
Two imposing centrebacks. Two Corkmen. Conversations were inevitable.
“He would’ve been at Wycombe and I was at Wrexham when we faced each other”, he remembers.
“We’d exchange pleasantries about Cork. ’How you getting on?’ ’How you finding it’? We’d chat about who we knew and it was like that two or three times every season. I bumped into him a few times in Cork. I remember seeing him in The Lough once. With him being from the northside, I was wondering what he was doing there and who let him in!
“Later, I was helping Dean (Saunders) at Wrexham and Paul was with Liam at Ebbsfleet and we’d speak afterwards and have a beer.
“The conversation was about football and Cork. Simple stuff – no drama, no histrionics. I think everyone would say the same thing about him: a good pro and a good person”.
Cork is always linked to McCarthy’s story. The Rockmount years.
The deep-rooted connection to Roy Keane, who he was just six days older than. But McCarthy racked up 23 years of a professional career in England. 635 appearances. Five clubs. 37 goals. A host of underage caps for his country.
“He was a lot more than Keane’s ex-team-mate. Though Daish, who earned a number of senior Irish caps in the mid-1990s – saw some similarities between the two.
“They were both their own men”, he says.
“It wasn’t that football took over Paul – it wasn’t his be-all and end-all. He came and did his job. He worked hard. He didn’t leave anything in the tank but then went back to his family. And then he’d do it all again in training or in a match.
"There were no airs and graces. No bullshit. He was a down to earth, hard-working fella who adored his family – his wife Cath and his four girls. His values were his strength. There was no hidden agenda. He was always there for me. In good times and in tough times as well. He was a proper man. When he met you, he stood straight, his shoulders were back, his chest was out, he gave you a handshake that meant something. He was that sort of guy”.
There’s another story that Daish tells. About a Friday afternoon in 2012.
“We went through many emotions together – Paul and I”, he says.
“We were playing Stockport County and it was an overnight. I was getting on the coach and got a call. My father had been killed in a car accident. And the first person that was there for me was Paul. Those are the personal memories I have. He was there for me at a really dire time. Some people would’ve shirked away from that. But Paul was the first one to get his arms around me and I’ll always remember that”.
Daish’s voice cracks quite a few times during our conversation. Speaking about McCarthy in the past tense still doesn’t feel right. In many ways, it feels like he’s still here. Daish has the old messages on his phone, some old photos that McCarthy scanned through for him recently.
“That’s part of the pain, isn’t it? It can help but it brings back everything”, Daish says.
“But I embrace it because I think Paul deserves it. Every dressing room he was a part of, he would’ve had the respect of everyone in it. I always said that you can have the plaudits from fans and managers but it’s not in the same league as having the respect from your peers.
It’s such a tragic loss. You couldn’t live a better life than what Paul had. It’s still hard to get my head around. It’s going to take time before it sinks in. If it ever does. There are not enough Paul McCarthys in dressing-rooms now. You need that honesty and that work ethic to be a good, solid pro. And that’s what Paul was. And above all that, he was a good, solid man”.
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