Big interview, part one: Mick McCarthy on the side of him people don’t see, his upbringing and being a father figure
Mick McCarthy; a mix of Yorkshire grit and Irish charm. STUART WATSON sat down with the Ipswich Town boss to find out more about the man behind the stereotypes.
Michael Joseph McCarthy; what you see is what you get, straight-talking, intimidating, a product of the school of hard knocks, stubborn beyond belief, a healthy edge of arrogance with a dash of endearing dry humour. A mix of Yorkshire grit and Irish charm.
The very mention of such stereotypes induces the man to break into a trademark wry smile.
He, self-admittedly, is all those things. But, like all public figures, he is far more than the media caricature.
“I guess the public see me on television, growling and snarling on the sidelines, but that’s only me trying to get the best out of my team,” he says, sitting in his office at the training ground.
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“I do think there’s a side that people don’t see and doesn’t get recognised.”
I’ve certainly come to see a different side to the man during our two-and-half year working relationship; him as manager of Ipswich Town, me as the local newspaper’s football writer.
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When I first heard that he was to be the man that would replace Paul Jewell in the hot-seat, I tracked down his mobile number and sent a text along the lines of ‘look forward to working with you’. In truth, I didn’t know what to expect.
Like everyone else, I knew him – primarily – as the Republic of Ireland manager who was caught in the middle of a media storm following Roy Keane’s infamous exit from the 2002 World Cup. He was constantly described as ‘old school’, whatever that means. I was told by a fellow journalist that it wouldn’t be long before he called me a ‘numpty’. That advice proved to be correct.
And yet, I’d been here before with Keane himself. I’d flown to Portugal to observe a pre-season training camp and seen a very different, more relaxed side, to the snarling, world-is-out-to-get-me persona of the former Manchester United midfielder. I wasn’t the full-time reporter for Ipswich back then, but I saw enough of the complex Roy to believe that he cultivates his image. Jewell was great company when the going was good, but could be snide, without provocation, when the dark clouds came over.
McCarthy is none of the above. I’d slowly gathered that from our exchanges during relentless pre and post-match press conferences (around 250 now I’d estimate), but wanted to chat in a more relaxed environment. Finally, after months of asking, he agreed.
“I’m really caring and have a lot of empathy,” he says, peering over his reading glasses. “I like to see the best in people.
“And I think there’s a brighter side, an intelligent side, with regards the football that gets lost a little bit too I think.
“I’m not one to talk it all up and make myself sound super intelligent football wise, but you don’t have the record I’ve had without knowing a bit about the game.
“People judge you on what they see and me cursing on the sidelines is probably the only side most people get to see. I can’t help that.
“You know me differently because you’ve known me for two-and-half, nearly three years now. I think your perception of me will have changed over that time, without a doubt, because you’ve got to know me.
“That’s the same vice versa. If I only see you in a group press conference, I might think ‘he’s an idiot him’, until I maybe read something you’ve written or I’ve spent a bit of time with you.
“When I played I know someone asked Fiona (his wife) what I was like to live with. The undertone was evidently, ‘is he aggressive?’ She told me about it and I was thinking ‘is that the perception people have of me?’ I suppose that was just because of the way I played.
“We’re all guilty of judging people. That’s me as well. Like everyone else, you see a politician or an actor and go ‘he does my head in him’. I can’t blame people if they do that with me.”
His man-management techniques have always been admired, but does he feel annoyed that his football intelligence has got over-looked then?
“I don’t know how it can,” he replies. “Seven years as an international manager, the tactical side of it was pretty damn important then. I think that’s one of my strengths actually.
“I’ve always been ably assisted, but in fairness I went to the World Cup with Taff (Ian Evans), I won the Championship with Taff (at Sunderland) and I won the Championship with TC (Terry Connor, at Wolves). Maybe there’s a common denominator there?”
There’s that edge of arrogance. It’s a quality that would be unappealing if it wasn’t combined up with such a genial, affable nature. Every time you see him a warm handshake is offered. Eyes are always engaged. Polite words are always exchanged. He goes out of his way to interact with everyone, letting it be known he is accessible not just to first teamers, but back-room staff, whatever their role, and junior players, whatever their age.
“If I see a 10-year-old around the training ground they come and shake my hand now. Isn’t that lovely that he’s got the confidence to do it?
“It’s about giving them the confidence to do it rather them making them think ‘oh, that’s the manager, I can’t talk to him’.
“Because that’s what happens at some clubs. It’s like ‘don’t bother the gaffer on match day’. What? Do we stop living and breathing on match days? I just don’t get that.
“Some managers create that aura so that people leave them alone for a few days. They can pick their team and know that nobody will come and ask why. That’s not me.
“I am big on those life skills. It’s nice to be nice. If you haven’t got those life skills, and you’ve got people who are late and not civil, who are bad mannered and don’t shift their plates and knife and forks, all that, well that festers and spreads. I don’t think you can have a successful football club with that.”
The conversation returns to talk of Mick McCarthy stereotypes.
“Being a footballer is what I did, not what I am. Being a football manager is what I do and maybe that is what I am. Yes, I am aggressive at times. I stand my corner and will put it up with anybody. You have to have that because it’s that kind of profession. You see some standing on the sidelines who don’t do a great deal and they get portrayed as these quiet, thoughtful types. I’m not always convinced that they are as friendly and as nice a personality as they appear.”
Michael Joseph McCarthy; Not only refreshingly realistic in an increasingly unrealistic society, but also one of football’s genuine nice guys. Sometimes the old techniques are the best.
Charles McCarthy emigrated from Tallow, Waterford to start a driving job with a Barnsley engineering firm. He duly met Josephine and they had a family; John, Michael, Kevin and Catherine.
Josephine died of breast cancer aged 53. Charles died of ‘The Big C’, as Mick describes it, aged 71. His was of the bowel variety.
Mick is now 56, the same age as my dad. I’m 30, the same age as many of his players and similar to his three children – Anna, Katie and Michael all in their late 20s, early 30s.
The old analogy of football managers playing the father figure role inevitably gets raised as we talk in his office.
“I was brought up by normal people, whatever ‘normal’ is,” says Mick. “It was a real solid upbringing. I have two brothers and a sister and it was drummed into us the importance of hard work.
“My parents were lovely. My dad grafted 12 hours a day, my mother the same. I had lovely grandparents and was brought up in a loving family. I was nurtured and loved and cared for.
“It was a fairly tough area, but we weren’t poor or anything like that. Neither did we have loads of money.”
He continues: “I have a greater understanding now of what my players are going through in life because they are of an age of my kids.
“I’ve had players say to me ‘you’re treating me like a kid’. I said ‘you are a f****** kid! I’ve got kids who are older than you! You are a kid!’ If you behave like a kid then perhaps you deserve to be spoken to like one.
“On the flip side of that, I played in an era where if you lost you were an effing so-and-so all the time. I used to get irked by that. I wasn’t an effing so-and-so.
“I’d tried my nuts off for that guy and that club. I had bad games, as all players do, but it was never for the want of trying.
“That’s how I see my players now. I see them as people who are having a go. I’ll forgive them a lot.
“I hate losing, but I haven’t got annoyed with them too much since I’ve been here because I’ve got a good, hard-working, honest group of lads.
“It’s family isn’t it? You can say what you like about your brother and sister but woe betides anybody else who says it!
“I just try to love people for what they’re good at and try to improve what they’re not good at.
“And that can be on the pitch or off the pitch to be quite honest with you.
“I do see it as a family. I’m a manager, but I care about people.”
Talking of family, how important a role does wife Fiona – a childhood sweetheart – play in helping him deal with the pressures of the job?
“I’ll tell you that I do alright switching off, but Fiona will tell you different!” he laughs. “And she knows me better than I know myself at times.
“She knows when I’m far away and distant. And I don’t mean far away from home, but far away in my thoughts, sitting there all quiet.
“She never says ‘come on, it doesn’t matter’, because she knows that won’t appease me, but she’s a constant in my life and that’s always been good for me.
“Now I go and see my granddaughter of a weekend, which is a wonderful way to spend a day. I have a game of golf, I go out on my bike.
“I’ll watch boxsets on the bus. I’ve just gone through Fortitude and Game of Thrones. If there’s a soap on I might watch that, but TV’s not my thing really.
“I have learnt to deal with losing better over the years. Just because you’ve lost, your life is going to carry on and everybody else’s lives around you are going to carry on too.
“You can’t be that bear with the sore head and expect everybody else to tip-toe around you. I have to set the tone.
“Yes, it’s hurt, but you have to get on with it quickly and show other people that it’s the right thing to move on too.”