Big interview, part two: Mick McCarthy on the moment he almost changed his mind about taking the Ipswich Town job, why he dreads the prospect of egg on toast and how he encourages players to have opinions
Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans has said that manager Mick McCarthy has done a ‘miraculous’ job at Portman Road. STUART WATSON spoke to the Blues boss about the duo’s working relationship, what motivates him and why he doesn’t mind players with opinions.
There’s a phrase that goes ‘one day we’ll look back on this and laugh’ – thankfully it did turn out to be applicable to Ipswich Town’s 3-0 home defeat against Sheffield Wednesday on October 27, 2012.
That pitiful loss came following a tub-thumping pre-match press conference from caretaker boss Chris Hutchings. The Blues, who had just parted company with Paul Jewell, were rock-bottom of the Championship table having claimed only seven points from their opening 13 games.
Enter the stage Mick McCarthy.
The Yorkshireman won his first game in charge, 1-0 at Birmingham, and didn’t look back. His first full season in charge ended with a ninth-place finish. Four points from the last two games of this season would secure the club its first play-off place in a decade. He could become the first manager ever to guide three different clubs to the Premier League.
It’s no wonder that owner Marcus Evans has today hailed his manager as a miracle worker. Not only is the club going in the right direction again, but the turnaround has been masterminded by a manager who has been limited almost exclusively to free transfers, swaps and loan deals.
So how does McCarthy reflect on that first conversation with Evans now? What short, mid and long-term targets was he set and what had he promised?
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“There was none of that,” says the Blues boss. “I was away in Italy, I got the call and it was a bit like ‘oh s***’! He just said he’d like to talk to me about doing the job. I agreed to meet him, but, I have to be honest, I got off the phone, looked at the league table and thought ‘wow’. I really didn’t want a relegation from the Championship on my CV.
“It was funny because I was with my mate and he went ‘that’s alright, they’ve spent shed loads of money!’ And I went ‘yeah, that’s a point!’”
McCarthy continues: “I went and met Marcus at his house and I really liked him and his honesty about it. Nothing’s been different to what he said. “I was never promised loads of dough. Nothing I said has been different either. I just said I’d manage the club, I’d run it all, and do as best as I could.
“He said ‘do you think we can stay up?’ And I said ‘yeah, I think we can stay up’. I had no idea about the squad and the players, not really.
“I asked Taff (trusted former assistant manager Ian Evans) to come and watch the game before I took the job (the 3-0 Sheffield Wednesday loss). Oh wow, I have to tell you I nearly changed my mind after hearing that report!
“I sat in here and watched that game back with the staff. Wow, I could just see that everything that could go wrong was going wrong.
“It just needed to be tightened up. You know that stubborn, horrible, belligerent stuff we always talk about? Well, I looked at a team trying to play nice football that was getting slapped.
“I took some of the kids out. I’m not blaming those that were here before me for playing them because when things start going wrong you do start fishing for something different.
“At some stage though you just need to settle on a method and plan. Yes, you can tinker with it, but you always need a solid foundation from which you can play. If you haven’t you get done.”
This conversation is taking place in McCarthy’s office up at the club’s Playford Road training ground. It’s fuss-free, the set-up of office desk and circular table surrounded by chairs very much the same as it was for his predecessors. He admits that, on a gloriously sunny day, he’d much rather be outside.
There are a couple of things on the wall that stand out though. The first is a picture of Norman Rimmington, the Barnsley keeper, kit-man and general club legend who is now in his 10th decade and who McCarthy credits as having the biggest influence on his fledgling career. The second is a printed-off piece of writing.
“I’ve got a serenity prayer up there,” he explains. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
“I have a friend who’s a self-confessed alcoholic, he’s been off it for 10 years and I’m ever so proud of him because he was addicted to everything. He is one of my best, closest friends, and that’s their mantra, the alcoholics, and it’s a good one, I think. I like to think that’s the way I feel.”
It’s a mantra which seems fitting when we continue to talk about his working relationship with Evans.
“I’ve had people say to me ‘do you not get frustrated?’ They go ‘imagine what you could do with a few more quid’,” says McCarthy. “That’s never been in the equation, so why should I now start wanting something that I know is not there?
That would put a strain on our relationship if I start throwing my toys out of the pram.
“I never do that. I try to find a solution for things.
“He lets me manage the club, virtually, from top to bottom. Here, at the training ground, this is my domain. He leaves me to come in and run it and that’s what I’ve done.
“I don’t get any interference from Marcus, from Ian Milne (managing director), from anywhere.
Let me tell you, there will be a list of managers as long as my arm up and down the country that would love to have a chairman and benefactor that gives them the trust and freedom that I am afforded.”
Cheeky and opinionated as a youngster making his way in the game, Mick McCarthy has drawn upon his experiences as a player to maintain happy camps as a manager.
“My mother used to say ‘your tongue will get you hung’ – she was probably right on a few occasions,” he laughs.
“I remember going into Norman Hunter’s office (when I was at Barnsley), there were other people in there, and I went ‘there you go, transfer request’. I’d played all the games, had just been left out and I wasn’t happy.
“If somebody did that to me now... Actually, I’d like to think I’d pre-empt that. I wouldn’t just leave the guy out, I would deal with the situation first rather than just saying ‘you’re not playing’ and leaving them to stew on it. I’d stop them coming and kicking the door in.”
He continued: “When you’re young you say some bloody stupid things. I wasn’t insolent, I just cared passionately about what I did. I still do. If I had an opinion about something I gave it. And do you know what? Sometimes that opinion might just count.
“I’d like to think that if players have got something to say they would feel as though they can say it to me, as long as it gets said properly.
“At Watford recently I thought Adlene Guedioura was causing us problems, he was wandering around, getting on the ball, and I said ‘go to 4-3-3’ and Skusey (Cole Skuse) went ‘no, we’re alright, I’ve got it, we’re sorted’. And I went ‘OK’.
“Skusey’s a senior player, he’s got an opinion and he knows that I’ll respect it.”
What motivates Mick McCarthy more – the joy of winning or the fear of losing?
“Good question,” he says, leaning back in his chair to ponder for a moment.
“The joy of winning is never quite on the scale of elation that the pain of defeat is on the scale of frustration, or whatever you want to call it.
“If we win, me and TC (Terry Connor) might go and have a bite to eat with the girls, I’ll go home, I might watch a bit of TV, watch Match of the Day, and I’m feeling alright. I get up, I go to work, it’s a nice feeling, but I’m just feeling normal I think. It’s like any other day.
“But if we’ve lost, we don’t go out for a bite to eat, I go home, we’re having egg on toast or whatever is in the fridge. The following morning it’s a bit of a grind to get yourself out of bed to meet TC to watch the video back at seven o’clock.
“Once I’ve done that, and seen the lads, I think I’m alright again.”
He pauses again before adding: “If you win you just feel alright. If you lose you feel bloody lousy.”
Does that mean that he reflects more on the bad moments? There was the 1-0 defeat against Italy in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup as a player, the penalty shoot-out loss against Spain in 2002 as his country’s boss and the play-off semi-final heartache he suffered in charge of Sunderland and Wolves. Surely the heroes’ welcome the Irish got after both of those aforementioned tournaments, the two Championship titles he’s won, plus the promotions and silverware he had with Barnsley, Manchester City and Celtic stick in the mind more?
“I do remember the defeats more, the things that have cost me,” he admits. “Yes, I’ve won things as a player and manager, gone to World Cups, but I remember not getting to a competition, and not winning promotions, more than I do winning those matches.
“I don’t know if that’s sad actually. Somebody will probably analyse me and say I need to see a psychologist!”
I suggest that is probably not uncommon among sportsmen and women. Maybe it’s just the sign of a winner?
“People might say ‘if you fear failure you can’t go on and win’. I don’t think that’s the case,” he says. “Fear is not the word. It’s more that real hatred of losing.”
Roy Keane once decreed that all of his players must live within a certain distance of the Ipswich Town training ground. Many players didn’t like it, Ben Thatcher seeing out the rest of his Blues career training on his own over the issue.
Now the entire Blues squad and staff all live in and around the town – and that’s because they want to.
“My family home is in Bromley (London), but I have my apartment down by the marina and I’m there during the week and spend a lot of time here,” explains McCarthy, who often cycles to the training ground at the crack of dawn.
“There’s a fabulous atmosphere among the players and their wives and kids. Lots of them are similar ages and have similar age kids. I know a few of them meet up here, at the training ground, on their day off to have a kick about with their kids.
“It’s great that they all live around here. They all meet up for barbecues and go out and socialise together.”
When Keane’s policy is mentioned there is a wry smile.
“I find if you try and force people they don’t like it,” says McCarthy. “I’d be like that. If I’m forced to wear a shirt and have a shave, you can guarantee I’d try and wear something else and wouldn’t have a shave. I’d be almost spoiling for the fight. I think they’re unnecessary rules and regs.
“It’s funny how we’ve all gravitated here. The players all came in this morning and I could hear them saying ‘isn’t this Suffolk weather great?’. It helps that we’ve signed more, rather than the reliance on loans, and that they’ve all really become attached to the club and the area.
“It was a pain when we had lads travelling from London. I don’t think there was the same heart and soul as there is now. The players care about the place.”