From sweet to sour - The change in fortunes of Mick McCarthy and Ipswich Town
With Mick McCarthy enduring the most dismal period of his reign at Ipswich Town, and with increasing fan pressure on him to quit his job, CHRIS BRAMMER looks back at the Blues boss’ time in charge at Portman Road and remembers a time when it wasn’t all bad.
Former Sunderland and Wolves boss McCarthy was appointed manager of the rock-bottom Blues on November 1, 2012, and took over a team that were five points adrift of safety in the Championship.
“It’s a fantastic football club, with a proud tradition and history and a terrific fan base. While the long term ambition is to take the club back into the Premier League, it’s clear that the first priority is to get some confidence back into the team and start climbing the table,” said McCarthy on his unveiling at Portman Road.
The ex-Republic of Ireland boss arrived in Suffolk with an excellent pedigree, having guided both Wolves and the Black Cats to Championship title-winning campaigns.
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And he worked his magic immediately at Town, guiding the Blues to a 1-0 win at Birmingham, courtesy of a DJ Campbell goal. This was Ipswich’s first league win in 11 games, just their second of the season and their first clean sheet since a 1-0 victory at Watford in August.
However, on a high after the victory at St Andrew’s, the Blues were brought back down to earth with a bump - a 2-1 home win against Burnley being sandwiched in between a 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace and a 6-0 reverse at Leicester.
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Things did gradually improve after that though and following a 1-1 home draw with Peterborough, five victories and a draw followed in the next seven games and Town finished the year in 19th and gradually growing in optimism.
Brighton came to Portman Road on New Year’s Day and won 3-0, but the arrivals of experienced professionals such as David McGoldrick (loan), Richard Stearman (loan) and Jay Tabb (free) gave the Blues some stability.
After the Seagulls’ reverse, Town would go on to lose only six of their last 2-0 games during the 2012-13 season – home thumpings of Middlesbrough, Leeds and Palace and a late Carlos Edwards winner at Derby proving to be particular highlights.
Optimism was high that better times lay ahead as Town entered the 2013-14 season.
McCarthy had worked wonders rescuing Town from the clutches of League One and now he had time to mould his own team.
Jay Tabb returned on a permanent deal, having impressed during his short-term stay and he scored in a disappointing but ultimately encouraging 2-1 defeat at Reading on the opening day.
Also arriving were Christophe Berra - one of McCarthy’s trusted troops at Wolves, McGoldrick – who had turned his move from Forest into a permanent one, having seen his contract expire at the City Ground – perennial loanee Daryl Murphy, Cole Skuse from Bristol City and Skuse’s Ashton Gate team-mate Paul Anderson, who arrived in Suffolk as part of a swap deal with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.
After the defeat at Reading, there was early disappointment in the League Cup as a much-changed team lost at lower-league Stevenage – cup misery would become a regular occurrence over the coming years.
However, the Blues grabbed their first win of the season, at home to Millwall and, after two defeats and a draw, won three of their next four to cap off a topsy-turvy start to the season.
Just two defeats in 16 followed a loss at Wigan, but consistency was a problem as eight draws kept them away from maintaining a serious play-off push.
Another cup defeat followed, this time in the FA Cup to another lower-league side in Preston.
After defeat to the Lilywhites, Town could concentrate on building in the league, albeit the play-offs seemed out of their reach, and nine victories and five draws in their last 21 games saw Town finish ninth, four points off the top-six.
A big improvement on the previous season, albeit McCarthy had masterminded a Town’s escape from certain relegation, and things were looking up.
The best season of McCarthy’s tenure to date.
The Blues boss led his side to the play-offs, although there was disappointment at the climax of the season as Ipswich were beaten 4-2 by bitter rivals Norwich City in a two-legged semi-final.
Paul Anderson had cancelled out Jonny Howson’s opener for the Canaries in the first leg, but after Christophe Berra’s sending-off for deliberate handball in the second leg, which led to Norwich scoring from the spot, the hosts eventually proved too strong for their Suffolk visitors - goals from Nathan Redmond and Cameron Jerome cancelling out Tommy Smith’s equaliser, which had give Blues fans hope.
Despite the play-off agony, the season was an excellent one as far as Town’s long-suffering fans had been concerned – Ipswich reaching the play-offs for the first time in a decade.
There had been plenty of good news stories during the season, McCarthy, quite rightly, receiving a lot of praise for working relative miracles with little at his disposal in terms of a budget.
Free transfer Daryl Murphy enjoyed the season of his life, hitting 27 goals for the Blues. Then there was £10,000 signing from Chippenham, Tyrone Mings, who proved a revelation at left-back, replacing Aaron Cresswell – who had completed a multi-million pound move to West Ham the previous summer.
The emergence of teenage midfielder Teddy Bishop was another in the box, McCarthy trusting in a product of the youth team, while the likes of Bartosz Bialkowski, Kevin Bru, Jonathan Parr and mid-season signings Freddie Sears and Noel Hunt, all played their part in Town’s success.
The signs looked positive for the coming season.
McCarthy was looking to build on the success of the 2015-16 season and Town fans were hoping that they could go one step further than the last campaign.
A big blow came in the form of last season’s revelation, Tyrone Mings, leaving for Bournemouth, but that was tempered somewhat with exciting winger Ryan Fraser coming the opposite way on loan, as part of the deal.
Bournemouth striker Brett Pitman also arrived with a reputation of being a regular goal-getter in the Championship, while left-back Jonas Knudsen arrived from Danish side Esbjerg.
However, there were a number of arrivals that were less heralded and who failed to make an impact.
Unknown Polish defender Piotr Malarczyk barely played before leaving in the 2016-17 season, Australian winger Tommy Oar stayed a matter of months before returning to his homeland with Brisbane Roar, Larsen Toure was another unknown who failed to make any sort of impact, while James Alabi struggled to make an impression, apart from scoring a League Cup goal in a win at Doncaster.
There were injuries to contend with too, McCarthy being without flair players David McGoldrick and Teddy Bishop for most of the season. Town would struggle to replace them.
Town were one of the early frontrunners, three wins from their first four games setting them up nicely for the visit of fellow high-flyers Brighton, but the Blues got a rude-awakening as the eventual play-off semi-final losers raced into an early two-goal lead and eventually won at Portman Road 3-2.
One win in nine followed – a 1-0 victory at Leeds - and Town fell off the pace, a 5-1 defeat at Reading, on TV, proving particularly damaging.
They were not helped by an injury to Fraser, their star man in the early weeks of the season – the youngster sustaining a knee ligament injury in mid-October that would rule him out for several weeks.
However, seven wins in the next 10 games suggested Fraser may not be missed as much as first envisaged, Pitman, Sears and Daryl Murphy in particular providing plenty of success in front of goal.
Town’s recent good form had seen them flirt with the play-offs but they dropped out of the top-six following a disappointing home draw with Preston.
Worse was to follow as Town’s woeful record in cup competitions under McCarthy continued, this time League Two Portsmouth being the victors, at Fratton Park, against an under-strength Blues side.
Fraser had returned to the fold during a successful December for Town, although he was mainly on the bench as McCarthy was reluctant to change a winning side, but he was soon to be ruled out again, this time with a hamstring problem sustained in the 1-0 defeat at QPR in the new year.
Ben Pringle came in from Fulham on-loan to replace him but two defeats followed, bad defending at Bristol City gifting the towering Aden Flint two first half goals, before the Blues suffered a 1-0 defeat to Hull.
Back-to-back victories followed, at Huddersfield and at home to Forest, but Town were struggling to reach the heights of the previous season, with defensive mistakes becoming more frequent and a lack of guile in attack, clear for all to see.
One win in 10 followed as Town limped towards the end of the season and a shock win at Derby followed by a final-day 3-2 victory over relegated MK Dons, at Portman Road, failed to lighten the mood - Town finishing seventh, but five points off the play-offs, having never really been in contention during the second half of the season.
One chink of light was the emergence of 16-year-old Andre Dozzell, who scored on his league debut at Hillsborough in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday.
After seasons of bringing in free transfers, free agents and loans, Mick McCarthy was eventually allowed to splash the cash a little.
He signed exciting winger, Grant Ward, from Rotherham and Portsmouth defender Adam Webster, who had impressed in the Cup game between the teams in January, both for substantial six-figure fees.
Both aged 21, the new arrivals seemingly signified a change in transfer policy, the club turning away from experienced free transfers and loans and looking to the future with young prospects.
Also arriving were young loanees Conor Grant and Tom Lawrence, while the experienced Leon Best (free), Luke Varney (free) and Jonny Williams (loan) - the latter for his fourth spell on loan, also signed on.
Town fans were hoping that popular midfielder Williams, who had been hit by bad injury luck at Portman Road and at parent club Crystal Palace, would finally get a run of games this time around, given his exploits with Wales at Euro 2016.
It was not to be though, Williams suffering a shoulder injury in the game at Wigan, having been used sparingly by McCarthy to that point.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Grant had seen his loan deal ended, with McCarthy being unable to grant the Everton youngster regular football.
Teddy Bishop, Brett Pitman and David McGoldrick being sidelined with injury for regular periods did not help the cause either and Town stuttered through the first half of the season, failing to put back-to-back victories on the board.
Tom Lawrence was proving to be a bright spot, McCarthy becoming increasingly under-pressure due to his pragmatic approach and cautious football, the youngster scoring in the win at Sheffield Wednesday, two victories over QPR and with a brace in the home victory over Blackburn.
However, his most significant goals cam in the FA Cup tie with non-league Lincoln City – the Welsh international sparing the blushes of McCarthy’s side who were four minutes away from suffering an embarrassing defeat at home to the Imps.
Unrest was growing on the terraces, McCarthy having to bat off questions about his future and the fans’ attitude towards him, which was becoming increasingly toxic.
If anything could take the pressure off him, it would be a win at Lincoln in the replay.
It was not to be though, the Blues failing to perform on a bitterly cold evening in front of a national television audience.
The Blues mustered just two shots on target all night and were hit by a last-minute sucker-punch, Nathan Arnold finishing off a quick break after Lawrence’s poor delivery into the box was cleared by the City defence.
That sent Lincoln into ecstasy and a fourth round home clash with Brighton.
As for McCarthy, the result left his job hanging by a thread.