Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
“Two old farts who know nothing about the game, eh?” So spoke Mick McCarthy back in August of 2017, shortly after his Ipswich Town side had maintained their perfect start to yet another arduous Championship campaign. Level on points at the summit with Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, McCarthy couldn’t resist the opportunity to needle at his detractors in typically wry fashion. Four straight wins had earned him the right, in his eyes, to fire another bullet at disgruntled Portman Road attendees, many of whom had long grown weary of his not particularly eye-catching brand of football.
15 years in the second-tier, with precious little to get excited about, had radicalised much of the blue half of East Anglia. But making McCarthy the target of their opprobrium, rather than the chairman who tightened his purse-strings, was a mistake. McCarthy’s decision to fight fire with fire, however, was arguably just as bad; this tit-for-tat between he and the fans had been playing itself out for a while.
As early as September 2016, just four months after McCarthy had almost secured a second consecutive playoff berth on a shoestring, Ipswich fans reacted viciously to a surprise 2-0 defeat at Brentford. “I wish [one particular fan] would say it to my face on my own because his pint of lager, he’d have been wearing it,” reacted McCarthy, betraying a sensitivity to criticism that infamously divided a nation back in 2002. The Tractor Boys finished 16th that season, as four years of underinvestment finally came back to bite. Healthy seven-figure sums received for Aaron Cresswell, Tyrone Mings and Daryl Murphy were not recycled into reinforcements; the highest fee McCarthy dispensed in his first four full seasons at Portman Road was the rumoured €500,000 fee the club splashed out on current Denmark international Jonas Knudsen.
Prior consecutive finishes of 9th, 6th and 7th were, therefore, akin to miracles, but Ipswich fans were not having any of that. And McCarthy wasn’t having any of what they had to say about it either. Last season’s lightning-quick start, similarly miraculous given the injury crisis in train at the time, predictably failed to endure and relations between the two camps deteriorated further. McCarthy’s departure at the end of the season already pre-announced, it was no surprise when he walked abruptly with four games remaining. “It was a disgraceful reaction, that,” he said, commenting on the abuse he received for substituting the clearly-spent debutant Barry Cotter. “But I won’t have to listen to it again because that’s my last game. I’m out of here.”
Ipswich went on to finish 12th, safe as houses in mid-table and improbably fired there by Martyn Waghorn, a journeyman striker McCarthy signed from Rangers for a snip. Six months on, however, the club sit firmly rooted to the foot of the Championship, cut far adrift from safety with McCarthy’s successor Paul Hurst already jettisoned. Ipswich fans, who so welcomed the end of McCarthy’s five-and-a-half year tenure, may be more careful what they wish for in the future. The 59-year-old’s methods, however difficult to watch in practice, have been comprehensively vindicated.
But not so on the island he used to represent as a player, in the country of birth of his father Charles, it seems. Despite stopping short of branding McCarthy an “old fart”, several journalists and legions of disappointed fans queued up to cast aspersions on the FAI’s John Delaney for presiding over an unimaginative — and rushed — appointment. They argued that Dundalk’s Stephen Kenny deserved a chance at Irish soccer’s top gig instead, if only to export his uniquely expansive brand of League of Ireland football from Oriel Park to the Aviva Stadium. Delaney duly folded to their whims in short order, logic and reason again sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Kenny will now apparently take the reins in 2020, and McCarthy’s tenure may already be fatally undermined.
In comparison to his already-anointed successor, the coming man with exciting ideas, McCarthy is apparently seen as something of a dinosaur; another Giovanni Trapattoni, for whom the ends justify the means; or worse, another Martin O’Neill, under whom there were no means at all. Certainly, it is exceedingly difficult to justify the haste with which Delaney and his long-serving board appointed the Yorkshireman. Especially when outstanding international candidates like Carlos Queiroz, who transformed Iranian football over a seven-year period, had reputedly expressed an interest. Offering McCarthy his predecessor’s initial salary, amounting to a reported €1.2 million, is also baffling in the extreme; wholly unnecessary to incentivise an unemployed man to reassume a role he has openly coveted.
But, those two cogent points set aside, the narrative presented to date does McCarthy’s talents a huge disservice, while also running the risk of over-evangelising Kenny’s. The latter’s achievements over the past six years, dragging Dundalk from oblivion to unimagined success and financial security, are beyond reproach. And the 47-year-old’s European breakthrough in 2016, earning the Louth side group stage Europa League football, was matched only by Michael O’Neill during the Northern Ireland boss’ similarly successful stint at Shamrock Rovers.
After a slow start, O’Neill has exceeded all expectations in the Northern Irish hotseat, restoring his nation of birth to a level of competence not seen in at least three decades. But, unlike Kenny, whose feats at Dundalk were similarly transformative, the Portadown native has done it all in spite of a pool of players that most managers would deem unfit for purpose. O’Neill, like Kenny, is thorough, however, favouring a meticulous approach to football management that shames his recently-dismissed namesake. In the words of Gavin Whyte, who took time out from the glamourous world of Oxford United to help outplay the Republic recently: “The manager and the staff have it drilled into us and every one of us knows our roles, even if we’re coming off the bench. And it’s not just this game. It’s all the way through and we play as a team.” Kenny too made similar noises about drilling his players thoroughly during a recent job-pitch, masquerading as an interview, with the Irish Times’ Emmet Malone.
But that, perhaps, is where comparisons between the two men end. For that Times interview also betrayed an uncomfortable fact about Kenny, that all of his recent advocates are choosing to overlook: the Dundalk supremo is a self-admitted footballing dogmatist, who believes wholeheartedly that “there is only one style of play.” In conversation with Malone, Kenny waxed lyrical about how all of his sides endeavour to play through midfield and get their full-backs forward. And, when given two chances to temper his strong sentiments, Kenny instead doubled down, insisting: “For me, there is a right way of playing. Maybe another coach will have another view. But I don’t agree with that, I don’t agree at all. Either we succeed or we fail doing it my way but I never have compromised on that.” As fans of Dunfermline Athletic know all too well.
It’s difficult to imagine Michael O’Neill, himself an outstanding candidate for the Republic vacancy, speaking in such absolute terms. At times, Northern Ireland both pressed and passed brilliantly — above their collective level, in fact — during an unbelievably unfortunate Nations League campaign. But earlier success, crystallised at Euro 2016, was built on an ultra-defensive approach that brought Northern Ireland to victory over the Ukraine and the rarefied air of knockout stage football. Neither Wales, Poland, nor Germany, had an easy ride either; all three triumphed over the Northern Irish by only the slenderest of margins. There is a sense, therefore, that O’Neill is a true footballing pragmatist, and not in the twisted modern meaning of the word that reduces it to a synonym for “boring” either. He tailors his style of play to the situation at hand; for him there are many styles, not one. The 4-0 Europa League thrashing Kenny suffered in Larnaca last September, throughout which Dundalk were predictably and disastrously open, likely would not have befallen O’Neill.
Nor, for that matter, would it likely have befallen McCarthy, another genuine footballing pragmatist. Despite the scant resources at his disposal, McCarthy tried on several occasions to inject more flair and excitement into Ipswich’s ponderous and cautious style of play. But heavy defeats, like the 5-1 reverse to Reading in 2015, always caused the 59-year-old to retrench and revert to a safer outlook befitting the playing staff at his disposal. That Blues fans criticised him so harshly for taking such understandable care seems odd in the extreme; but, again, 15 unbroken years in the Championship can do strange things to a person’s sanity.
And it’s not as if McCarthy sides haven’t played exciting football before either. While hardly a possession-hogging advocate, the new/old Ireland boss has almost always employed a high-tempo style that grabs the attention. And his record prior to Ipswich, derided by many over the last few days, looks pretty impressive, too. The average Championship manager lasts just 13 months in his chosen hotseat, but McCarthy preceded his mammoth stay in East Anglia with an equally prolonged stint at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Here, McCarthy took a rudderless side drifting under his predecessor Glenn Hoddle and immediately gave them purpose, eventually winning the Championship at a canter in his third season.
What is perhaps forgotten is that McCarthy then comfortably kept Wolves up the following season, avenging his disastrous maiden Premier League campaign with Sunderland that ended in inglorious failure and unemployment. And Wolves survived again at the end of the 2010-11 season, albeit barely, as McCarthy’s mishandling of a €20m transfer kitty backfired on the amiable Yorkshireman. The ill-fated €8m signing of Roger Johnson followed that summer and Wolves continued to disimprove, with McCarthy shown the door before season’s end as the Black Country side brought up the Premier League rear.
Such ignominious endings are what Kenny pushers chose to dwell on this weekend. But let’s get real: what working football manager wouldn’t see diminishing returns after six years in a job? Even Pep Guardiola, a man whose unrivaled resources give him licence to insist on “only one style of play”, has admitted that players stop listening so well after a certain point; no matter how good the coach bending their ear is. In reality, and leaving aside his first stint as Ireland manager throughout which he was self-admittedly learning on the job, the biggest mistake McCarthy has made in the past is outstaying his welcome. That and the misallocation of transfer cash at Molineux which, of course, won’t be an issue in the international arena.
Throughout his impending sophomore stint as Republic of Ireland manager, McCarthy will face all manner of teams, with varying strengths and weaknesses. And thankfully, unlike his predecessor, the Barnsley native will almost certainly prepare his players thoroughly for whatever challenge may lie ahead. Set-pieces, so vital at international level, should no longer be an Achilles heel, for example; last season, with his departure practically a fait accompli from the outset, Ipswich still scored the fourth-most goals from dead-balls and only six teams conceded fewer. And crucially, unlike his supposed successor Kenny, McCarthy will not be wedded to one true style of play. He will instead endeavour to do what works, whatever that may be, whenever it’s called for, and his players will be left in no doubt as to what’s expected of them. The football may be rudimentary and even difficult to watch at times, but there will always be a plan; and after five years of watching Martin O’Neill make it up as he went along, that’s exactly what Ireland needs.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112