It’s just before 9:30pm on a bitterly cold late October 2002 night and the atmosphere in the Lansdowne Road stands is very similar to the weather.
The final whistle has just sounded on the Republic of Ireland’s first (and what would soon be only) competitive home defeat during the reign of manager – and former captain – Mick McCarthy.
That defeat was a 1-2 reverse at the hands of a Swiss side that would go on to win that UEFA Euro 2004 qualification Group 10.
The summer just gone had seen a successful World Cup for the Irish – coming within a penalty shoot-out against Spain of matching the achievements of the nation’s greatest ever performance on the sport’s greatest stage, which came following what had been the traumas of the infamous Saipan incident which immediately preceded that 2002 global football finals.
The Republic’s Euro 2004 qualification campaign did not get off to a good start as the Boys in Green went down to a 4-2 defeat to Russia at Moscow’s Lokomotiv Stadium, in September 2002, for what was the Republic’s first competitive game following the 2002 World Cup.
The “Roy (Keane) is always right” brigade were then out in full voice on that October (2002) night for the nation’s second Euro 2004 qualifier against the Swiss and that game in Dublin saw Fabio Celesitini net the winner two minutes from time some ten minutes after Gary Breen had equalized Hakan Yakin’s end-of-first-half opener.
The boos and jeers descended from the old Lansdowne stands as the final whistle blew confirming the Swiss win – and the target of the derision from the terraces was one Michael Joseph ‘Mick’ McCarthy.
Mick sensed (it would have been very difficult not to) that a very sizable proportion of the Irish support had turned against him – but he reacted to that situation in a very different manner to one Giovanni Trapattoni – a man who has found himself in a very similar situation over recent weeks and months.
Mick’s reaction to that disappointing late October night in Dublin was to spend a couple of weeks phoning all of the players in that (late 2002) Irish senior international squad to gauge their feelings on the matter. While he most likely did not ask them directly whether they felt he should step down as Irish manager or not, the decision of whether he should stay or go was quite clearly the purpose behind those phone calls to his trusted lieutenants. On 5th November 2002, the “Roy is always right” brigade got their way and Mick McCarthy ended his near seven year tenure as Republic of Ireland manager.
Mick was then left at something of a crossroads in his career. As a player, he was a tough tackling, no nonsense central defender who took no prisoners on the pitch. When he took over as manager of the Republic of Ireland in February 1996, he proved to be somewhat different as a boss. He of course still had the same abrasive wit and demeanor but he went on to completely change the style of play of the country’s senior international footballing team from the kick and rush “long ball” game of his predecessor Jack Charlton. The nation’s 1990 World Cup captain also went on to give debuts to what would turn out to be some world class talent – most notably Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and Richard Dunne.
Under Mick’s reign the Republic went from late 20s in the FIFA world rankings when he took over (second qualifying seeds) to 9th in the world (and top seeds) by the start of the Euro 2004 qualification campaign. The Saipan incident of course besmirched McCarthy’s managerial reputation for a very sizable number of people on these shores in particular – but also abroad.
Mick left the Irish job because he felt, such were the factions at the time, that his presence was a distraction and that walking away was the best thing to do for Irish football. It would be nice if a certain 73 year-old Italian had acted with similar consideration over recent weeks.
Mick did however, not know when he would get another job in football. What was in his favor was that he was still only 43 years of age (that is when he left the Irish job in November 2002), he was hungry, had a list of football contacts as long as his arm and knew he could do a job at football’s sharp edge.
Mick had said during his early days as Republic of Ireland manager that he “felt guilty” at not going to work every day and it felt “strange” at first to have to work barely 100 days a year – but such is the life of a senior international manager. Mick had tried international management and he wanted the daily drug that is club football.
He knew that his route back into club football would almost certainly come from another manager’s demise. That manager would be Sunderland’s former England (caretaker) boss – Howard Wilkinson. The Black Cats had endured a miserable 2002-’03 FA Premier League season and Wilkinson was sacked in March 2003 as Sunderland languished at the bottom of the Premier League with a then league-history-worst total of 19 points. Wilkinson won only two league games from a total of 20 Premier League fixtures that season.
For McCarthy, the rest of that 2002-’03 Premier League season was effectively about building a team that would try to push for promotion from the First Division the next season.
That (2003-’04) season, McCarthy’s Sunderland reached the First Division promotion play-offs but lost in a penalty shoot-out to Crystal Palace after Palace had scored a stoppage-time equalizer.
The following season was to see Mick remove the doubts of all but the most blinkered of observers as to his managerial abilities (also known as the “Roy is always right”brigade.) That 2004-’05 season saw McCarthy’s Black Cats romp to the English League First Division title amassing a total of 94 points – some seven points clear of their nearest rival.
Life was to prove much tougher in the Premiership for the north east club however. McCarthy had a total of £6million stg to spend on everything for the 2005-’06 season with the Black Cats. When I say ‘everything’ I’m referring to; player’s transfer fees, wages, agent’s fees and auxiliary staff wages. Needless to say, the club were destined to struggle desperately with such a small top flight budget and following a poor start to the season, with the club eight points adrift at the bottom of the Premier League table, with just ten games remaining, McCarthy was relieved of his managerial duties by the Sunderland board. Some years later, Sky Sports Chris Kamara asked McCarthy: “You had £6million to spend with Sunderland that (2005-’06) Premier League season – what did ya blow it all on?!!” which was of course greeted with a wry smile from “Big Mick.”
Ironically, McCarthy was followed as Sunderland manager by his Saipan 2002 nemesis, Roy Keane, with one Niall Quinn’s Drumaville Consortium investing some £100million stg into the club just a few short months after McCarthy had left Wearside for the final time as manager. The Black Cats would go on to win promotion from the 2006-’07 English First Division, with a total of 92 points – illustrating the level of the achievements of McCarthy, who garnered two points more than that total two seasons earlier with a fraction of the budget of the 2006-’07 season Black Cats.
“Big Mick” was not to be out of football for long after leaving Sunderland and he would replace another former England manager – Glenn Hoddle as manager of First Division strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers – at the end of July 2006. McCarthy was approached by new Wolves’ chairman Steve Morgan in early July with Hoddle having departed days earlier, the club having seven first team players signed for the following season and just over £1million to spend. This was to be a rebuilding job for the former Irish boss who quipped to Morgan before signing his first contract as manager at Molineux: “If you expect me to win promotion here in my first season in charge, then I’m staying on the beach!”
Construction magnate Morgan had pledged to former Wolves owner Sir Jack Hayward that he would invest £30million in the club and Morgan was true to his word. The majority of that money was initially put towards developing the infrastructure at the west midlands club however. McCarthy managed to collect together a team from the club’s youth ranks, together with some lower league signings as well as a host of free transfers. Despite the lack of expectations, his team managed to make the promotion play-offs in McCarthy’s first season in charge, but it was third time unlucky for McCarthy at the play-off stage as the Old Gold club lost out narrowly to local rivals West Bromwich Albion over two legs.
The 2007-’08 season saw further disappointment for Mick’s Wolves as he took the club to within a single placing of a successive play-off finish, ending seventh, losing the coveted sixth place to Watford by a goal difference of only one. Intriguingly, that season had also seen Mick linked with a return to his job as Ireland manager, and bizarrely the South Korea job, though the man who won 57 caps as a player for the Republic of Ireland was happy to stay in club management.
When he took over at Wolves, McCarthy promised to get Wolves promoted to the Premier League within three seasons and he proved to be good to his word, guiding the Molineux outfit to the English Championship title at the end of his third season in charge, having led the table from October of that (2008-’09) season right through until the end of the season in May. McCarthy had guided his pack of Wolves to a club record equaling start to the season which would eventually see them lead the table for 42 of the 46 game season as the Barnsley native son of Waterford’s Charles McCarthy was awarded twoChampionship Manager of the Month awards as well as the Championship Manager of the Season trophy for that (2008-’09) season.
The following season, McCarthy consolidated his managerial reputation as he guided Wolves to their target at the start of the season – survival in the Premier League. The club were to eventually finish 15th in the 20 team top flight – some five points above the drop. It was the first time Wolves had ever survived relegation from the modern Premier League and was their best top flight finish since the 1979-’80 season.
The club’s second season in English football’s top flight was to prove to be one of the most dramatic in history. The club spent most of the season in or around the relegation zone but recorded wins over the much more illustrious Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. Wolves’ swashbuckling style of play was not suited to the aim of containment of the clubs in and around them however and having garnered a total of just 17 points from their 18 starts against teams in the bottom half (compared with their eventual 23 points from 20 games against teams from the division’s top half), meant that Wolves were always likely to struggle.
As it would turn out, Wolves faced a final day (2010-’11 season) relegation showdown against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park with the winner definitely safe, but a draw or defeat leaving the side who’d fail to win requiring favors from results elsewhere to survive. Blackburn went on to win that game 3-2 with, appropriately enough, a last minute goal from Republic of Ireland international Stephen Hunt (McCarthy had a policy of regularly recruiting Irish players) eventually securing survival – though Birmingham’s concession of a last second goal at St. Andrews meant that the Brummies would finish a point adrift of Wolves in the relegation placings, with McCarthy’s men surviving by one place – and one point at season’s end. This gave McCarthy the distinction of being the first Wolves manager in 30 years to maintain the club’s top flight position for two successive seasons and with the Molineux stadium set for a multi-million pound expansion, things were looking up for the Old Gold outfit.
The 2011–’12 season began well for McCarthy and, at one stage, his team topped the Premier League after beginning with two wins. However, results tailed off and by January, they had once again entered the relegation zone following nine games without a win. That same season Wolves sold £15million stg worth of players and the manager was allowed to spend just £12million on new playing recruits. When, on 13th February last, Wolves slumped to a 1-5 defeat to – of all teams – their bitter local rivals West Brom – McCarthy’s departure seemed inevitable and he was to leave the Molineux training ground for the final time within 24 hours of that reverse. At the time of his dismissal, he was the seventh longest current serving manager in English league football, having spent almost six years at Wolves. McCarthy made a point of speaking to and saying goodbye to every player, coach, and auxiliary staff member the day the Wolves’ board told him that he had been relieved of his managerial duties.
Several Wolves’ players took the unprecedented step of speaking out publicly in the immediate aftermath of McCarthy’s departure from the club, with captain Roger Johnson telling Sky Sports News that McCarthy’s sacking was the wrong decision and that “Mick was the best man to keep us motivated until the end of the season. The players need to take a lot of the blame for the recent poor performances as well. We just haven’t played well enough.”
Mick was gone though and with the 1-5 reverse to West Brom seeing Wolves slip into the relegation zone on goal difference, McCarthy’s coach Terry Connor took over the reigns as ‘gaffer’ at Molineux until the end of the season. The club would fail to win any of their remaining 11 Premier League games of the 2011-’12 season, garnering a paltry total of four points from those games as their last place finish – and relegation from the Premier League – was confirmed three games before the end of the season as the club eventually finished 12 points adrift of safety.
McCarthy now faces another relegation battle some eight months after leaving his last relegation battle – but this time in a division lower as he has been appointed the new boss of Ipswich Town. He has once again recruited Terry Connor as coach of the Tractor Boys. McCarthy’s new employers sit at the bottom of the npower Championship table and are without a win from their last 12 league games. For McCarthy it’s a familiar story – he comes to a club who are down on their luck, with a comparatively small budget and Mick’s mission is to send them rocketing up the table.
First things first however for the second generation Irishman is to get the club out of the relegation zone. It’s one of the 53 year-old’s most difficult challenges in the game – but what is certain however is that the future at Portman Road is about to get a lot more entertaining – both on the pitch as well as at post match press conferences.
Mick has signed a two-and-a-half year contract at Ipswich Town. Having seen his new charges achieve their first win from their last 13 starts in what was his first match in charge (thanks to a 1-0 win at Birmingham), what also looks certain is that Mick McCarthy’s future looks much brighter this November than it did ten Novembers ago. Long may that continue.