Mick McCarthy’s classic methods working wonders at Cardiff
Former Ireland manager has transformed side from strugglers to playoff hopefuls
Mick McCarthy has changed the fortunes of Cardiff. Photo: Cardiff City FC/Getty Images
Listening to those who have lived amid Cardiff City’s miraculous upturn since Mick McCarthy took charge last month, the common denominator is that he has simplified things, his first day in the job a prime example. “There was no big, long speech,” says the midfielder Will Vaulks. “It was just: ‘Listen. I’m here to try and improve you. I know how good you are. I want to get the best out of you.’ It was 30 seconds of introduction and ‘let’s get on the pitch and improve’.”
McCarthy has got to work in double time and galvanised Cardiff, taking 17 points from a possible 21. For context of how remarkable a response McCarthy has elicited, on the day he was appointed Cardiff trailed Bournemouth by 13 points and were 15th in the table following seven defeats in eight matches. Last weekend Cardiff put four goals past Preston and on Wednesday they travel to Bournemouth knowing that with victory they could jump into sixth spot at their hosts’ expense. McCarthy has given Cardiff an unlikely route to the play-offs by resurrecting a faltering side.
When McCarthy arrived, Cardiff were nine points above the relegation zone and the club’s hierarchy worried about dropping into League One, which would have been a financial catastrophe. McCarthy’s remit upon taking over was simply to keep Cardiff up and they are not the first club to revert to a familiar formula. Neil Warnock, into his 70s, has revitalised Middlesbrough as he did Cardiff, Chris Hughton has had a slow-burning impact at Nottingham Forest and this week Bristol City appointed Nigel Pearson until May.
“Maybe people are having a look at it, seeing our results here, and think: ‘Well, maybe those experienced guys do know something about what they’re doing and do have a role to play,’” says McCarthy. “All I hear whenever a job comes up it is that it’s got to be some young guy with bright new ideas. And you know what? There’s not that many new ideas that come around in football, it’s still kind of the same, keep it off the opposition and put it in their net and get it back.”
McCarthy insists his players and not him nor his trusty assistant Terry Connor are “the silver bullet” but they have reinvigorated an underachieving squad. But while McCarthy has undoubtedly breathed new life into players such as Josh Murphy, a £10m signing upon promotion to the Premier League, and Aden Flint, who was sent on loan to Sheffield Wednesday in October, dumbing down his impact to merely straight-talking or man-management skills would be to play along with the lazy stereotypes of a one-dimensional manager. Not that McCarthy gets hung up about perception. “Hey, I’m cool with it. I’m cool with my age, my experience, my big nose, my wrinkly forehead, and my hair’s dropping out. I don’t give a flying …”
Since switching to a three-man defence, plus wing-backs, to earn a point from two goals down at Barnsley during his first game, they look concrete at the back and destined to score with almost every attack. “Yes, he’s got the one-liners and he puts his arm around you and lifts the players,” Vaulks says. “But there’s no denying he’s very experienced, tactically.”
McCarthy’s team selection, he says, is heavily influenced by training performances and the Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson was initially left out of the 62-year-old’s first two starting lineups but has since thrived. It is a similar story with Murphy, who did not start any of McCarthy’s first four matches. The goalkeeper Dillon Phillips has also seized his chance, impressing since making his league debut this month, none more so than by saving two penalties inside a minute against Preston on Saturday. At the other end Connor, a meticulous coach with whom McCarthy has worked for the past 13 years, has honed attacking shape.
“There’s something about being in the top six that adds that pressure,” says McCarthy, who is eight matches away from celebrating his 1,000th game as a manager. “It is funny because when you’re in the chasing pack, or even if you’re in the bottom three, you play a bit more relaxed – you’re just scrapping away, scrapping away. If you’re fourth-bottom or fifth-bottom, the thought of dropping into the bottom three, or dropping out of the top six, I think it has a really profound effect on teams, especially at this stage of the season.”
Cardiff are dangerous, hard to beat and ready to give anyone a bloody nose, just as they were when Warnock led them to promotion in 2018. “It suits me as a player, because I always felt: ‘Why can’t we just embrace what Cardiff City is?’” says Vaulks. “We are horrible to play against, we are physical, we run further than other teams, we win our battles, but we also have quality.”
For McCarthy, who spent a season playing abroad with Lyon in the 1980s, managing overseas last year – a 64-day spell in charge of the Cypriot champions Apoel blighted by Covid-19 – represented another tick on the to-do list for a man who knows all about getting results closer to home. Without the pandemic he would have led Republic of Ireland into the Euro 2020 playoffs, but his most discernible achievements lie in the Championship – from which he has twice won promotion, winning the league with Sunderland in 2005 and Wolves four years later. Who would bet against him completing his hat-trick? – Guardian