At the age of only 22, James McCarthy has more than 100 Premier League games under his belt and an FA Cup winner’s medal. The new Goodison recruit is unsure whether he will be included in the starting lineup to make his Everton debut against Chelsea this evening but he is ready to go, confident he can prove his worth.
There is a shrewdness behind the boyish enthusiasm and engaging smile. McCarthy has already made some big decisions in his time, and most of them have turned out well.
There was finally deciding to leave Scotland to join Wigan Athletic, for a start. McCarthy was talking to Wolves at the same time and ended up with a straight choice between the two clubs. “I had a medical at Wolves and I was ready to sign,” he says.
"Then I spoke to Wigan because Graeme Jones was there and he had been at Hamilton with me. That was how I met Roberto Martinez, and once I spoke to the gaffer there was no going back.
“I knew I wanted to play under him. I was 18 then and still thinking I wouldn’t mind another year at home in Scotland but thankfully my agent and my family pushed me into the move and I can see now it was the right thing to do. I wouldn’t be at Everton otherwise.”
McCarthy joined Wigan at just the right time, neatly managing to sidestep a few seasons of turmoil at Molineux, and though Martinez clearly made a big impression his decision was partly based on geography. "I still wanted to get home as much as I could," he says.
“I did like the way Graeme and Roberto spoke to me – it was a good club to join at that particular time – but if I am honest I have to admit that it was closer to Scotland as well. It’s a shorter journey back home from Wigan and that was part of my thinking.”
Everton might have signed a home boy, though had he been anything else McCarthy could easily have turned up on Merseyside much earlier, playing on the other side of Stanley Park. Making up his own mind in a manner that should endear him permanently to Evertonians before he even kicks a ball for his new club, McCarthy turned down the chance to join Liverpool at 16 in favour of staying in Scotland and playing first-team football for Hamilton.
“Rafa Benitez was in charge at the time, though I never actually met him,” he recalls. “I did a week’s trial and they wanted to sign me but I knew it wasn’t right for me. I had already broken into the first team at Hamilton (McCarthy made his debut at 15) and I thought I was too young to leave home.
“I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near Liverpool’s first team and I was happy at that stage playing in the First Division for Hamilton. Liverpool were fine about it. They understood I was young and didn’t want to move away. I didn’t speak to Rafa Benitez but my agent did and they accepted I wanted to learn my trade back home.”
Pile of cash
Not every agent would do the same but McCarthy, between his professional advisers and his family, has always felt secure in the knowledge that his talent would surface eventually. He was in a position to play the long game, without making a dash for the first pile of cash waved under his nose. "You have to have a bit of belief in yourself and I have," he says.
"My family has always been there to support me; we are very close. When I first went to Wigan they were always coming down to see I'd settled in. Some people see the money side of things and they go for it. Sometimes they don't enjoy it and end up going out on loans, sometimes it works out well. It's not easy to know what to do for the best but I knew I wanted first-team football, I knew I didn't want to move away from home and I wanted to repay the faith Hamilton had shown in me. I finally moved when I was ready and I am delighted how things have worked out."
McCarthy has more than repaid Hamilton, who have profited to the tune of around €4.75m from his sale and sell-on fee, and he took the opportunity while at Wigan to buy his parents a new house. "I'm thankful to all of them," he says. "It's no accident my career seems to have turned out well. These were the people behind me, supporting and encouraging me all the way."
Just about the only disappointment McCarthy can recall is the offer from Celtic that never materialised. “They were my boyhood club, and it would have been a dream come true to play for them, but they never came up with the money for Hamilton. They weren’t willing to pay it. Wigan were – that’s the way things went – and now I’m at a massive club like Everton I can’t say I have any regrets. I’m really happy with how my career has developed.”
Instrumental in that regard has been Martinez, the manager who paid €16.7m to continue his association with the midfielder and who describes him as a perfect fit for Everton. "He could become a great," the new Everton manager says. "I haven't seen anyone who is such a sponge in football terms as James. He soaks up all the good things of the people around him.
"He has not come through the easy way, he has not taken three steps forward and then two back, he has always taken slow steps forward. I am very excited about James because he is incredibly experienced and mature with his best years still ahead of him."