Mick’s millennium: McCarthy clocks up his 1,000th game as manager
The two-times Republic of Ireland boss is celebrating a two-year deal with Cardiff
Mick McCarthy at Millwall in August 1991. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Allsport
Numerical landmarks, like major anniversaries, are crack cocaine to the people who plan sports pages, and so it did not take long after it started to get mentions recently that Mick McCarthy was closing in on his 1,000th game in management that the order came to send out feelers as to whether the two-times Ireland boss might consider a long leisurely stroll down memory lane with The Irish Times.
Contact was duly made on Wednesday when the calculation generally in circulation had the Mick Millennium still a good couple of weeks away. Somehow, there seemed to be a characteristic hint of glee in the text that came quickly back from McCarthy knocking the notion on the head.
He had, he said, just been informed that everyone was overlooking four Anglo Italian Cup games during his first two full seasons at Millwall and so this Friday evening in Huddersfield would be the big occasion. He’d not be doing anything between this and then, he said.
McCarthy’s celebration, in any case, came a day early as current club Cardiff City, which had initially only hired him until the summer, tied him down to a two-year deal. Given the results since he arrived, scarcely six weeks ago, they really did not have much choice.
The circumstances were all a little reminiscent of when he got his first shot at management while still a player at Millwall. When he took over from Bruce Rioch in March 1992, the brief was to steady the ship until the summer. Speaking to The Irish Times back then, McCarthy played down the “caretaker” title and suggested that he felt it might just be the start of something.
“It’s much too short a time span to determine whether a person is a good or bad manager but,” he said, “I accept that if I don’t deliver the right results, they’ll be talking to somebody else to fill the hottest seat in the club in the summer.
“I always regarded it as a privilege to have the chance of playing the game at a higher level. This is different. It is the first big challenge I’ve faced in football and I aim to succeed.”
Twenty-nine years on, he is on just his sixth club job, has managed Ireland twice and never been out of work for longer than nine months. Much of that time has been in the Championship, where managers generally do well to retain their jobs for a year. He has guided teams – Sunderland and Wolves – to top spot in the division twice and did well to defy the gravitational pull of the budget he had to work with at Ipswich during a six-year stint at the club.
Ipswich went down the following season, just as Millwall had under Jimmy Nicholl within weeks of him leaving to replace Jack Charlton as Ireland manager. They had been in ninth place when he left, 14 points clear of danger, five off the automatic promotion places and only outside the play-off spots, but there were quite a few who blamed him because of the squad he left behind.
Owners seem to love him but tend not to lavishly back him, and there aren’t too many big fees listed alongside the names of the players he has bought down the years. Even among the Irish recruits there have been some bargains, with the likes of Matt Doherty, Stephen Ward and Daryl Murphy going on to have good careers after he signed them for a pittance.
He, and his supporters, tend to mention that lack of financial firepower when discussing the occasions on which things haven’t worked out. Sunderland certainly suffered from a lack of quality immediately after winning promotion, and though Wolves did well for a couple of seasons, they ran out of steam in 2011/12.
On each occasion, there was a general sense that the teams needed strengthening. Sacking him did not save Wolves that year, however, and in the following one they went down again.
These things are rarely clear-cut, and his critics may well have an arguable case when they contend that he was ultimately not good enough to live in the top tier over the long term – but it is hard to imagine either Ipswich or Wolves having ended up in the third one had he still been in charge.
Though it has evolved over the years, his teams’ style of play was always an issue, though, and Ipswich fans made their displeasure well known prior to his departure. Some of the criticism has been harsh but, whatever about his aspirations, he is ultimately a pragmatist rather than a purist.
Though the British media love him, he has tended to divide the press in Ireland as well as fans, as was clear by the reaction surrounding the initial speculation that Cardiff were about to hire him just weeks after he had been sacked by Apoel.
Clearly, though, things on that front reached another level towards the end of his first spell with Ireland – Saipan and all that.
Events at the 2002 World Cup will define his career, certainly here, whichever side you are on, even if he manages for another 1,000 club games.
Right now, though, he is flying high, having changed the team’s tactics in his first game at Cardiff and hit upon something that has utterly transformed their fortunes. There is a decent squad at the club but they had lost six in a row prior to his arrival and have seven wins and three draws in 10 in the short time since.
There is still a long way to go to promotion but, given the way Apoel ended, getting them up and so earning another crack at the Premier League would be another great twist to his story.
Happy thousandth (ish) game, Mick.