McCarthy's aim is to be smiles ahead

Sunderland turn mission impossible into promotion probable as defining day dawns
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When he took charge at the Stadium of Light, Mick McCarthy thought a coat hanger had lodged itself in his mouth. He insisted he had arrived at a "proper" club on his return to domestic management, and he just could not stop smiling.

When he took charge at the Stadium of Light, Mick McCarthy thought a coat hanger had lodged itself in his mouth. He insisted he had arrived at a "proper" club on his return to domestic management, and he just could not stop smiling.

Fast forward two years. Last Monday, Joe Royle offered the opinion that McCarthy might need a surgeon to remove another broad grin, this one induced by a surprising defeat for third-placed Ipswich Town at Wolverhampton Wanderers which leaves Royle's team five points adrift of McCarthy's championship leaders going into today's enticing meeting at Portman Road.

McCarthy's reign has not been smiles all the way, though, as he is the first to admit. It was hard to raise a grin as he watched helplessly while £30m of talent was offloaded to the highest bidder in a desperate fire sale as the club narrowly avoided being handed over to the administrators just three months into his tenure.

McCarthy was given nine games to save what became officially the worst team in Premiership history. He lost them all. "Mission impossible was easy by contrast," he reflects now. "We had 19points and were bottom of the League at the end of my first few games in charge. There was nothing I could do about that, I inherited it.

"The players weren't at each other's throats or scrapping in the dressing room when I arrived, but perhaps they should have been. We might have had a few more points that way. When I came I looked upon it as a terrific opportunity and terrific job to be involved with, and despite that start I've not changed that view."

Smiles were still few and far between barely 12 months ago, when Sunderland lost on penalties to Crystal Palace in the First Division play-off semi-finals, having narrowly missed out on automatic promotion. And they were difficult to detect among baffled supporters last summer as McCarthy assembled a string of unknown lower-League and Premier-ship reserve players as he settled for the reality of corner-shop economics in his efforts to return the club to football's Harrods. But the likes of Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence, Stephen Elliott, Steve Caldwell and the Collins "twins" - Danny and Neill - have proved that impressive deeds can be drawn from modest outlays.

McCarthy admits it was a policy not without risk, but insists: "We got what I thought were the best players out of the lower Leagues. I had the belief they would step up and do well, because if you're getting the best you've got to believe that they will succeed."

While McCarthy's wife of 25 years and grown-up children have remained in Kent, the domestic base from his time in charge at Millwall in the 1990s, his youthful squad have acted as a surrogate family to the manager who has brought them together to such great effect. As the third anniversary of McCarthy's departure from his post as the Republic of Ireland coach approaches, he adds: "It's been great being back in club management. It's been hard work, but it's been rewarding, fulfilling, and above all nice to be involved every day. It's more hours than a national job, it's 24/7. This is far more time-consuming, but if you're winning it's more rewarding. If you're losing though, it's a pain in the arse.

"My kids are grown-up and working. I miss them and they miss their dad. I am not there as often as I would like to be, but that happens when families grow up and dad has to work elsewhere. I am very lucky that I have got a good family, that they are all healthy and working. I can travel, my wife can travel, so it's not an issue really.

"But ask me about that if we were in the bottom three and needed three points to stay up and I might be growling on and missing them all the more. Like anything, you can tolerate things more when you're winning.

"The team spirit and the way the lads have come together hasn't surprised me. The players are of a similar age and ilk, which helps. Everybody gets on well, the place is together and there's a good spirit among all the staff."

A fifth successive away victory would leave Sunderland needing two points from their remaining three games to seal their Premiership return. McCarthy is typically robust in his response to suggestions that promotion, following all the obstacles he has overcome, will be perhaps the pinnacle so far of his managerial career: "We're in a nice position, but I don't regard it as an achievement. The only achievement is to make it into the Premiership. There's no point looking back and saying, 'Weren't we in a great position in April'? only to find ourselves in the Championship again in August. That'd be fairly bloody stupid.

"I'll save my satisfaction for if and when and maybe we go up. I'll reserve my smiles for the Premiership."