McCarthy's Cup of spice as season turns around

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The Independent Football

A wet Wednesday night at Walsall in front of 7,000 people, and FA Cup fever seems a world away. This is the nitty-gritty of life as a First Division manager, and Mick McCarthy's body-language down by the dug-out mirrors Sunderland's fortunes.

When Julio Arca, an exotic flower in a grey setting, puts the visitors in front, there is little more than a satisfied clap of the hands - too early yet for presumption about promotion points. When the home team equalise soon after half-time there is an exchange of frustrated gestures with his loyal retainer Ian Evans, an unspoken agreement between two old centre-halves as to how their makeshift defence should have dealt with the cross.

A couple more minutes and one fist is clenched as Kevin Kyle heads Sunderland back in front; nearer the finish, when a substitution works to perfection with Marcus Stewart's tap-in, comes the relief of a double-fisted salute with arms fully extended and even the hint of a smile.

"A game we desperately needed to win," he admits later in the week of the three points which keep the team in the promotion frame after falling into the First Division in spectacular fashion last season. When McCarthy took over almost exactly a year ago, there was little chance of a team who had just lost six successive games staying in the Premiership; losing the remaining nine before the end of the season at least ensured he would not be burdened with the title of a messiah.

More worrying was Sunderland's start to the new season, after McCarthy had shipped out 14 players for £6.6m (which still made only a small dent in the club's debts) and brought in precisely two reinforcements, on free transfers. Two more defeats made 17 in a row, one short of Darwen's 106-year-old record, and the manager, not a man normally given to self-doubt, was beginning to wonder if he would ever win another match.

So ask if today's FA Cup quarter-final at home to Sheffield United is his biggest game since the Republic of Ireland met Spain for a place in the last eight of the World Cup and he immediately takes you back to Deepdale on 23 August: "Try Preston. I came into the job thinking I could do it, and after nine games and then 11 games I was starting to wonder. When you're losing games, no matter how resilient you are, it does have an effect. At Preston everyone was putting a lot of emphasis on it. I tried to play it the other way. I didn't want that 18 in a row, but if it had happened you still have to carry on." And what was said in the dressing-room after a 2-0 win? "I think we all said, 'Thank f*** for that'."

Watching Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion, the two top teams, crashing into each other for 90 minutes at Carrow Road last Tuesday only confirmed to most viewers that the First Division, more than ever, is much of a muchness. Now Sunderland, with the nucleus of last season's squad that could hardly win a game, are one of a dozen teams who could end up playing off for a place in the Premiership, where every one of them would be favourites to make an immediate return. In a season when Wolves, Leicester and Portsmouth could easily be the relegated trio, it is not an encouraging outlook.

But the McCarthy philosophy has never involved looking that far ahead. You take what comes and deal with it as best you can. "You can't prioritise, can't pick and choose. Promotion's more important, of course it is, but this is a great game for us. And I'm sure Warny [Sheffield United's manager, Neil Warnock] is saying the same thing. All us First Division clubs are dancing round our handbags and looking at the others. We all think we can progress and all hope we get the other Nationwide League team in the semi-final. There's a slight advantage for us being the home team, with our crowd behind us. So there's a bit of pressure, whereas if we were playing Arsenal away it might take the pressure off."

Or, more likely, it would revive even more talk of the boys of '73, who have been looming out of the shadows as this Cup run gathers momentum. Vic Halom and Billy Hughes gunning down Arsenal in the semi-final; then Leeds at Wembley, Monty's save and Porterfield's goal, and Bob Stokoe dancing in his raincoat and trilby.

McCarthy, ever the realist, is not one for all that written-in-the-stars, name-on-the-Cup stuff. "Lots has been made of it, with the sad loss of Bob Stokoe. But sentiment doesn't really come into it. It's about winning games."

As it was with Ireland, when losing two in a row at the start of the Euro 2004 qualifying group prompted him to fall on his sword, convinced that the fall-out from his fall-out with Roy Keane in Saipan was having an adverse effect on the team. "In hindsight I should have left after the World Cup. I didn't envisage all the problems carrying on. Now I enjoy the daily routine of it, and if you're winning it makes life a lot easier."

If the North-east, like Ireland, has perhaps been slower to take to him than a more natural crowd-pleasing populist in the Jack Charlton mould, the Yorkshireman believes they are his sort of folk: "honest people who, like me, appreciate the cost of a pint".

As for assessing how it's all gone after 12 months, he deflects the emphasis away from himself and on to his squad: "After the transformation we've gone through, the players have turned the place round. They've done really well and done the club proud so far. We've done all right this season through bloody hard work, and if we drop below those standards of work we'll struggle. We've not achieved anything yet, but most people would accept what we've got, especially after losing the first two games of the season. It's not bad, we're doing fine, but there's lots more. We're pleased, but not content."