James Lawton: General McCarthy can inspire his men to win their relegation battle

What makes Mick such a formidable customer in a corner is his ability to strip down illusions and still suggest that there may be a fighting chance

You cannot beat relegation with sheer rhetoric – or even a cult-inspiring populist touch.

If you could Ian Holloway would now be plotting his Champions League strategy rather than trying to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson that he should damn the consequences and pick his third team when Blackpool visit Old Trafford on Sunday.

Then there is Wigan's Roberto Martinez, who needs to win at Stoke and is a mean performer at the microphone. If he had gained a point for every felicitous phrase he might be contemplating a run in the Europa League instead of, maybe, the turmoil of the Championship.

Alex McLeish of Birmingham City and his embattled compatriot at Blackburn, Steve Kean, are somewhat less loquacious, at least publicly, but then both are likely to be voluble enough on the day of decision when they take their teams, respectively, to Tottenham and Wolves.

The problem for Kean though – apart from his Indian owners, who summoned him to the subcontinent this week for a meeting hardly guaranteed to lift the spirit, and an ill-timed encounter with the breathalyser – could prove most formidable of all.

It is the one represented by Mick McCarthy.

This is because if it could ever be said that a football man was fashioned for the purpose of fighting relegation, that every cussed, iconoclastic instinct was put at his disposal, every scrap of rough, defiant eloquence mustered in the face of disaster, it was surely the man with the Irish name and the broad Yorkshire imprint.

It is nine years since the celebrated Roy Keane passed his verdict on the football life of Mick McCarthy. "You were a crap player and you're a crap coach," said Keane before being escorted off the Republic of Ireland's 2002 World Cup premises in Saipan. McCarthy's response was entirely typical and can be paraphrased succinctly enough along the lines of, "That may be so but tha can still f.... off."

What makes McCarthy such a formidable customer in a corner is his ability to strip down illusions, in both the dressing room and boardroom, and still suggest that there may be a fighting chance.

He does not mistake a football match, however unpromising its prospects, for the outbreak of the Third World War and when the pressure is at its highest he often produces his best.

Even if you did not miss his reaction to the life-giving victory at the Stadium of Light last weekend, when he was quizzed about his previously zero Premier League success record there as a Sunderland manager and the presence of rock icon and Wolves vice-president Robert Plant in the directors' box, it is probably worth re-visiting.

It was a statement of self-belief fashioned out of one man's football's reality. "I don't really bother with all that bullshit," he declared, "I really don't because everyone's got a different angle or stat, whether it's Robert Plant or the fact I never won here. I won loads of games when I was manager here, I won the Championship title here, got into the Premier League without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, and then the following season I was given even less. But I loved it. When I left I had my head held high."

Win or lose, the Wolves owner Steve Morgan suggests that McCarthy will still be Wolves manager next season. He sees the kind of progress at a club which does not always show up in the league table. But then how do you define it? More than anything, it is an attitude of mind, one that leads Matt Jarvis, one of McCarthy's shrewdest investments from an always modest battle fund, to declare that he aches to be part of Sunday's starting line up.

At the very least it may be something for the judgmental Roy Keane, who was such a superb player, to reflect upon as he walks his dog.

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