McCarthy's last stand - for a Match of the Day reminder

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The Independent Online

One way or another, it could be McCarthy's last stand at the Stadium of Light this afternoon. "It might be the last big game for me," McCarthy confided as he looked ahead to the FA Cup third-round tie between Sunderland and Northwich Victoria. "I've got three kids and you start thinking about having weekends with the family. I've also got into another job now."

Yes, come 9am tomorrow Jon McCarthy will be back in his classroom at Mid Cheshire College lecturing his students about the finer points of sports science. He will also be reflecting on a rare encounter with the McCarthy who could be in danger of being involved in a last stand of his own if the green and whites of Northwich manage to emulate what the green and whites of Yeovil achieved 57 years ago. Sunderland might have sunk to a fourth-round defeat when the clowning Len Shackleton was caught out juggling the ball on the halfway line at Huish back in 1949, but they have never suffered the low of an FA Cup loss to non-League opposition on home ground.

Not that Jon McCarthy, Northwich's veteran right-back, is shouting any odds about the team from the Conference North toppling the side at the foot of the Premiership, and possibly sending Mick McCarthy tumbling off the managerial precipice.

"We're realistic," he said. "Although people are saying that Sunderland are down, they played well against Everton last week and were unlucky not to win. There are four divisions between us. It's a massive jump.

"You just wonder how we're going to react. We have some lads who have played on a bigger stage and some who haven't. There's always the fear that some players might freeze and that you might concede two or three goals early on. I'm just hoping we can get through the first 20 minutes and at least perform - show people we can play a bit."

At 35, McCarthy himself can still play a bit, though at right-back these days rather than on the right wing, where he played in the League for Hartlepool, York, Port Vale and Birmingham, and in 18 internationals for Northern Ireland. A native of Middles-brough (and still a Boro fan), McCarthy made one appearance for Hartlepool as a 17-year-old before turning down the offer of a professional contract and taking a sports science degree at Nottingham Polytechnic.

He was 21 when he kickstarted his career at York City. He scored for the Minstermen at Wembley, in the shoot-out victory against Crewe in the Third Division play-off final in 1993. It was with Port Vale, though, that he made a name for himself - scoring the winner that knocked out Everton in a replayed fourth-round FA Cup tie in 1996.

"That was a big turning point," he reflected. "The original tie was at Goodison and it ended up on Match of the Day because they had undersoil heating and the other games that were supposed to be featured were called off. We drew 2-2 there and I had a good game. And all of a sudden you're on Match of the Day and people pick up on you and every-body knows who you are. That definitely made my name."

Two months later McCarthy was on the international stage, making his debut for Northern Ireland against Sweden at Windsor Park. The following year he was a joint-record signing for Birmingham City, bought for £1.5 million by Trevor Francis. After he broke the same leg three times, his career in League football petered out in painful frustration. As a convert to full-back, though, the old wounded winger has been born again in the non-League ranks, helping Northwich through the nightmare of being docked 10 points after going into administration at the start of last season and achieving an apparently safe position in the Conference before being relegated for an irregularity relating to the club's registration.

"It's been a major, major thing for us to get this far in the Cup," McCarthy reflected. "The money we've brought in has been a lifeline. Even at this level, when you're averaging crowds of just over 1,000, there's a real buzz about the place. It's nice to be part of it."

Since jarring an ankle against Droylsden on Monday, he has been battling to make sure he is part of Northwich Victoria's quest for a famous victory on Wearside. "I'll be all right for Sunday," he insisted. "I don't want to miss this one. Like I said, it might be the last big game I play in."

It is not, though, the first game in which Jon McCarthy has faced a team managed by Mick McCarthy. Back in May 1999, he lined up on the right wing for Northern Ireland against Mick's Republic team in an all-Ireland contest held at Lansdowne Road in aid of the Omagh Bomb Disaster Fund.

"We beat them 1-0," Jon recalled. "That's the only time I can recall being involved in a game with Mick. I've never met him. I don't think he'd know who I am - although the name might have stuck in his mind a bit."