Chelsea and Arsenal considering summer transfer swoop for Wigan midfielder James McCarthy
Youngster has held Wigan's midfield together during another turbulent season to the extent that some of the league's leading clubs are interested
Tuesday 07 May 2013
Such has been James McCarthy's form this season – for a faltering and once again belatedly awakened Wigan Athletic – both Chelsea and Arsenal are considering a summer move for the midfielder.
The 22-year-old is currently trying to direct yet another escape from relegation, in which victory on Tuesday night against Swansea City would be crucial. His bravery, skill and vision in three consecutive relegation battles have been noticed and whether Wigan survive or finally drop, there is certain to be a fight for his signature this summer.
McCarthy, yet again one of Wigan's most impressive and consistent performers in a turbulent season, is thought to be open to the possibility of a summer move for the sake of his career, but is not necessarily desperate to leave yet. Should Wigan go down, though, it is implausible that he should play Championship football next season.
There are few midfields in the country that would not be improved by the Republic of Ireland international. In an age of specialists he is a genuine all-rounder, who would add authority where it is lacking at Stamford Bridge and bite where it is missed at the Emirates. He may even prefer a less high-profile club, in the interests of playing more games, as he did in choosing to sign for Wigan in 2009.
But there is a sense that, after four years at the DW Stadium, now might be the time to take the next step and move up, especially given the climactic finish Wigan have this season, with their crucial game tonight, their FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday and then league games against Arsenal and Aston Villa left to save themselves.
Those who know McCarthy well feel this too. Billy Reid, who gave McCarthy his Hamilton Academical debut at the age of just 15, told The Independent McCarthy can go on to a team at the opposite end of the table. "I still don't think he's realised his potential yet," Reid said, "that's no disrespect to Wigan, I think he can go and play for one of the top teams in England."
The former Republic of Ireland international Ray Houghton, an old friend of McCarthy's family, also from the Castlemilk district of Glasgow, agrees. "He's at a good age now," he told The Independent, "he's probably at a stage now where he might need to move on to improve."
The impressive thing is just how much McCarthy has improved already. He has grown, under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, into a remarkably complete midfielder. Martinez insists on a very high technical and tactical level from his players, but McCarthy has the brain as well as the touch required to run their midfield.
McCarthy is beautifully balanced, able to pass incisively with either foot and seemingly able to see through the holes of his ears. He is also a ferocious worker, able to call every part of the pitch his own, and a great tracker and marker, as he showed against Tottenham's Gareth Bale last week.
That talent has never been in doubt. It is the growth of McCarthy's confidence and assurance that has made the difference. "James has good qualities," the Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, memorably said earlier this season, "but I have told him 'I will punch you if you don't stop being shy.'" McCarthy has just broken into the Republic of Ireland side but could bring their midfield a nuance they have desperately lacked recently.
It has been a long journey for McCarthy already. He had brief unsuccessful spells as a boy at Celtic and Livingston but was back playing boys' club football at 14 before Hamilton's scouts first saw him.
"When I watched him for the first time I couldn't believe what I'd seen," Reid, then Hamilton manager, remembered. "He just had everything: he had balance, two-footed, he could cover the ground, he was a winner. I asked to speak to his mother and father straight away, we asked to get him off school and get him into training, and the rest is history."
Reid gave McCarthy his Hamilton debut at 15, against Queen of the South in the Scottish First Division. In his second season Hamilton won the title and were promoted; in his next, in the Scottish Premier League, he won Young Player of the Year.
"He never missed a minute for me," Reid said. "He played every game. I used think about moving him about but you couldn't leave him out of the team, all the way through from 15. He was so good at that level. He was just a model of consistency."
Those performances were soon noticed by big clubs in Scotland and England. But a teenage McCarthy rejected moves to Celtic, Liverpool and Reading to continue his development at Hamilton. Eventually he moved, in 2009, to Wigan Athletic, in Martinez's first summer in charge. Martinez's assistant, Graeme Jones, used to work at Hamilton.
The move to Wigan was difficult at first, and the 18-year-old McCarthy struggled on debut, in a 4-1 Carling Cup defeat at Blackpool. He was given a few months out of the team to develop, then Martinez brought him back in January 2010 and he has played fairly consistently since, taking on more and more responsibility to the point where few midfielders in the country carry as much on their shoulders.
Liverpool have since tried again to tempt him from Wigan, but again he stayed. Scouts from a host of Premier League clubs are routinely at the DW Stadium, looking at the quiet young man in the middle of midfield. He has other immediate concerns, but the attention will not go away.
Wigan wizard: McCcarthy facts
19: Age at which McCarthy made his Republic of Ireland debut against Brazil in February 2010
87.7 per cent Pass completion rate in the Premier League this season
£10,700: Cost per league game to Wigan, having made 112 appearances since his £1.2m move from Hamilton
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