It has been a year the like of which he will never experience again: that much James McCarthy can say without fear of contradiction. But the maddest part of the madness of 2013 came late on 31 August, in the darkness of a garage on Merseyside.
That’s where the then 22-year-old and the player with whom he would soon be anchoring Everton’s midfield, Gareth Barry, were asked to loiter as the last hours to transfer deadline counted down and the extremely complex series of hurdles to them joining Everton was cleared.
It was the longest day of McCarthy’s life – “not a nice day,” he readily admits, looking back – because the move from relegated Wigan Athletic to Everton, and reunion with manager Roberto Martinez, seemed obstructed to the very last minutes.
“I’d been just pacing up and down the living room,” says McCarthy to the question of how he managed to fill the day. “I was just there, at home, just wondering if it was going to happen. Then I was told to drive up and, hopefully, something would get sorted out in time.”
As darkness fell on Merseyside, the deal on which his £13m move hinged – Marouane Fellani’s departure to Manchester United – hit difficulties, with Fellaini marooned inside Everton’s Finch Farm training ground. By 9pm the chances of Romelu Lukaku moving from Chelsea were ranked at one in 10 and the possibility of Demba Ba arriving from the same club had evaporated. As 10pm approached Kevin Mirallas was pressed into action to talk his Belgian compatriot Lukaku into choosing Everton over West Bromwich Albion – and duly unlocked that deal – before Fellaini’s move to Old Trafford came off.
McCarthy and Barry turned on their engines, left the garage and drove into Finch Farm within five minutes of each other. “It was eight minutes to 11 and I drove in just after Gareth,” McCarthy recalls. “At that stage I knew it was all secure. After getting it all signed there was no one else about there. It was the middle of the night. The only other one was Gareth, who signed 20 minutes before me.” McCarthy got home at 2am.
“It was the high point of the year – no doubt about it,” he continues, reflecting on his own remarkable transition into a mainstay of a club whose challenge for top four status will be tested at Swansea tomorrow. “It’s been a year of ups and downs, highs and lows, but nothing tops signing for a club like Everton.” That is some assertion, considering that the year also delivered him to the extraordinary heights of beating one of Europe’s most moneyed clubs at Wembley to lift the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic.
The Cup final was truly, madly, deeply extraordinary – Wigan’s victory an achievement so improbable that you sense McCarthy will only really appreciate its significance a few years on, when this whirlwind year of his career is behind him and he actually finds time to reflect on it all. As he sits down in a hotel on Liverpool’s Mersey waterfront ahead of Everton’s Player of the Month awards – of which he is the December’s recipient – the rollercoaster dip which came three days after lifting the Cup seems to have left a bigger imprint than winning the midfield battle with Yaya Touré at Wembley.
Wigan’s relegation – on a night of torrential rain at the Emirates, where the brief hope delivered by an equaliser was a temporary reprieve on the way to a 4-1 defeat – was something that Martinez had primed his Wigan players to believe they could always fend off. And just when the desperate disappointment seemed to be behind them, players like McCarthy were reminded of their reduced status when they kicked off the Championship campaign at Barnsley, then lost 1-0 at Bournemouth. “Bournemouth was tough and so was Middlesbrough at home,” McCarthy reflects. “It’s a really tough league, really end-to-end stuff. It was difficult – wondering if [the move] was going to happen, with people saying, ‘You’ll get the move’, and others saying, ‘You might have to stay’.
“The Cup final was incredible. We went into the game thinking, ‘We can cause an upset’, when a lot of teams would freeze. The manager was a tactical genius on the day; I think he’s got something different that a lot of managers don’t have. But to go from that high to losing to Bournemouth was hard, to be honest.”
Perhaps there was an element of destiny about McCarthy making it on to Merseyside in the end; Rafael Benitez’s staff were very keen to take him to Liverpool in 2006 from Hamilton Academical, where he made his senior debut that year a day before his 16th birthday. The much admired manager Billy Reid invested a huge amount of faith in young players and Frank McParland, whom Benitez installed as Liverpool academy director, was in an Anfield contingent who watched McCarthy on Hamilton’s plastic pitch. They scrutinised him in a second Accies match, too, and then again at a training match, organised at Melwood, where McCarthy scored a belter past the Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.
“He was a more attacking midfielder then than he is now,” says one of the Liverpool staff who scouted him. “He was raw but he had a real power and he was playing regular first-team football, which made a big difference.” For McCarthy, it was a road not taken. He had a week’s trial at the club but Benitez was being asked to look within the academy for the next talents, while McCarthy says he wanted to continue a little longer on the south bank of the Clyde.
One Spanish manager’s loss was another’s gain. McCarthy instead signed in July 2009 for Martinez – who owed his own knowledge of the young Scot to Graeme Jones, his Wigan assistant, who became well acquainted with McCarthy during his own time as Reid’s assistant at Hamilton. Martinez made sure he found time to speak to the young Scot and mark his card after a fine performance when Hamilton played a friendly at Swansea, before the Spaniard left the manager’s seat in South Wales. He wasted no time bringing him to Wigan for £1.2m when he moved there.
Thus began the midfielder’s relationship with the man from Catalonia, whose powers to bring success from the positive environment he inculcates are only now becoming fully appreciated. “I had to wait six months at Wigan to get used to the systems and the English game,” McCarthy says. “It was the same at Everton, where I had to wait a few weeks to get my place in the first team. But he [Martinez] has always believed in me. He gives you the confidence to believe you can do things. He doesn’t always feel the need to scream. Now and again if he needs to tell you something he will get it across and you can definitely hear him on the side of the pitch. But he finds other ways to get his point across, too.”
McCarthy is not one of football’s screamers, either. The new Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, with whom the midfielder finds himself working, having taken the decision to play for that country rather than his native Scotland, said last month that he sees some of himself in the young player. But stamping his personality on games will come next, Keane thinks.
“He probably plays a little like me, maybe not as aggressive, and is possibly looking to mature in terms of his personality on the teams over the next few years. But that will all come,” he said. McCarthy says of this assessment that “everything I can pick up from [Roy] I’ll be delighted. He is a hero, who has done so much for club and country. He is already wanting to give us tips, here and there.”
The Martinez way is the one which suits him, though, and an hour or so at Wednesday’s awards afternoon provides a sense of how positive an environment Everton actually is. Other Premier League clubs have looked at the club’s new Bring Me Sunshine Christmas video – to which cleaners, groundsmen, office staff, players and chief executive all contribute – and wondered how they got the players to do it. Everything flows from Martinez, with McCarthy putting his inhibitions behind him for a singing, finger-clicking walk-on role.
If anyone had told him that the 12 months which started with a 4-0 home defeat to Manchester United at Wigan, on New Year’s Day, would conclude with a Morecambe and Wise reprise at Everton, he would have declared them loopy. But that’s been the story of his ridiculous year.
“The whole year has been incredible,” he says. “You can never be sure of anything but maybe the next one will be quieter.”