McCarthy licks wounds in race for respect

Sunderland's saviour dismisses detractors as prudent policy gives Black Cats a reason to dream
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The Independent Football

On Friday morning, before training at the Academy of Light, the Sunderland manager actually laughs out loud when it is suggested that Keane's objections, resulting in allegations - albeit subsequently denied - of a rift between captain and his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, must have amused him. "Oh dear," he shakes his head at the very mention of his nemesis. "I don't blame you for asking. But don't blame me for just smiling."

Probably wisely, that is how he prefers to deal with anything relating to those events of 2002 which culminated in Keane vilifying the then Republic of Ireland manager over his World Cup preparations. Lest we forget, Keane's parting discharge of venom during that now- infamous team meeting in Saipan, before a ball had been kicked in competition, had been that McCarthy was "a f****** w*****", with the added advice that he should "stick your World Cup up your a***" - according to the player's subsequent autobiography. But probably worst of all was his taunt: "I've got no respect for you".

Fortunately, and possibly much to Keane's chagrin, the remainder of McCarthy's Ireland squad retained their faith. The fact that Keane-less squad proceeded to finish second in their group, and were eliminated by Spain only on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the second round, was, all considered, a fine testimony to McCarthy's coaching prowess.

Since then, he has moved onwards, and, having returned to domestic football, upwards. Yet you suspect that, for all the apparent leathery hide of the Yorkshireman, the emotional wounds caused by the events of the summer of 2002 have still not fully healed. He suffers a kind of McCarthyism in reverse; an apparent belief that there are certain Keane disciples across the Irish Sea who still wish him nothing but ill will. Whether they do or not, the truth is that the former manager of Millwall has otherwise been never less than admired for the accomplished, and, just as important to a club £38 million in debt, prudent, manner of his delivery of Sunderland to the Premiership, where the fixtures have conspired to arrange a meeting with Keane in a couple of months' time.

"You know the only reason I've got critics in Ireland?" McCarthy asks rhetorically. "We were a penalty shoot-out away from the World Cup quarter-finals and I had plenty of respect from my peers in that job; from other international managers and coaches. The criticism that came, came because of a non-tactical, non-footballing decision [the Keane fall-out]. People were looking on and waiting to see how I did, but such is life. No one enjoys criticism, no one likes it, no one says, 'Isn't it great this newspaper has just slaughtered me'. I generally don't seek to read it, watch it or listen to it. Maybe that's self-preservation."

Sunderland's distinguished history, albeit increasingly Neolithic in football terms - their last League title was in 1936, their last trophy the 1973 FA Cup - and support which requires a 49,000-seater stadium, demands a strong marriage with the élite. This is their third promotion to the Premiership in 10 years, which suggests that they are not yet capable of sustaining an enduring relationship. Whether they can achieve that under McCarthy is debatable. By us, though, not by him.

He adds: "It's a strange feeling, winning promotion. When we didn't make it the season before [2003-04, losing in the play-offs to Crystal Palace], I was chewing hell all summer, but this year I haven't been buzzing. I'm looking forward to the excitement, though I do get a bit tired of everyone saying, 'You're going to struggle' because we don't know until we start. I describe the Premiership as a League three can win and 17 can't, but big Sam Allardyce turned it round the other day when he said, 'Three are certain to stay up and 17 might be relegated'."

McCarthy arrived at the Stadium of Light towards the end of the 2002-03 season, after Peter Reid and Howard Wilkinson had departed. Sunderland lost their first 11 games under him. That was long forgotten, though, as the champions, and their followers, luxuriated by concluding last season with a seven-point advantage over the runners-up, Wigan. The financial crisis, largely brought on by relegation, meant that one of his first acts was to cull 16 players earning over £20,000 a week whom he had inherited. That was followed by concentrating on the identification of lower-division unknowns such as Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence.

Financial issues aside, McCarthy is not convinced by the virtues of certain illustrious names. "There are some great players around in the Premiership... but you look at some of these 'big-name' players and suddenly you look again and you actually think, 'What have you exactly got? I think we've got better here'.

"It's sometimes just down to opportunity. There are players in the lower Leagues who can do well in the Premiership; look at [Tim] Cahill. He was a revelation for Everton last season. Neil Ashton at Norwich, Andy Johnson at Crystal Palace and Michael Carrick at Tottenham have been the same. I've bought what I think were some of the best players in the Championship; they're all going up into the Premiership together, so we'll just have to see how they do."

But will he enjoy the luxury of time to blend them? "I heard Jose Mourinho say that asking for time means you can't do the job, but it will take time to be a competitor in this League at the highest level," says McCarthy, whose eight-player close-season intake has included the experience of Alan Stubbs (from Everton), Jon Stead (Blackburn) and Anthony Le Tallec (on loan from Liverpool).

Certainly McCarthy will have a few days to acquaint himself with his new environment before the Premiership leviathans provide the ultimate examination. Sunderland face Liverpool (a week on Saturday), Chelsea and United all within the first two months.

"The expectancy from the supporters is huge," he says. "They are demanding we stay up. They haven't come and watched us in the Championship for two years just to see us struggle in the Premiership and go straight back down. So we are under pressure; maybe not global pressure like that on Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger - but let me tell you, it's still there."

Though he won't admit it, that pressure is no more so than two years ago in Japan-South Korea when he began a World Cup campaign without his captain. If he could overcome that challenge, few doubt that his team can survive here.