The Mick McCarthy Era: Part 1

After months of speculation and frustration, Ipswich Town finally announced on Thursday that Mick McCarthy would leave the club at the end of his contract after five and a half years at Portman Road. Having initially saved the club from relegation to League One he achieved three consecutive top-ten finishes, including the club’s first play-off season in ten years, but since then the team has slipped back into mid-table and the relationship between manager and fans has irrevocably broken down. In this post I’ll look back at the highs and lows from his first three seasons at Portman Road, in which the club went from bottom of the table to the play-offs.

2012-13: From despair to salvation

It has become a bit of a cliché that McCarthy saved Ipswich during his first six months at the club, but it’s worth going back and reminding ourselves of the situation the club found itself in at the end of Paul Jewell’s reign.

On 23rd October 2012, Ipswich lost 2-1 at home to Derby thanks to a late Nathan Tyson winner. At this point the Tractor Boys were bottom of the league with only seven points in 12 games, and had only picked up three draws from their previous ten league games. For the third consecutive game, Jewell’s men had lost 2-1, conceding late goals on each occasion, and shortly after full-time he handed in his resignation. A 3-0 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday followed a few days later, leaving the club five points from safety.

Certainly the situation was not irretrievable at this stage, but Jewell had left behind a mess of a squad, containing far too many loanees and players who were happy just to pick up their wage. His final match day squad contained five loanees – the full line-up was Henderson, Edwards, Chambers, Higginbotham, Cresswell, Drury, Reo-Coker, Wellens, Martin, Emmanuel-Thomas, Campbell. There was undoubtedly some talent in the squad but they had been poorly managed and there was not even a semblance of a long-term strategy. What was desperately needed was someone to help the team get back to basics and restore the pride that had been lost during the torrid Keane-Jewell era.

Mick McCarthy was the perfect man for the job, but given the situation you couldn’t have blamed him if he had turned Evans’ approach down in the hope of holding out for something better. A significant financial incentive for keeping Ipswich in the league helped persuade him to take on the challenge and his impact was immediate, picking up a 1-0 win at Birmingham City thanks to a DJ Campbell goal. His first four games included two hammerings, 5-0 at Crystal Palace and 6-0 at Leicester City, but overall his first two months were outstanding, picking up 23 points from his first 12 games in charge and hauling Ipswich up to 19th place at the turn of the year.

A slump in form followed, only winning three of the next 12 in the league, and after a 0-0 draw at Peterborough United on 9th March, McCarthy’s side were in 20th and only four points clear of the bottom three. This is a position that everyone at the club would have taken a few months previously, but equally there remained a possibility of getting sucked back into the scrap. This season was an unusual one in a number of respects. Peterborough were relegated on 54 points – a half-century is nearly always enough to avoid dropping into the third tier, while tenth place Derby County finished only seven points clear of the bottom three. It was unfortunate that this statistical anomaly coincided with Ipswich’s first battle against relegation from the Championship in living memory.

Five clean sheets in the next six games helped to calm any nerves and when promotion-chasing Crystal Palace were dispatched 3-0 on 16th April, Ipswich soared to 13th in the table, their highest league position since August. The final points total of 60, good enough for 14th, was an outstanding return all things considered and McCarthy could now spend the summer shaping the squad into one that could aim for promotion, rather than look over their shoulders.

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The nature of the season made from some remarkable statistics – a total of 36 players made an appearance during 2012-13, including an astonishing 15 loan players. The vast majority of McCarthy’s signings in January were short-term contracts or loans, with varying levels of success. David McGoldrick and Richard Stearman were excellent additions, while others such as Reece Brown and Aaron McLean had minimal impact. This was to be a running theme throughout McCarthy’s time in charge. One of the few players joining on a fee was Tyrone Mings from Chippenham Town, on the recommendation of former player Russell Osman – more about him later.

2013-14: Building the foundations

The summer transfer window gave McCarthy the opportunity to rebuild the squad and move away from the short-termism that plagued Jewell’s time in charge. On reflection, despite having almost no money to spend on transfer fees this was almost certainly his best transfer window in his time at the club.

Let’s start at the back – McCarthy was unconvinced by Scott Loach, so he brought in Dean Gerken on a free from Bristol City. He already had the basis of a sound back four in Luke Chambers, Tommy Smith and Aaron Cresswell, but the addition of Christophe Berra further strengthened the defence. The midfield had arguably been the least stable area of the team the previous season so McCarthy sought to resolve this by bringing in Cole Skuse, again from Bristol City. Paul Anderson was swapped with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Jay Tabb signed permanently from Reading following a successful loan spell the previous season. And finally, David McGoldrick and Daryl Murphy were both signed following their respective loan spells.

Despite the minimal budget, McCarthy had managed to make permanent additions in each part of the team and without the waste that characterised his later transfer windows. He was also able to offload some of the higher wage earners, such as Lee Martin and Michael Chopra. Ipswich had gone from a squad of loanees and has-beens to one that was more youthful and largely owned by the club, but still had plenty of Championship know-how.

The high turnover most likely contributed to the slow start to McCarthy’s first full season in charge. After a 2-1 home defeat at home to Leicester on 16th November, Ipswich were in 12th place after 16 games, an underwhelming start given how the previous season had ended. There were positive performances, such as the dramatic 3-2 win at Blackpool, but there were also moments of frustration, most notably letting a 4-1 lead at Derby County slip to eventually draw 4-4.

What followed was one of the best runs of the McCarthy era – eight games unbeaten, from the end of November through to early January, catapulting the team briefly into the top six. Unfortunately the team weren’t able to sustain their form, but only four defeats in 23 games between the end of September and mid-February was enough evidence to show that the team was going in the right direction.

McCarthy went back into the transfer market in January, this time focusing on short-term loan deals to pad out his squad for the remainder of the campaign. He picked up Stephen Hunt and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, both of whom he had worked with previously at Wolves, on free transfers, while Frazer Richardson, Paul Green and Jonny Williams arrived on loan. Ebanks-Blake was a disappointment, though with hindsight he never fully recovered from a broken ankle and ligament damage he suffered while at Wolves. On the other hand, Williams was a revelation – his ability to glide past players was unmatched in the squad at the time, adding a creative spark to the functional but unspectacular midfield unit. His performances in the 2-0 win at Brighton and last-gasp 2-1 victory over Derby a few days later were the high point of his Ipswich career and pushed the team up to 8th, just two points off the play-offs with eight games to play.

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McCarthy’s men had momentum but sadly were not able to capitalise, and one point in the two Easter fixtures put an end to any lingering play-off hopes. The team looked spent at the end of the 2-2 home draw with Bournemouth – they had given their all, but ultimately had come up short. Not that there was any disgrace in this, far from it – the expectation before the start of the season was a period of consolidation and team-building, so spending the second half of the season in the top ten was a noteworthy achievement and provided the platform needed to push on next season. McCarthy had sorted the defence, now he needed to improve the team going forward.

The first of many injuries for David McGoldrick was undoubtedly a factor in the closing months of the season. He had already notched 16 goals by mid-February but his season was ended prematurely when he suffered knee ligament damage. Daryl Murphy stepped up his game admirably but McCarthy was forced to switch to a 4-5-1 of sorts, with neither Frank Nouble or Ebanks-Blake capable of replacing McGoldrick. The switch of formation helped Williams, giving him licence to float between the lines behind Murphy, but the likes of Hyam, Green, Skuse and Wordsworth weren’t able to offer enough going forward from the centre of midfield. Nevertheless, a 9th place finish and a total of 68 points showed clear progression, and with the vast majority of key players owned by the club there was an opportunity to kick on again next season.

2014-15: Murphy’s golden season and play-off heartache

Having rebuilt the squad in the summer 2013, it was logical that McCarthy would be more selective in the transfer market the following summer. Once again he was hamstrung by the budget – despite the evident upward trajectory, Marcus Evans was still reluctant to loosen the purse strings so McCarthy was once again shopping in football’s equivalent of Poundland. Even funds generated by Cresswell’s sale to West Ham United were not directly invested into improving the squad, though to Evans’ credit he did reject a significant bid from Leicester City for McGoldrick.

The transfer dealings of this pre-season were a mixed bag, as they are always likely to be when you are taking risks with cheap or out-of-contract players. There were good signings, principally Bartosz Bialkowski from Notts County and Jonathan Parr from Crystal Palace, indifferent signings such as Kevin Bru, and then there was the utterly hopeless Balint Bajner who briefly brought with him a cult Hungarian following, spamming the club’s social media feeds with “No Bajner, no party”.

Ipswich deservedly won the opening game of the season, 2-1 at home to newly relegated Fulham, but then stuttered and lost at home to Norwich City, starting McCarthy’s winless run against them lot up the road. The next game at Derby County was a key moment in the season. Teddy Bishop made his first league start due to an injury to Cole Skuse and was an instant revelation. In a workmanlike midfield, he stood out with his passing and dribbling ability, adding a much-needed attacking flair and perfectly complementing the more defensive-minded Skuse. What followed was the best run of the McCarthy era – one defeat in 20 league matches from the end of August through to the end of the year, flying up to second in the table in the process.

The form and performances of the team in November and December were the best the long-suffering supporters had seen since 2004/05. Having gone without a win in October, Ipswich took all three points away from Bloomfield Road then followed it up with three excellent results against promotion rivals, beating Wolves 2-1 and Watford 1-0 at home, followed by a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth. The next game provided one of my favourite moments of the season. In the 95th minute of what had been a mediocre game, new loan signing Noel Hunt popped up and scored his first Ipswich goal, sending the away fans into raptures and sparking Chambers’ famous “different fucking class” comment live on Sky. Hunt was a classic McCarthy signing – unwanted by a fellow Championship club and mocked by their fans, but Mick’s man-management ability helped to get the best out of him.

November had been excellent but December was another level entirely – a 4-1 win at home to Leeds, 0-0 at Bolton, 2-0 at home to Middlesbrough, 4-2 at Brentford and then 3-0 at home to Charlton. Picking the best performance out of this set of games isn’t easy. The margin of victory over Boro was only two goals but it could have easily been more, the team were magnificent and Tabb’s flying header was one of my favourite team goals of the whole McCarthy era. I think the Brentford win just edges it, given the Bees’ home form up to that point. The newly promoted side were punching above their weight in the top six, so to score in the first 20 seconds and go three up within half an hour was astounding. Charlton were dispatched with ease a few days later, and a few started to believe this could finally be our season.

How had Ipswich gone from a hard-working, organised but limited side to one that was beating some of the league’s best with ease? There were a number of factors at play. A strong, settled defence was key – Berra was playing at his peak, Mings slotted seamlessly into the left-back position and Chambers was improving the attacking aspect of his game at right-back. Mings was unsurprisingly attracting interest from Premier League clubs; his form up to this point was arguably better than Cresswell’s had been before he was sold, providing a great attacking outlet on the left while also being defensively sound.

The midfield was also functioning better than at any other moment under McCarthy. Whether it was a four with Anderson and Tabb on the wings, or a three with Hyam or Bru joining Skuse and Bishop, everyone understood their role. Possibly the biggest factor, however, was the form of Daryl Murphy – the Irishman had the season of his life, scoring 27 league goals in total with the majority of those in the first half of the campaign. David McGoldrick couldn’t recapture his form of 2013-14 but his ability on the ball added an extra dimension to the team, while the likes of Conor Sammon and Noel Hunt could drop in and carry out a role.

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The overriding theme in all of this is a well-functioning team, where everyone has a specific role to play and there is a clear overall game plan. The style of football was generally direct but the midfield’s ability to win the second ball was crucial, and the intensity off the ball would often force opposition players into making mistakes. It wasn’t sexy football but it suited the squad and it was working… until January at least.

Many would argue that January 2015 was the turning point of the McCarthy era. Two defeats in particular had an adverse effect on the remainder of the season – the home defeats to Derby and Southampton. David McGoldrick and Luke Hyam suffered injuries that effectively knocked them out for the season and the momentum had been lost. The transfer window as an opportunity to strengthen the squad, but either McCarthy was unwilling to upset the apple cart or Evans was unprepared to gamble on a couple of big-money signings. Freddie Sears joined for about £150k from Colchester and later a number of loan signings were made, including Richard Chaplow, Luke Varney and Chris Wood.

A run of one point in three games against Brighton, Wigan and Rotherham saw the team slip to fifth in the table, then a run of one win in six matches across February and March left Ipswich in seventh with nine games remaining. The defeats at Norwich and Middlesbrough were particularly dispiriting and it appeared the good work of the first half of the season would be wasted.

All was not lost – sixth-placed Brentford were only one point ahead and only Wolves were within striking distance – but McCarthy and his men needed to find a second wind to make the play-offs. A battling 1-0 win over Bolton was followed by the famous smash-and-grab at Watford, where Chaplow scored his only goal for the club. Ten points from the remaining four home fixtures were enough to see the team qualify for the play-offs for the first time in a decade. Murphy’s goals had tailed off by this point, but Sears had slotted straight in and racked up nine goals after joining the Blues, notching in each of the last four home matches and regular goals from centre-halves Berra and Smith proved to be crucial. The final day of the season was unsurprisingly dramatic – Murphy scored twice but Ipswich slipped to a 3-2 defeat at Blackburn, meaning Derby only needed a draw to make the top six. Thankfully, they bottled it spectacularly with a 3-0 home reverse to Reading.

All that stood between Ipswich and a date with destiny at Wembley was Alex Neil’s Norwich. They initially struggled under Neil Adams, but once he was sacked they quickly improved and finished three points off second-placed Watford, taking two East Anglian derby wins in the regular season. The supporters went into the first leg at Portman Road more in hope than expectation. After Varney’s nasty first-half injury, Jonny Howson’s opener was quickly cancelled out by Anderson, but neither side could force a winner. The second leg was evenly matched until the 49th minute, when Berra was sent off for blocking Redmond’s goal-bound shot with his hand. Hoolahan and converted the penalty, and although Smith forced home an equaliser ten minutes later, Redmond and Jerome put the game out of sight.

It was ultimately a disappointing end to what had been a successful season. Although the team had somewhat scraped into the play-offs, this was the highest finish since 2004/05 and had been achieved on a much smaller budget than many of the other sides in the top eight. Losing to Norwich was hugely frustrating but sadly unsurprising, given the Canaries’ far superior squad and playing budget. There were many positives to take from the season – the development of Mings, the emergence of Bishop and the performances of Murphy to name a few, so the focus was now on further improving the squad and having another crack next season…

 

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