End of an era: The enigma that was Mick McCarthy, Sunderland manager

Familiar pose: Mick McCarthy during his Sunderland reign
Familiar pose: Mick McCarthy during his Sunderland reign
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MICK McCARTHY was one of those managers that Peter Reid would have shortlisted to take over from him after his own sacking.

Muscular, macho and direct, very much a player’s manager, McCarthy might have fared better with those players than Howard Wilkinson, had he been give charge of Reid’s team immediately.

As it was he took over in March with the team defeated and deflated and with players already looking for the exit door.

He was bold – looking to be positive and win every one of Sunderland’s last eight games – but it was a disaster. He lost the lot.

Facing the most testing of managerial situations the following season, he did well with vastly reduced resources and the likes of Jeff Whitley and Sean Thornton, to take the club to the Championship play-offs.

He deserved enormous credit for getting them promoted as champions the season after that, before a chronic lack of investment in the transfer market did for him in the top flight – Sunderland crashing out of the Premier League in even more humiliating circumstances than his first season with club.

McCarthy has a reputation for being straightforward and honest. Call a spade a spade and all that.

But, from the start, the North East Press found him taciturn..

Mick arrived at Sunderland with a reputation of having been badly scorched by the media coverage as Republic of Ireland manager and the Roy Keane World Cup controversy.

But we bent over backwards to demonstrate the local Press was a friendly and supportive one, all to little avail.

For him, the media was to be endured rather than enjoyed and he had a distaste for anything which might approach hype.

He wasn’t quite of the “Tell them nowt!” approach of former assistant manager Paul Bracewell, but he rarely seemed keen on giving you a line.

A typical exchange might go: “Stephen Elliott played very well at the weekend, Mick?

Mick: “I thought they all played very well.”

Or: “Your goalkeeper was outstanding on Saturday, Mick. He’s been in top form for weeks now, he’s really making a difference.”

Mick: “Well, that’s what he’s paid for, you know? He’s there to make saves.”

Sigh.

I remember once him looking dumbfounded after mentioning that he rated Kevin Kyle as a better striker at his young age than Niall Quinn had been.

“What?” he said.as we all looked up, blinking, and then, with disgust: “Oh! I’ve given you a line, haven’t I? Go on then, you’ll be happy now.”

Which kind of missed the point of what Press conferences were all about in the first place.

It always surprised me, given his prickly nature with the Press, that he was so quick to work in the media, but it’s a funny old world.

Despite the fact that you sensed he had very little time for any of us though, he was friendly enough generally and inside the club showed himself to be a thoroughly decent human being who cared passionately about the club and its staff.

He also did as good a job as anyone could have done in the difficult circumstances.

Because he was not prepared to engage with the media, we had to accept at face value his claims that he was more than happy with the budget he had been given to work with in preparation for Sunderland’s return to the Premier League.

An unguarded comment towards the end of the reign let the cat out of the bag when he commented: “a view had been taken…” clearly by the board and not by him, that the club would spend small rather than risk the long-term financial future.

It was only then that we began learning Mick had lined up the likes of Darren Bent and Dean Ashton to come to the club but simply couldn’t get the funds.

This was a different Mick altogether.

If sports writers had known that from the very start, the narrative might have entirely different.

As it was, it was way too late by that stage.

Within days he had been sacked.