Mick McCarthy’s phone rang while we were accelerating through the gears towards ‘full flow’ setting in our chat at a posh hotel near Charing Cross Station. It was Terry Connor.
His long-time assistant from Wolves and various other points on the football map was seeking advice and, for ten minutes, he was given it.
I don’t think it’s breaching any important confidences to reveal that the Grenada national coach was asking whether he should tell his players they would be using artificial surfaces rather than grass during part of their preparation for a forthcoming fixture.
McCarthy didn’t duck the question or leave any room for doubt. “You’ve just got to tell them, Terry, lad,” he said. “Don’t leave them to find out later.”
‘Candid’ is a word that springs readily to mind when we are thinking of this son of Barnsley. ‘Enduring’ is another. Which explains why the editor of Backpass used both in his introduction to the four-page feature his magazine devotes to our meeting in its latest high-quality issue.
Mick was in great form; punctual, happy to chat and unfailingly good listening. “I’ve headed a few balls, you know…you might need to prompt me on a few names,” he had told me by phone in advance. Hence his heavy reliance on another assistant, one we won’t find in the Rothmans Yearbook and who goes by the name Google.
For three hours, he harked back over almost 50 years in the game, largely the playing side of his life in it, and didn’t like to let a story pass without being sure he had correctly identified all characters mentioned. It wasn’t only Terry making his phone hot.
Dozens of his former team-mates, managers and opponents were name-checked, several of them having served at Molineux before him.
He describes his Celtic pal Mark McGhee as ‘the practical joker of the team’ and calls Steve Harrison ‘the greatest cabaret act in the Football League’.
McCarthy was a team-mate of one of Harrison’s team-mates and coaching partners, Bobby Downes, at early 1980s Barnsley, where he also formed a firm friendship with Ian ‘Taff’ Evans – taken to Oakwell when manager Allan Clarke ‘almost broke the bank’ by signing him from Crystal Palace.
The two central defenders were reunited at Millwall in 1990 at the start of the Yorkshireman’s long managerial career and stayed together through Republic of Ireland and Wolves stints before Connor emerged as the no 2 to him.
Gary Pierce and David Kelly have been other dressing-room pals along the way, with Barnsley and the Irish respectively, and McCarthy’s playing career was one of high achievement and solid service.
Two promotions at his home-town club, another at Manchester City, silverware in abundance during two years at Celtic, various player of the year and PFA representative awards and happy days at Lyon despite what the French press called a ‘Debut catastrophique’ against Chris Waddle and Marseille; it wasn’t dull!
McCarthy, having missed best-man duties at a family wedding to report for the first of his 57 Irish caps, caused more tears in the household by returning from France to join Millwall on loan.
“It was the move that got me playing again and won me a place in Jack Charlton’s squad for the World Cup finals in Italy,” he summed up. “So it was the right decision, although we loved it in Lyon.”
Our tea and coffee drunk, Mick had a cursory look at the menu to check out a possible snack. “Ah, £27 for a club sandwich – I’m not as hungry as I thought I was,” he reported.
Before parting at the station and joining the queue for the pasty stand, he made it clear he had never said he had retired and considered himself still available to take calls from interested chairmen and chief executives. He might even soon have another Football League club on his patch because, from his home within the imaginary triangle he drew between Millwall, Charlton and Crystal Palace, he is only a few miles from Bromley – currently second in the Vanarama National League.
He has presumably had offers since leaving Blackpool early this year and hasn’t yet ticked off Barnsley, where, by coincidence, his former Wolves central defender, Neill Collins, is currently doing a tidy job. As an inspirational former international captain, it’s not difficult to see why McCarthy has been in demand over the decades.
He will decide on his future (and maybe Connor’s) if and when approaches are made and will presumably choose in his usual down-to-earth way, rather than in the manner with which he selected our meeting place.
I can only assume he had been schmoozed in the past at this hotel by potential employers because the settling of the bill revealed that our cappuchino and English breakfast tea had added up to £17.82 worth of refreshments.
It was a small price to pay for his company. McCarthy is a quality guy – highly popular with those who saw his work at close quarters and a Championship winner at Wolves at a time when others were finding that final step extremely difficult.
Following three years of Premier League football from 2009-12, most of us would argue that we remain in his debt and our lives have been richer for knowing him.
Stop press: The Backpass editor is already asking about a part two to take in Mick’s managerial career. So this lengthy offering that has filled the publication’s regular ‘Big Interview’ section in issue 87, which has Sir Bobby Charlton on the front, might be just the first half.