If I asked 23 fans who individually supported all the teams of the Championship except Wolves whether they would welcome Mick McCarthy with a smile as their new manager, I suspect I could count the number of affirmative answers on my grubby little hand. At the end of last season, even a faction of Wolves fans would have been pleased to see him putting a deposit down on a nice country pub somewhere.
That seems unfair. Wolves have led the Championship for sustained periods this season. They are five clear of second and a further four clear of third. They will almost definitely be Champions. They will be in the Premier League next season.
Yet ask most fans if they’d want McCarthy at their club and enthusiasm would be hard to come by. A couple would bite your hand off (Charlton for a start, but they’d probably take Dave Bassett right now). A few might wrinkle their noses but grudgingly accept him (Blackpool, Norwich, Plymouth) but the rest? Thanks but no thanks.
Some clubs who like to think they have a tradition of passing football might not fancy McCarthy’s style while simultaneously dreaming of his success (QPR and Ipswich). Others simply already have arguably better managers in place (Bristol City, Swansea).
The facts are that outside of one or two harrowing Premier League experiences, Mick tends to deliver. Roy Keane might have struggled to respect him as manager of Ireland, but at least back then they qualified for tournaments – they haven’t done since he left over six years ago.
Like a string of modern British managers such as George Burley, Neil Warnock, Tony Pulis, Dave Jones and Steve Coppell, McCarthy knows how to win in the Championship. Yet despite their successes, these are names almost definitely not even considered for the still-vacant Portsmouth job.
That is because without a top quality manager (hello, Middlesbrough!), things go very wrong very quickly in the Premier League and catastrophic results can follow for years afterwards. Look at that list above and all have had a brief flirtation in the top flight only to be spat out pretty quickly. In the Championship, having a highly charismatic tactical genius in charge is not quite so necessary.
McCarthy’s ‘secret’ is pretty simple: Strikers – with the emphasis on the plural. At QPR, Ian Holloway once said he liked to ‘rack and stack’ his strikers because he knew (his time at Bristol Rovers with Bobby Zamora, Jamie Cureton, Barry Hayles and Jason Roberts proved it) that you can see an average team become promotion material as long as you have a couple or more players capable of turning one point into three. While that’s fine for the Championship, it is rarely good enough for the Premier League and a reason, perhaps, why some managers seem unable to make that extra step.
What McCarthy, Coppell and the rest know is that it’s not about having that one fabled 20-goal a season striker. You need three or more who might nick 45-50 between them. Look at the great Reading team that walked the league in 2006, 16 points ahead of their nearest challenger. It wasn’t just Leroy Lita. It was Lita, Dave Kitson, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle. Hull ended last season with Caleb Folan, Frazier Campbell, Dean Windass and Nick Barmby. West Brom had Roman Bednar, Kevin Phillips and Ishmael Miller. Sunderland before them juggled Anthony Stokes, David Connolly, Daryl Murphy and Stern John – with Dwight Yorke in midfield for good measure.
At the end of last season, McCarthy had Michael Kightly, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Sam Vokes, but he added Chris Iwelumo and revitalised him after a tough time at Charlton. When Kightly and Iwelumo faltered a little recently, he went out and fought off all the competition to get Marlon Harewood on loan from Villa, just to make sure.
McCarthy has successfully followed a popular formula. The Wolves are going up and it didn’t take a genius to take them to the top. The real skill is going to be keeping them in the top flight for longer than the one tough year they had earlier this decade.