Mick McCarthy enjoying happier times at Ipswich after turbulent year
It's been a little over a year since ESPN FC paid an extended visit behind the scenes at Ipswich Town. Iain Macintosh catches up with manager Mick McCarthy to see what's happened since then.
It was the jeering that stuck firmest in the memory. As the full-time whistle blew at Portman Road on Oct. 29, 2016, the Ipswich fans made their feelings abundantly clear to manager Mick McCarthy, and the abuse rained down from the stands. Huddled in the mouth of the tunnel, a small group of injured players, club staff members (and one ESPN FC journalist) stepped to one side as the players trooped back to the dressing room. But McCarthy was way behind them; he had to walk the length of the pitch from the dug-out.
He was booed every step of the way.
Ipswich had scored a last-minute equaliser that day, salvaging a point in a must-win game against bottom club Rotherham. ESPN FC reporters had been at Portman Road for three days, watching training sessions, speaking to the backroom staff and even reminiscing with the kitman in the boot room. But there was no happy ending for our story.
"They [the fans] were almost disappointed we scored, I thought," recalls McCarthy when he speaks to ESPN FC this week. It's hard to disagree. The common fan-held view of McCarthy at the time was that he was a dead man walking, a purveyor of dull football and that he couldn't go quickly enough, but just over a year later, the mood is a little different. Only the dominant Wolverhampton Wanderers side at the top of the table have scored more than Ipswich, and after three wins in four games, the Tractor Boys find themselves in eighth place, just two points off the play-offs. So what's changed?
"I've just been at a press conference and they're asking me that, too," says McCarthy. "I just said that I've got better players -- I've certainly got better players up front. David McGoldrick's fit, Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner, Bersant Celina ... they make a difference for us. So that's it; better players and better goal scorers make you a better manager and a better coach."
It feels as though McCarthy is being too modest. In recent games against Nottingham Forest and Reading, Ipswich were far more positive than they were last season, aggressive when not in possession and breaking quickly to add to their goal tally. Not that he agrees.
"Well, to be honest, that's never changed in terms of my approach to the game. If you've got players that do everything you ask of them, if they're prepared to do it ..." he changes the subject, recalling the difficulties of last season. "When you were in, it was a tough time. It gets tough for players, it affects them. So it's funny when you're doing well, people are snapping into tackles, they're all running around more, they're putting the ball in the net.
"I guess my point is that I've never changed my approach. It's just the fact that I've got better players, people that are willing to give everything, and there's a good team spirit."
McCarthy insists that he never thought he was finished at Ipswich last season, no matter how bad the results looked.
"No, no, I tried not to think like that," he said. "There were plenty of times when I thought, 'This is tough and it's going to go right down to the wire,' and it pretty much did. But I kept plugging away, and I made sure the lads keep plugging away. I tried to keep that belief that we were going to be alright."
It was alright in the end. Ipswich didn't win consecutive matches until April 2017, having gone for two extended runs of five and eight games with victory. But while nine managers in that division fell, and another three going this season already, McCarthy survived. How did he keep his composure? He puts it down to experience.
"People ask me: What do you get from experience? I can never sit down and tell you what I've learned, but when situations arise, I know that I can handle them. Whether that be with players, with myself, with the team, with results, with the press, with the club ... all that experience helps you cut through it and handle it with a bit more focus, a bit more perspective and sometimes a bit more dignity than you would otherwise."
But does he still enjoy it?
"Yes, I do," he said, chuckling. "I'll be brutally honest with you: I enjoy it some days more than others, but that's been the case all the time. When you've won and you're on a roll, you don't think too much about it, but when you've lost, you feel it night and day. All you do is think about it. Not saying you're worrying, you're just thinking about it. Constantly.
"[On] Sunday morning, if you've won, you get up, you don't even think about it. Sunday morning, we've lost, I think about nothing else but the game. Winning just gives you a break from it."
McCarthy's contract at Portman Road is up at the end of the season and at the time of writing, there had been no negotiations for an extension.
"We'll see what happens, you know. I had a brief chat with Marcus [Evans, the owner] and we discussed in the summer and said we'd wait and see. I'm comfortable with that. It might be my decision, it might be the club's decision. We'll wait and see."
"If we get into the playoffs, we'll have done wonderfully well considering the budgets of other clubs and the amount of players we've had injured. We've got a chance of getting in the playoffs. That'll be decided by what happens in January with others clubs and if we can get our players back fit and well.
Ipswich have a tough Christmas programme, with his former employers and current league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday followed by Queens Park Rangers, Derby and Fulham. But McCarthy isn't intimidated.
"No, it isn't an easy Xmas, but equally, I don't think Wolves, QPR, Derby or Fulham are all going, 'Oh, hip-hip-hooray, we're playing Ipswich, that'll be nice and easy.'"
And that's what has changed since ESPN FC were in town. McCarthy is still there, he's still working in the same way and they remain in the same division. But now, one year on, Ipswich are no pushovers.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.