How does Mick McCarthy stay calm amid the chaos of the Championship?
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IPSWICH, England -- The Ipswich Town fans who stayed until the end stayed for only one reason. Three minutes into injury time, they were losing 1-2 to bottom club Rotherham, and they wanted to let their manager know what they thought of him.
At the mouth of the tunnel at Portman Road, club officials, senior stewards and injured players stood, grim-faced, watching the final moments of a match that appeared to be lost. Then the ball fell to Ipswich's David McGoldrick, who was completing his first full match since a lengthy layoff, and he drove it powerfully into the bottom corner to salvage a point. The fans roared with relief -- but not for long. Within seconds of the restart, the referee blew the final whistle, and those cheers turned to jeers.
"Your football is s---!" they shouted. "Your football is s---! Mick McCarthy, your football is s---!"
McCarthy shook hands with his opposite number, Kenny Jackett, and began the long walk from the benches on the halfway line to the tunnel in the far corner of the stadium. As he walked, the fans he passed intensified their volume, booing him all the way. Near the entrance to the tunnel, one man unleashed a ferocious staccato, first violin to the swelling symphony of catcalls around McCarthy.
"W---er! W---er! W---er! W---er! W---er! W---er! W---er!"
McCarthy, chin stiffened, eyes focused forward, didn't react. He simply strode down the tunnel and into the dressing room before the heavy, blue doors shut firmly behind him.
This is the second flight of English football. This is the Championship in which the average lifespan of a manager in 2014-15 was 0.86 years. Yet McCarthy has been at Ipswich since November 2012, shrugging off the highs and pushing through the lows, stoically treating triumph and disaster as imposters just the same.
Two days earlier, McCarthy joked with a photographer in his office who was endeavouring to capture him in reflective mood. "You want me looking out the window?" he asked dryly. "Looking across our beautiful car park?"
It's a car park that McCarthy enters early every morning, usually on his bike but increasingly in his car as winter sets in. He divides his time between a flat in Ipswich and his family home in Bromley, 85 miles to the south. "If I'm in Bromley, I'm up at quarter to five, and I'm here at quarter to seven," he said. If he's in Ipswich, it's not unknown for him to arrive before six for a spell in the gym and an informal meeting with the coaching staff.
Ipswich are still licking their wounds after a humbling defeat at Newcastle, but McCarthy is philosophical about the result.
"We weren't that bad!" he chuckled wryly. "Newcastle were excellent. They were just very, very good, and sometimes you have to take your hat off to an opponent. They were better than us. We didn't get a touch. We tried our nuts off to get the ball off them. And we couldn't. Our important game is now Rotherham."
McCarthy and his coaching staff have already rewatched the Newcastle game and analysed the performance -- not always a pleasant task, especially after a heavy defeat.
"There are times when I could just leave it, but we never do. We always watch," he said.
"It'd be easier [not to watch] when you've won actually, when you've had a good win and played well, but you can always get something out of rewatching the game. Generally, the rule of thumb is that, even like Saturday against Newcastle, when you come in, you've actually not played as badly as you think you have. And conversely, it works the same way: When you come in and you've won 3-0 and you're feeling great, you realise, 'Oh, we weren't that good after all. Ooh, they had a few chances.' So you can always pick the bones out of it."
This is how McCarthy works, methodically and objectively. It's how he worked at his previous clubs: Millwall, Sunderland, the Republic of Ireland or Wolverhampton Wanderers. Whether at a World Cup or in the Premier League, he imposes principles from above. He makes a point of shaking the hand and learning the name of everyone at the club. He insists that his players be polite at all times, that they greet visitors to the club with courtesy. His staff are fiercely loyal; his personal assistant, Francesca Manning, bristles when we discuss the intensifying dissent in the crowd. Yet the team aren't scoring goals, and they aren't winning games.
Rotherham should be an easy three points, but no one is taking anything for granted.
Ipswich Town is a most peculiar football club. If you didn't know their history, you might be tempted to consider them one of those provincial English oddities, an entirely unremarkable team drawing regular crowds of loyal locals but attracting little attention from anyone else. But the past is littered with rueful ex-footballers who underestimated Ipswich in a similar manner and paid the price.
In 1962, Alf Ramsey won the league with Ipswich. In 1978, Bobby Robson won the FA Cup, and the UEFA Cup followed in 1981. This was after poor results had the fans calling for his head, but chairman John Cobbold's response was to award Robson a new contract.
"There is no crisis at Ipswich until the white wine runs out in the boardroom," he said at the time.
In 2001, their first season back after a five-year absence, George Burley had Ipswich in the Premier League title race until they ran out of steam in the final weeks of the season and slipped to fifth. It has been some time since there was anything to celebrate at Ipswich.
Burley's team were relegated the following season, and they've been in the second flight ever since. In 2012, it looked as if they might drop to the third. With the club firmly at the bottom of the table, Paul Jewell left by mutual consent, and McCarthy took over. After initial heavy spending from owner Marcus Evans, who took control in 2007, the club was to be run on tighter purse strings.
According to managing director Ian Milne, the wage bill is currently £13 million, the matchday revenue is £6.5 million, and the rest is made up by Evans. According to the team's last financial reports, published in December 2016, the club is £86.5 million in debt (largely due to Evans himself). Regardless of the wisdom of any of this, the simple truth is Ipswich cannot hope to match or even come close to matching the spending of former Premier League clubs such as Aston Villa and Newcastle.
After hauling the club from the relegation zone in 2013, McCarthy finished ninth, sixth and seventh in the following years. But as the Rotherham game approaches, his team are 17th in the table and have failed to score in all but one of their past seven games. In the local press, particularly the comments sections online, the pressure is mounting -- not that McCarthy reads any of it.
"No, I don't read the local press. I don't listen to local radio," he said. "Why would I? Of course I'm having a tough time now. I'm not a bad manager. I'm the same one that got in the playoffs with nothing to spend and the same one who got a team out of the ashes to where we got 'em. I'm still that same person. I'd like to think that three years later I'm better than I was then -- not worse!
"But reading it is just self-defeating. Why would you want to read or listen to peoples' comments if they're being critical? It's a bit like social media, which I'm not on, either. So if you see somebody say they're Mick McCarthy on Twitter -- or 'Twatter,' as I like to call it -- then it's not me."
Still, McCarthy scoffs at the idea that he is immune to criticism. He hears what they shout at him from the stands.
"I'm far from bulletproof -- none of us are," he said. "I'm not going to say it wouldn't affect me if I listened to it or read it all, but that's why I don't. I'm not bulletproof, but I'm also not stupid. I'm far from stupid."
McCarthy does his best to protect his players from criticism and tries to warn them of the pitfalls of a life in the public eye.
"Of course I do," he said. "I've been there. You get in the team, and everything's rosy. Everyone loves you. That's fabulous. Then there's a tough time, and suddenly everyone doesn't love you. It's 'he wasn't as good as I thought he was' or 'Oh, he's a big-timer now, he's gone big-time, he's bought car, he's so flash.' No, he's not! He's just 19, and he wants to drive a car like everyone else! It's just that he's got a few quid to spend.
"You get all of these things. 'Oh, he's going out now. He's not friends with his friends from school, and they kept him grounded.' You hear all of this, and it's a crock of nonsense usually. ... The criticism does upset them and deflate them. And you've got to keep them going. It's part of the job: counselling.
"Let me tell you: Footballers are sensitive. They are sensitive to people criticising them at their job. What if your editor started criticising you at your job, or you write this and everybody goes, 'What a pile of s--- that was. That was the worst interview I've ever seen!'"
McCarthy faced more criticism later that night, when he attended the Ipswich supporters' AGM. But he was unconcerned with that.
"I'm 57 years old," he said. "I've been around the game a long time, and if someone wants to say something to me ... it's a bit like you. At a press conference, if you want to ask me something and I don't want to tell you, I'll just tell you, 'I'm not telling you.' And I'd have no qualms about it. You'd just have to get over it. No matter how many times you ask me, no matter how many different ways you ask me, I'm not gonna tell you. It's just about being straight with people, being honest with them. If somebody doesn't like me, there's nothing I can do."
The tension in Portman Road is palpable as kickoff approaches, but all that preparation seems to have paid off after just three minutes, when Freddie Sears opens the scoring for Ipswich and the stadium comes alive. But McCarthy's men hold the lead for just four minutes, and Danny Ward equalises for the visitors. The zip with which Ipswich started the game begins to ebb. Three minutes into the second half, Rotherham take the lead, with Ward finishing after a long throw causes havoc in the box.
The stadium roils with discontent. This is a must-win game. Even a draw would be considered a bad result. On the touchline, McCarthy and Connor continue to encourage their players, but to no avail. The game is slipping away, and hundreds of Ipswich fans are storming out of the exits. Then, just as it seems all is lost, the ball falls to McGoldrick, and he hammers it home. It's a point. After all that preparation, all that planning, all those good intentions, it's just a point. The fans do not hesitate to let McCarthy know. The walk from the bench to the sanctuary of the dressing room can never have felt so long.
Showered and back in his suit, McCarthy does the rounds with the media: two televised interviews in small rooms off the tunnel, the written press in the media suite upstairs and local radio in a small purpose-built booth. To everyone, the message is the same: He will not quit. He will accept the criticism of the fans. He will keep fighting.
The following week, Ipswich beats Sheffield Wednesday away from home. Then they lose at home to troubled Nottingham Forest. Then they thrash Queens Park Rangers 3-0. By mid-January, they are so inconsistent that they haven't experienced back-to-back results of any kind since August. They find themselves 14th in the table, 10 points above the relegation zone but 11 points outside the playoffs. A 3-2 victory over Blackburn Rovers leads one local journalist to suggest that a turning point has been reached. In brutal style, the comments box suggests otherwise.
McCarthy retains the support of the board but has lost a significant section of the fans. His assertions that he is doing the best he can on a limited budget fall on more deaf ears with every passing week. A humiliating, televised FA Cup defeat to non-league Lincoln City on Jan. 17 has only intensified the dissent. But he will continue doing what he does: getting in early, getting the cones out and working with the players.
Three managers in this division were sacked in the fortnight around the Rotherham game: Rotherham's Alan Stubbs, Wolves' Walter Zenga, Wigan's Gary Caldwell and Queens Park Rangers' Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink. Another three -- including Stubbs' replacement, Kenny Jackett -- have been sacked since. But for now, McCarthy remains the Championship's ultimate survivor.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.