Mick McCarthy

01 Jul 2009


Leadership can be learnt and fine-tuned, but at its heart is personality and passion. Step forward Mick McCarthy, whose direct but honest, friendly but firm approach to management has earned him the respect of his team and a place in the Barclays Premier League.

Q How did you find the transition from player to manager at Millwall?

A One of the biggest lessons I learnt in those early days as a manager is that as soon as you put your head above the parapet you get shot at. Being a highly experienced footballer certainly doesn’t prepare you for management. Players take criticism together as a team. As a manager, you are very much the figurehead and you take criticism on behalf of the players, club and fans.

Taff (Ian Evans), now a colleague at Wolves, was a coach at Millwall at the time. The club was near the relegation zone and I had to start making decisions straight away, so having his guiding hand was invaluable. I would have found it extremely difficult to go from the shop floor straight into management without any help. I was learning on my feet and all I had was the knowledge I’d gained as a player. I’ve since taken all of my qualifications; it’s essential to have these tools as a manager.

Q How difficult is it for a young manager to get the buy-in of his team?

A Results determine that. If you go in with a set way of doing things, you’d better have instant success. No one knows everything, so you have to be prepared to listen to others. I know what I want to do, how I want to play and who I want around me. Nobody can be right all of the time and I am open to suggestion and discussion. But I have the final say, and the club lives or dies by those decisions.

Q Do you have a turnaround strategy when you join a club?

A No, you have to be able to adapt. I’ve been managing for 17 years and my approach remains the same; when you arrive at a club, you evaluate your resources and then work with that. Player injuries mean you’ll have to keep making changes. You can’t plan for that – you just have to think on your feet and get on with it. But, no matter what the circumstances, I maintain my standards and beliefs.

Q How would you define your relationship with the players?

A First and foremost, I treat them with respect and I’m honest. It’s important that the players can talk to me about anything, so my door is always open. But, while they are welcome to ask me a question, they must be prepared for the answer. They’re not, of course, because I’m brutally honest and say it like it is.

I couldn’t go in every day and be stand-offish. I’ll sit and chat, and get to know them. I like to create a good working atmosphere. I’ll have fun with them and join in with the banter, but if, on matchday, I say “jump”, I expect them to ask “how high?” It’s about mutual respect – you can’t get anything out of people if it’s just one way. I am fair, but the team know the ground rules; it’s important to be consistent. And I’ve never asked anything of anyone that I wouldn’t have done as a player.

Q Is yours a conscious management style or part of your personality?

A It’s an extension of me. I am what I am and I don’t change according to whether I’m with players, fans or the chairman. However, there’s no question that, as a manager, you have to act things out at times. When you’ve lost a match, you put on your best “bib and tucker”, smile and try to look as if you are in control of everything, including your emotions. At other times, you do what Taff calls “the red nose, silly hat, juggling routine” to lift everybody’s mood, whether you feel like it or not. In a way, you are acting, but sometimes that’s what managing and motivating people is about.

Q What lessons did you take from your international career?

A There was a real bloodymindedness about the Republic of Ireland; we believed that, wherever we went, we’d give a good account of ourselves. We also had a cute way about us, which went back to the days of Jack Charlton. I remember when I was a player in the World Cup walking around the stadium to get a feel for it. There was a match being shown on the big screen, so we sat down in the middle of the pitch, still in our training kits and flip-flops, to watch. The Italians, who we were due to play, were also there, looking pristine. I think they underestimated our ability, organisation and desire because of our appearance that day. When I became manager of the Republic of Ireland I tried to maintain that special character.

I remember walking down a street in New York when I was manager and builders shouting and waving to me. I couldn’t believe I was getting recognised in New York. It made me realise just how big your profile is when you are an international manager and the huge responsibility that goes with that. You are a figurehead for the nation and you represent it to the world in everything you do – how you look, speak and conduct yourself with the media.

Q Expectations of Wolves were very high towards the end of the season. How did you motivate the team?

A You can’t pull the wool over the players’ eyes, because then they don’t trust you or believe in you. My assistant manager, Terry Connor, and I have been motivating the team day-by-day throughout the season. But at no point have we been dancing on the table, claiming we’d win this or that.

It has been my mantra from the start that we finished seventh last season and we would have to do better than that. I have kept myself and the players on an even keel all the way through the season and tried to manage the expectations of the club and fans.

During one particularly tough period, I brought in sports therapist Bill Stevens. I was concerned that a fear might be developing among the players that we would lose the campaign. After all, the pleasure of winning only comes when you have won something, the fear of losing is always there. Bill certainly had a positive effect on the team.

While I would never have done this as a young manager, you learn with maturity, experience and knowledge that this kind of action doesn’t weaken your hand, it adds to your armoury.

Q In any business, spotting talent is crucial; you’ve had real success…

A I bought Michael Kightly from Grays Athletic for £25,000, which turned out to be a great piece of business. We’ve had unbelievable success in identifying talent, here and at previous clubs. We look for players who are young, hungry and with real desire. I’m a grafter and I recruit people who I know will give every last drop of sweat. If you have players with those attributes, it makes the job of management far easier.

Spotting great talent doesn’t happen by chance; it takes hard work. I place a lot of trust in my recruitment team of Dave Bowman and Taff. If they recommend that I sign a player and I’m unable to see him, I say sign him. The three of us have been working as a team for 25 years and I can trust them to be my eyes and ears. They know what makes a Mick McCarthy player.