Will Big Mick have the last laugh? – Opposition Profile
Thursday, 7th Sep 2017 08:15 by Clive Whittingham
Tipped by some for a relegation struggle after a dire 2016/17, Ipswich have started with four wins from five to the delight of their unashamedly old-school manager.
If you were looking for a football character for your brand new BBC3 sketch show, Big Mick the Northern Football Manager wouldn’t be a bad start.
Big Mick, bringing 1950s family values and 1980s brutalist football style to a modern game of touch-screen analysis, foreign coaches and buffed up millionaire teenagers he finds confusing and scary. Big Mick who thinks a sleeve tattoo is a tourist attraction in Edinburgh and an iPad is something Mrs Mick makes him add to the weekly shop once a month under heavy protest. Sketches could revolve around such scenarios as a suave, dashing, Portuguese coach in one dressing room expertly picking apart the minutiae of Big Mick’s team on an interactive white board, intermingling tactics with Renaissance poetry as a sports psychologist works the room asking players what gender they identify as, while across the corridor Big Mick just shouts “CHANNELS” and “get that big lad kicked early he’s a fucking puff” at his troops. Or Big Mick standing silently, eyebrows lowered, at the side of the training field as an 18-year-old winger with a dramatic fringe and a watch worth more than Mick’s house describes the corner routine he’s making them work on as a “bare basic, bad man ting”.
But then you might encounter the same problem political satirists are having at the moment – the truth’s way ahead of you. Far stranger, scarier and funnier than anything you could ever possibly cook up. The current political landscape makes The Thick of It look like some sort of glorious utopia to aspire to and you might well find that Mick McCarthy, the old-school football manager from Barnsley, is far funnier and more stereotypical than anything you could possibly write.
Ipswich’s unexpectedly fine start to the season has brought about a wave of thoughtful broadsheet interviews with McCarthy which have offered up the following gems.
Is Big Mick on the Twitter?
“Am I fuck. Twitter? Not a chance. Can you imagine? I’d either have 700 billion followers or I’d be put in prison. Why would I want to do that? If someone came on giving me abuse, it would degenerate very quickly. You know yourself when you’re having a tough time. You don’t need someone who, by the way, might never have kicked a ball, who might weigh 25 stone, who couldn’t get out of his chair, who has never coached, telling you you’re shite. No. It would annoy me too much. Fuck off.” Telegraph
What does Mick think of him and Neil Warnock topping the early Championship table?
“Two old farts who know nothing about the game, hey? I’ll have to get my iPad out now.” Guardian
And on Ipswich’s first defeat of the season, a comprehensive doing over by Fulham at Portman Road last time out.
“Call the police, there’s been a murder out on the pitch. They bashed us up.” EADT
How we got here
We’ve spoken before – a lot, sorry – about the problems with clubs that exist purely to stay in the Premier League, and bail out of both cup competitions early to achieve it. It’s contrary to what sport is supposed to be about, and it quickly becomes boring.
By the time Bolton Wanderers were relegated from the Premier League they weren’t even selling out for home games with nearby giants Man Utd and Liverpool – because while neutrals, casuals and Sky Sports presenters think playing at home to Man Utd should be a big draw, people who care passionately about their club get tired of seeing them lose to those pricks every year. Bolton spent way beyond their means to maintain that position in the middle of the Premier League road and are now mired in the consequences.
What could be worse than seeing your club work itself into financial difficulties just to stand still in Richard Scudamore’s game of foreign TV rights sales? Well I’m pleased you asked. Probably seeing your club work itself into financial difficulties just to stand still in Shaun Harvey’s torrent of mediocrity.
This is Ipswich Town’s sixteenth consecutive year in the Championship, something neighbours Norwich enjoy reminding them of with a round of applause in the appropriate minute of fixtures between the sides. They have Premier League pedigree – fifth as recently as 2000/01, just five points shy of second-placed Arsenal, they beat Inter Milan at home in the following season’s UEFA Cup – but it’s felt a long way off for some time.
They’re a cautionary tale in a number of mistakes we’ve seen before, and made ourselves. That fifth-place finish was followed by an overreach and overspend which took the wage bill beyond what the club could afford, damaged the team that had done so well and saddled them with big-earning, under-performing players like Finidi George and Matteo Sereni who didn’t do quite what they said on the tin. They were a case study for QPR to learn from, and instead we made the same mistakes as them twice.
Having been relegated, the shock of the Championship ran hand in hand with a second European campaign won through the Fair Play League which the squad couldn’t cope with. I’ll never forget being at Grimsby Town back in October 2002 on a typically bracing/suicide-inducing Tuesday night on the North Lincolnshire coast to see George take to the field in gloves and a scarf up front alongside that known warrior and trojan Marcus Bent. Ipswich got run absolutely ragged by a front pairing of Steve Kabba and Darren Mansaram in a 3-0 defeat – Kabba ended up at Barnet, Mansaram at Halifax, that night Ipswich made them look like monsters Romelu Lukaku grew in his basement and fed only on steak.
Returns have been close, particularly under Joe Royle when they failed twice in the play-offs with an excellent team led from the front by a young Darren Bent. But parachute payments ran dry, and then a takeover by reclusive but rich supporter Marcus Evans saw funds given to the wrong managers: Jim Magilton, who we know all about; followed by Roy Keane, who makes a living out of telling managers what they should do on the TV these days having sold Jordan Rhodes for a few hundred thousand and bought Tamas Priskin for £1.6m; and Paul Jewell, “don’t be nice to me, tell me how much I’m sweating”.
With that money gone, and the Championship transfer market spiralling, they’re a further warning to QPR of what can happen if you just stagnate in the middle of the Championship. Supporters, not encouraged by some of the league’s highest ticket prices which were raised again over the summer and senior discounts raised from 60 to 65, have either lost interest and drifted away or become very frustrated. Portman Road, a beautifully-appointed old-style stadium in the middle of the town, perfect for those of us sick of traipsing out into the middle of remote retail parks to sit in an Ikea distribution centre (Derby, Middlesbrough, Leicester, Southampton, Coventry), has been half full and almost completely silent for our recent visits.
McCarthy had his team in the play-offs in 2015/16, a remarkable achievement in an era where standard, mediocre Championship players are now changing hands for north of £6m and Ipswich have found themselves the last dog at the bowl. But last season’s brutally functional Town team, which at one point drew six matches in a row (five 1-1’s and a nil nil) was one you’d struggle to motivate yourself to watch if they were playing in your back garden. The Ipswich fans took to singing “Mick McCarthy, your football is shit” and he responded in kind with barbs about their lack of support and mood swings – “up and down like a fiddler’s elbow”.
Big Mick’s big start
While Dominic Iorfa from Wolves looked a handy signing, a summer spent strengthening the attack with £1m buys from the world’s biggest collection of fucking awful footballers (SPFL) did not inspire much confidence that this season would go a lot better. Joe Garner had previously struggled to step up to Championship level and score regularly after Preston were promoted, Martyn Waghorn was being lined up by League One Scunthorpe before Ipswich stepped in. In the pre-season search for three teams worse than our own, Ipswich featured quite prominently in people’s thoughts. They lost their final pre-season friendly 6-1 to League One Charlton Athletic.
And yet, Town started with four consecutive wins in the league prior to the defeat against Fulham last time out.
It’s form that will take some maintaining. They’re already beset by injuries, including a tragic season-ender for talented youngster Andre Dozzell. The fixtures were kind to them, with newly promoted Millwall, Barnsley who’ve had their squad gutted, Birmingham at a time when ‘Arry was trying to persuade his board he needed 15 new players and Brentford during their weird August. They’ve been labelled as clinical having scored nine goals from 34 shots while conceding four from 82 but there could also be an element of luck involved there too.
But whether it’s because he was stung by the criticism, realised he was probably fairly close to the sack if something didn’t change, or simply as bored as everybody else watching his own team, it’s clear McCarthy has thrown some caution to the wind this season and brought blessed relief, so far, to those who pay to watch Ipswich every week. A breathless 4-3 win at The Den rather sums up the new abandon with which Town have started the season. And with a hugely promising display by a team of kids in the League Cup at Crystal Palace hinting that Ipswich’s once-prolific academy is returning to form, maybe there might actually be some light at the end of a long Championship tunnel for the Tractor Boys.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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