As he masterminds a swift upturn in Cardiff City’s fortunes, Mick McCarthy recently joined the elite band of managers to have presided over 1,000 senior fixtures. Over a quarter of those were chalked up at Wolves, where those who worked with McCarthy still have fond memories of his impact both on and off the pitch.
Dan Morgan was working as a cleaner at the Wolves training ground when he introduced himself to Mick McCarthy on his first day as the club’s new manager.
“I’m Dan, I’m just a cleaner,” was his starter for ten.
“Let me tell you something,” McCarthy immediately replied.
“There is no such thing as just a cleaner – cleaners are every bit as important as anyone else.
“If the staff and players didn’t have somewhere clean to work, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs.”
“From that first moment he always made me feel so comfortable, like a part of the team,” says Morgan.
“He included me in everything and always got me involved in the banter.”
Mick McCarthy marked his 1000th game as a manager almost a fortnight ago, with Cardiff’s fairly inauspicious goalless draw at Huddersfield.
It wasn’t really in keeping with what has often proved a very lively managerial career!
He is the 32ndmanager in the modern era to achieve this ‘grand’ accomplishment, enjoying the illustrious company of the likes of Sir Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Sir Bobby Robson, Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, the latter whom congratulated McCarthy on the achievement and described him as ‘an inspiration to all young managers’.
Graham Turner and Graham Taylor, others well known to Wolves, are also among the illustrious ‘1000 Club’. Jose Mourinho is set to join later this season.
McCarthy’s achievements and all the ups and downs of his spells at six clubs and with the Republic of Ireland are there for all to see.
But what a list on a piece of paper or a Wikipedia page cannot really portray is what has gone on behind the scenes during McCarthy’s near 30 years in the dugout – the man behind the milestone if you like.
Speaking to many of those who have worked with McCarthy at Wolves, from board level to office staff, players to groundsmen, creates a small snapshot of just how he built such a successful team from very modest beginnings, one which both reached and then survived in the Premier League before things turned sour and he departed after almost six years at the helm in February, 2012.
At this point I should also declare an interest.
Having covered the first two years of McCarthy’s Molineux tenure as a reporter in the local media, I spent the last four working as part of the Wolves’ press office.
Any concerns I had about making that transition – and there were a few – were dispelled one night in a hotel bar during pre-season in Scotland in 2008.
Having tentatively sat nursing a pint a few tables away from McCarthy and his staff I was very quickly summoned over with the greeting: ‘You’re on the inside pissing out now, Paul.’
From that warm welcome followed four hugely enjoyable years, even during the difficult times, looking on and learning just what it took to create such a united group of people.
Before dipping into recollections from those who perhaps knew Mick best during the 270 fixtures he oversaw at Wolves, it is worth heading right back to the beginning, and the very first of that thousand.
A central defender by trade, McCarthy started out at hometown club Barnsley before working up the pyramid to turn out for Manchester City, Celtic and Lyon before joining Millwall shortly prior to being a key part of the Republic of Ireland team which reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup.
When Bruce Rioch lost his job at the Old Den in March, 1992, McCarthy was made player manager, and it all began with a 1-0 home win against Port Vale thanks to a Malcolm Allen goal in front of a crowd of 6, 148.
Among the Millwall team at the time was Alex Rae, later to become a hugely popular member of the Molineux engine room, but at that point a very confident and ambitious 22-year-old midfielder.
Rae is also currently a very happy Rangers fan and former player, and the Old Firm rivalry was something that often raised its head with McCarthy who had been part of the double-winning Celtic team of 1987/88.
“My first introduction to Big Mick would have been us chatting about the Old Firm with his involvement with Celtic and Rangers setting off on their nine in a row,” Rae recalls.
“We both loved it.
“I’d wear my Rangers hat into training and in the shooting drills I’d be shouting stuff like ‘here’s McCoist’ and just trying to wind the big man up.
“He was a great team-mate, a real leader, and we’d go out and have the odd pint.
“Then literally overnight he became the gaffer and I was probably young and naïve enough to think we could still be mates, just the same.
“After a few choice words it became very clear who the gaffer really was, and he certainly had no issues at all about switching roles.”
And that was demonstrated to Rae in no uncertain terms when he was asked to play out of position.
“Mick came up to me on the Thursday and said he wanted me to play right midfield at the weekend.
“I said, ‘no gaffer I’m not playing at right midfield, I’m a central midfielder’.
“He replied, ‘no you’re not hearing me, you’re playing right midfield’, and so I told him that he wasn’t hearing me and that I wasn’t!
“I thought he might say that he’d maybe stick me in the middle for the first half but instead he says, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll put you on the bench, how does that sound’?
“It was the only period I had out of the Millwall team throughout my six years there, and it went on for about six or seven weeks.
“He then called me back into his office, said he was going to put me back in the team at the weekend, and asked if right midfield was o-k for me?
“I said ‘listen gaffer, I’ll play anywhere for you’, and went out and scored two goals from right midfield!
“That was a great learning curve for me as a young player – at the time I thought everything revolved around me – but with Mick’s experience he knew I could do a job in that position and he was doing what he felt was right for the team.
“As a player you always knew where you stood with Mick, he didn’t sugar coat anything, and I loved playing in that Millwall team for him.”
McCarthy settled quickly to life in the hotseat, leading the Lions to the Championship play-offs and general improvement despite regularly having to sell off the cream of the squad’s emerging talent.
That earned him a shot at the Republic of Ireland job, where he followed playing at a World Cup by managing at one, in 2002, the Roy Keane saga of Saipan included.
Leaving the international job a year later, his next club assignment was with Sunderland, coming in at the back end of a Premier League relegation to help the club regroup to reach the play-offs, and then the Championship title in 2004/05.
Without the opportunity to strengthen, Sunderland were once again relegated, by which point McCarthy had departed, leaving him available to offers in the summer of 2006.
As has been well documented, then Wolves CEO Jez Moxey was on a boat sailing around the lake at West Park with his young daughter when he took a call from Glenn Hoddle to say he had decided to resign from his position as manager.
By the time he had reached dry land, Moxey’s attentions had already turned to a decent idea of a potential replacement.
“Mick McCarthy first really came to my attention in the Premier League with Sunderland when they were having a tough time,” he recalls.
“Week after week when I tuned in, Mick would appear front and centre to the media, not shying away from anything and answering all the questions in an open and honest way.
“I knew other managers might not turn up or send their assistants and it just looked to me like here was a manager with real character and good communication skills, who had enjoyed success with Ireland and Sunderland.
“As soon as I got that call from Glenn, I thought about Mick immediately and remember reaching out to him and Sir Jack and myself meeting him at my flat in London.
“It was a really pleasant sunny day, we did the interview in the lounge, with Mick asking us what our plans were and outlining what he wanted to do.
“It was one of those occasions where I just knew within the first five minutes that at the end of the conversation we were going to want to offer this man a job.
“Our squad was bare, and we said we would be realistic and offer as much support as we could, and for his part Mick didn’t want to come into a situation where we were expecting immediate promotion if we couldn’t give him the necessary backing.
“We just said that we hoped and expected a club like Wolves at that stage to be around the top six and looking to get promoted but that we understood it would take a bit of time.
“I think Mick had a trust in the message that we gave him and he told us he would do his best but not to expect miracles.
“What happened then was that he completely and absolutely over-achieved on where we were with that squad, and with a mixture of youth and experience he got us into the play-offs in that first season, just missed out the year after, and then won the Championship in 2008/09.
Wolves had been tipped more for relegation than the play-offs in that first season and the then Express & Star reporter Mark Douglas suggesting the top six was a possibility elicited what would become one of the most famous responses of the McCarthy era: “MM stands for Mick McCarthy, not Merlin the Magician.”
How little did we all know.
A huge part of Wolves’ reconstruction after several stale years was the ‘young and hungry’ approach pioneered by McCarthy and the club, which included the arrival of a young midfielder from Ashmore Park who would eventually become captain.
Karl Henry was 23 when he turned up with his boots for a pre-season friendly with Aston Villa, also Steve Bull’s 20-year testimonial, and an unfortunate early injury to Mark Davies gave him an opportunity which he snapped up with both hands to secure a move from Stoke.
Over the next seven years he would make 272 appearances for his home town club, lift the Championship trophy with Jody Craddock, and lead Wolves in the Premier League, for which he owes much to McCarthy.
“For me, the manager who had the most influence on me in my career was Mick McCarthy,” Henry confirms.
“And the best part of my career was the seven years I had at Wolves.
“Mick was a brilliant manager to play for. He had exceptionally high standards and always demanded the same from his players. I also loved his direct style of communication which is, in my opinion, one of his biggest strengths.
“Football can be a harsh environment and Mick was always brutally honest. You might think that would have a negative effect on the players, but it was the complete opposite.
“Mick created an environment where we all respectfully demanded out of each other and we were all desperate to be in the team.
“His instructions were clear. His feedback was even clearer. You know exactly where you stand when you play for Mick McCarthy, you know exactly what you need to improve on to get in or stay in the team and, above all, you know that you will earn his respect if you always give him 100 per cent effort.
“He built a really good dressing room at Wolves, with great staff including TC (Terry Connor) as his assistant, and it is no surprise at all to any of us to see the success in football that the two have shared since.”
So many players would echo Henry’s words. So many who owe much of their success to the opportunities earned at Wolves, and the progress made at Molineux.
And for so long it was a match made in heaven.
That exhilarating Championship promotion season, so many wonderful memories, and some top scalps taken during an initial two years of Premier League survival.
“I always describe it as all of us who were involved at that time just being really comfortable in our skin, knowing what Wolverhampton Wanderers was, is and could be,” Moxey explains.
“As manager, Mick was the leader of that on the playing side, and the more I got to know him the more I thought he was perhaps misunderstood by so many.
“He is a proud Yorkshireman with a broad accent and also a highly intelligent and perceptive person as well.
“He is really good at judging people and the character of people which is why he is so good with players.
“He can relate to players and get them on his side and running through brick walls.
“So many managers don’t get the best out of the players they work with, but I think with Mick, certainly at Wolves, he always got more.”
Richard Skirrow was club secretary working closely with Moxey during McCarthy’s Wolves tenure.
“I will always have hugely positive memories of working with Mick who was a very experienced manager but also a real team player and very inclusive with staff from every department of the club,” Skirrow recalls.
“At the training ground he would know everyone whether that be the cleaners or kitchen and security staff and was particularly good when we were signing young players for the Academy, making himself available to meet them and their parents.
“He immediately moved into the area and threw himself into the club lock, stock and barrel, and was always very open and direct to work with.
“There was never any need to pick your moment or tread on eggshells and even if sometimes you didn’t get the answer you were looking for, it was never anything other than straightforward.”
It was that inclusivity that was particularly important in bringing the whole club together, not only during the early rebuild and the Championship title but during the often challenging spells which followed.
For McCarthy, his role as the figurehead for the club off the pitch was almost equal to masterminding results on it.
He took a great interest and a great pride in Wolves’ position within the local community, not only making sure his staff and players supported events and charities but also attending many himself, ensuring any fans’ experiences of the club were as positive as possible.
Memories remain of a group of Army personnel invited for a Remembrance Day publicity photograph at Compton who were then invited inside for lunch with the players and treated to a complete tour of the training ground.
Or the poor young lad who was slightly overwhelmed on a hospital visit at New Cross to the extent that he was sick, before finding himself being comforted and cleaned up by the former Republic of Ireland international player and manager.
Then there were many personal donations to good causes made at various charity visits, or travelling up to Wolverhampton months after his departure to hand out the trophies following a staff/Police football match in memory of former Wolves employee ‘Smithy’.
The media also enjoyed their ‘sparring’ – McCarthy’s words – with a relationship based very much on mutual respect.
And that was very much to the fore during a memorable night of pool and curry at a backstreet pub in Penn Fields – a regular haunt for a meal for McCarthy and his staff – to which all the media were invited at the end of one of his Molineux seasons.
McCarthy would no doubt bristle at such examples even securing column inches – to him these are merely the actions of any normal person – but in the pressure cooker of football where so much rides on results, and supporter opinion can sway so wildly, that is not always the case.
Fay Vale was McCarthy’s PA and has stayed, to this day, close friends with him and wife Fiona.
They share daily texts and regular calls, as well as a love of fast cars, which once included McCarthy surprising her with a spin in a Maserati which pitched up at the training ground.
“Mick said he needed me to go on an errand with him but there it was parked up outside,” Vale recalls.
“We went out for a spin and were giggling like schoolkids!
“I know there is often an impression of Mick being very dour and serious but honestly, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“He had a big impact on me in my job as well, he made me a better person because of the way he was with people.
“He made me more respectful and polite and just brought home to me how manners are so important.”
Vale had a tactic for ensuring smooth working relationships with Wolves managers – finding their weakness and then exploiting it.
For Dave Jones it was liquorice toffee, for Glenn Hoddle hobnobs, and, for both McCarthy and assistant Terry Connor, Wispa Gold!
The loyalty and support which Vale showed the various Wolves managers was something which McCarthy himself has always espoused in terms of his key football confidantes through his managerial career.
Connor has been his trusted number two for almost 15 years since meeting him at Wolves following in the footsteps of Ian ‘Taff’ Evans, McCarthy’s valued assistant whom he first played alongside at Barnsley, who then moved from the training pitch into scouting and recruitment.
Also very much ensconced within that trio for much of McCarthy’s career has been recruitment chief Dave Bowman, who was scouting at Millwall and, like Evans, then moved on to Ireland, Sunderland and Wolves.
McCarthy has also built up several talented and hugely supportive backroom teams, particularly at Wolves, which helped pave the way for promotion and the first consecutive seasons in the top division for three decades.
All good things must come to an end, however, and it was to prove a painful finale, with Wolves, battling away to escape the lower reaches of the Premier League, suffering a crushing local derby defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion.
Less than 24 hours later McCarthy was gone, in what transpired to be an emotional day at the Compton training ground.
Having delivered the announcement to the players, the vast majority of whom had been brought in during his tenure, he sat in the reception area to digest the news.
“Last night I wondered if the time had come, but today I was back up for it, ready to get back to work and to sort things out,” was the jist of his thoughts.
That opportunity didn’t materialise.
Having spent the next few hours packing his belongings he then said his farewells to the players and staff before travelling to Molineux to do exactly the same with those at the stadium.
As ever, McCarthy left through the front door with his head held high, with the words: “I really feel it is a privilege to have managed such a great club and I’ve had the best of times.”
For the Wolves board, it was a tough decision, and one which was agonised over.
“It was a real shame when it all came to an end, in my opinion, prematurely,” says Moxey.
“I can understand why it was decided that Mick was required to go, and he took it all with such good grace.
“My view at the time was that if we were to go on and get relegated, we would have to accept it, but that the best person to get us back promoted would be the man we already had in situ.
“I made my points that it wasn’t the decision that I wanted, but ultimately it was a Board decision, which I respected and I could see why it was taken.”
Skirrow was also disappointed, as was the case when any manager departed, but believes that McCarthy’s team, particularly the promotion winners, have not quite had the credit they deserved for the quality of their performances.
“I think there has been a little bit of a rewriting of history, with people maybe suggesting that squad just ‘put a shift in’ and worked hard,” he says.
“They were actually a hugely talented squad which had been put together, relatively speaking, for a fairly minimal cost.
“Players like Jarvis and Kightly, Kevin Foley, David Jones, these are certainly not just blood, sweat and tears merchants.
“I always remember that 20-pass goal at Molineux which David scored against Spurs, who we always seemed to give a good game, and it certainly wasn’t by kicking them up in the air.”
Of course, it wasn’t always 20-pass goals, victories over the big boys and sweetness and light behind the scenes and there were fallings out with players, just like any football club, indeed any workplace.
For all McCarthy’s community ethos, and the fact he always fully appreciated the support of the fans, there were moments of discord there too, often due to his desire to tell it like it is rather than playing the PR game.
So he would, for example, tell fans not to turn up if they were going to boo Andy Keogh, dismiss any questions about styles of play, and make ten changes for a trip to Manchester United – to increase chances of a follow-up win against Burnley – when most might have watered it down and rested fewer.
That will always be the McCarthy package, that openness and honesty will not change for anyone, but it is also worth noting he was always ready to acknowledge his mistakes.
He has since spoken about regrets of trying to change the team after promotion, of bringing in new recruits who didn’t improve what was already within the squad and didn’t perhaps have the same character, as well as taking the captaincy away from Henry, a move which had major implications within the dressing room.
“I loved being captain, but I know why I lost the captaincy,” says Henry.
“I think I probably went against Mick one time too many.
“The good thing about Mick was that he was always keen for people to have their say, and he didn’t think that his way was the only way.
“There are a lot of occasions in a dressing room where things need to be said and I would do that on behalf of the players, and Mick consistently said he wanted me to work with him.
“I tried to do that, but there are people who will stick their neck out, and people who won’t, and if you stick your neck out one too many times, it will get chopped off!
“What made me and got me the armband in the first place probably broke me in the end, but another quality about Mick was that he didn’t hold any grudges.
“He made a decision that he thought was right, and while I was naturally very disappointed, we both moved on from it, and continued to have a really good relationship.”
Along with Henry and so many others, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake is another among the Wolves contingent of that era who will be forever appreciative of the chances they received.
“I have got so much respect for Mick and TC, for everything they did for my career,” he says.
“Mick is definitely one of those people who tell it like it is, which I like, and I think it had developed into almost a father-son relationship as time went on.
“My respect for him is through the roof and always will be because he changed my life and he changed my family’s life.
“The platform he gave me to perform and the way I was looked after within the football club is something I will always be grateful for.
“I remember when he left Wolves there were tears shed, even from me, and I don’t often get emotional like that.
“It just felt so real, that everything was coming to an end, and it was difficult to believe.
“For maybe four or five years we had a very similar group of players, who had some great times, and we became family.
“Those times gave so many of us the best moments of our footballing lives, and whatever has happened since, that can never be taken away from us.”
Those times did indeed have to end, but even after they did, there was still one last gesture for Dan Morgan, who is now no longer ‘just a cleaner’ but employed as a Production Operative with Wienerberger.
“It was a few weeks after Mick had left, and he knew myself and my partner Sarah had just had a baby and moved into a new house,” Morgan recalls.
“He phoned me and said he was clearing out his house and asked if we needed anything.
“So it was that I went round to his house in Seisdon, helped him load up the van and bring all this different stuff to my house where he went and sat in the baby’s bedroom and put all the drawers together for me.
“He didn’t have to do any of that, I am sure he could have arranged for someone to clear the house for him, but he drove up, hired the van, helped me move everything and then sat on the sofa and had a cup of tea.
“That just sums him up for me, and whenever anyone asks what it was like to work for Mick McCarthy, that is the story I tell them.”
Groundsman Chris Lane, still now on the Molineux staff having been an 18-year-old apprentice back in 2008, has a similar story.
“Towards the end of my first season Mick asked me if I would look after his garden while he was away over the summer – I was honoured!” says Lane.
“That arrangement stayed in place throughout his time at Wolves and even for a bit after, and if I was there at times he was having a BBQ he would always offer me some food and a beer.
“He is an all-round top bloke who would do anything for anyone.”
After leaving Wolves, McCarthy would go on and spend a similar amount of time with Ipswich – with one or two lively moments towards the end – a return to Ireland which was ultimately ended by the pandemic, a couple of months with APOEL in Cyprus, and has now – with Connor alongside – taken up residence at Cardiff where they have made a blistering start to take the Bluebirds to the brink of the Championship play-off picture.
“It is no surprise to see Mick and Terry doing so well again, and during the years he has proven what a fantastic manager he is with what he has accomplished,” adds Moxey.
“You don’t take a country to the World Cup and deal with some of the things he had to deal with without being a really talented person.
“Huge congratulations to both Mick and Terry – I am really proud of what they have achieved and wish them great success and potentially many more years to go!”
At 62, and now a very proud grandfather, those competitive fires are still burning for another taste of success, which comes as no surprise to the man who was involved right at the very start.
“Mick has had a tremendous career, particularly as longevity is so difficult in this game,” explains Rae.
“Football is his life and his passion, and in Terry Connor and Ian Evans before him Mick has had two really good confidantes – he has surrounded himself with good people.
“He has faced a lot of challenges in management with different incidents and different players, and I would certainly put myself as one of those!
“But he is a lovely big guy who was brilliant for me and while I don’t speak to all that many people in football I would count Big Mick as a pal.
“I enjoy his company, I enjoy speaking to him and listening to him, and hopefully I will bump into him in Portugal again one day and we can catch up!”
Talking of Portugal, the journey Wolves have been on in more recent times under the stewardship of Nuno Espirito Santo is quite clearly one which will have its own place in Molineux folklore in the years to come.
A Championship title, successive seventh-placed Premier League finishes, an FA Cup semi- final and European quarter final, and the prospect of still more improvement to follow.
The McCarthy era was conducted under very different circumstances, and a very different level of investment, but will surely be remembered with considerable fondness despite the way it eventually came to an end.
And that’s not only for the spells of success on the pitch, but also the legacy left in the successes of so many players whose careers took off at Molineux and the memories left behind the scenes.
It’s now 1002 fixtures down for McCarthy, and potentially many more to be added in the future starting with a big Welsh derby at Swansea at the weekend.
Not just a cleaner? Not just a manager, either.