Mick McCarthy may be navigating uncharted waters at Ipswich Town.
“When your gravity fails, negativity don’t pull you through”, sang Bob Dylan. Gravity seems to be pulling Ipswich Town down the Football League Championship table right now, and there is a terrible negativity surrounding Portman Road. Whereas there is no doubting the gravity of the situation, something other than negativity must be found to end the floundering.
Mick McCarthy is no mug. No neophyte. On Saturday, he “celebrated” his 25th anniversary as a professional football manager, having made his debut as player-manager with Millwall in 1992. (After a 3-1 defeat at Cardiff dropped Ipswich into 17th place, only five points above the relegation zone, there was surely very little actual “celebrating” at the McCarthy abode last weekend.) In the years that have passed since Manager Mick McCarthy came on to the English football scene, he has secured promotions from the Championship to the Premiership with Sunderland and Wolves, kept Wolves in The Premiership for two years, taken Ireland to a World Cup and chalked up 29 victories as a national team manager.
At four years, four months and 19 days, McCarthy is the longest-serving current manager in the Championship. (That might not seem that long in Wenger-ian terms, but this is a division of carnage.) Replacing Paul Jewell in November 2012 when Ipswich were mired at the bottom of the league, McCarthy rescued them emphatically, securing a 14th place finish. In his first three full seasons in charge, Ipswich finished in the top ten, and the sixth place finish in 2015 earned Town’s first play-off berth in ten years. Mick’s accomplishments at Ipswich occurred despite the club having spent less on transfers than any other team in the Championship over his five seasons, and during his struggles this year in particular, he has had a lower transfer budget than any opponent other than Preston and Burton Albion.
But is the Midas Touch fading? Seemingly mired, yet secure, in mid-table mediocrity at the turn of the year, McCarthy’s Ipswich have endured two horrible months out of three, have won only two games in 2017, and have only one win in the last twelve matches. The worst indignity was a televised failure to defeat non-league Lincoln over two attempts in the third round of the F.A. Cup, continuing McCarthy’s inability to win a single cup game during his tenure at Portman Road.
Could it really happen? Could Ipswich end up in the third tier of English football for the first time in sixty years? It was back in 1957 that Alf Ramsey’s promotion from the Third Division South launched the relatively new football league team from sleepy Suffolk on its legendary run which culminated in 1962, with Town winning the First Division title at the first time of asking. Since that miracle, Town have won an F.A. Cup (1978), conjured yet another miracle in a UEFA Cup victory (1981), earned three promotions to the top flight, and racked up 32 consecutive home games without defeat in European competitions. They have indeed also endured three relegations, but never again to that ‘third circle of Hell.’ (Even Norwich have been back down there!)
Could it really happen? Could the hitherto untouchable Mick McCarthy actually join the crazy parade of dismissals from Championship management positions? If we assume that Ipswich and Wolves on 45 points are among eight teams threatened with relegation (third last Blackburn are currently on 40 points and 15th placed QPR are surely safe on 50), then it should be noted that only two of the teams battling Ipswich for survival have managers who have been in place for more than a year. (Burton’s Clough has been there for a year and three months and Bristol City’s Lee Johnson has held his job for a year and two months.) The new managers at Wigan, Forest, and Blackburn have been in charge for a matter of days.
Six Championship managers have been fired in 2017, and an absurd total of 15 have been let go this season by 12 clubs, or one half of the division’s membership. Forest, Rotherham and Derby have shown the door to two managers each since the summer. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘to lose one manager might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose two looks like carelessness’ Several of the fired managers were at clubs holding down better league places than Ipswich. Derby, Birmingham and Norwich sacked managers while in the top ten. Indeed, Gary Rowett was let go from Birmingham the week after beating, and so staying above, Ipswich.
So, many disgruntled voices at the home ground and on the on-line ‘fanzine’ are starting to question why Mick remains in place. And many fans have moved past questioning to demand his ouster. With this being Ipswich’s league-leading fifteenth consecutive year in football’s second tier, there was restlessness when Town were just bang average. Now that they have plummeted into the threatened bottom third, a vocal and significant section of the fan base has become apoplectic. No Wenger-like plane banners yet, but surely they are being unfurled soon.
How has it come to this? Well, January was abysmal. Besides the Lincoln lynching, Ipswich lost to QPR, Huddersfield, and ignominiously, 3-0 at home to Derby. Only 4 points were secured that month. Aside from the results, fans were appalled by conservative team selections (no home-grown youths} and a negative style of play. And the January transfer window came and went without any major capital outlay and still no natural #9 in the squad to replace the dearly departed Darryl Murphy, who went to Newcastle in the summer.
February looked terrifying, but it actually passed harmlessly, if not inspiringly. Free transfers Taylor and Spence and loanees Diagouraga and Huws caught the eye, and Town saw off promotion contenders Brighton, Leeds, Reading and Norwich without defeat, and even inflicted a first home defeat against the billionaires of Villa. The angry multitudes were briefly quieted, and complacency or even hope set in. The press was pacific. The crowd was content. Even the fanzine was forbearing.
But March restored madness. Dreadful draws were delivered against Brentford, Wolves and Barnsley. The glass half-full folk might have seen an 8-game unbeaten streak. But negativity among football fans everywhere is prevalent. Hence the long list of leaving managers, and the tendency to view teams “through a glass darkly”. And it was not that hard at Ipswich to see the dark side of one win in eleven. Of two defensive midfielders every game. Of youths sidelined again. The loss away to a resurgent ‘Warnock-ian’ Cardiff was no disgrace, objectively. But it rang the tally to one win in twelve, and it seemed to be the mortifying monument to a morbid March. “We’re doomed”, rang out the cries, “McCarthy must go”.
It was a confluence of circumstances, really. Blackburn, Wolves and Bristol were firing up the form table. Even brave Burton Albion were out-performing Town in recent results. Bristol’s astonishing 4-0 win over Huddersfield on St. Patrick’s Day sent shock-waves. Forest and Wolves and Blackburn grabbed unlikely points over the last couple of weekends. And then there was off-field perfidy in Ipswich. Town announced an increase in season ticket prices for next year. (Just 1.5 %, but timing is everything.) So ‘only one loss in nine games’ was no mitigator to ‘only one win in twelve’and 17th place, and Ipswich still playing with no youngsters, no attacking midfielders and no goal-scoring striker.
Will Town go down? Well, the next two home games are against Birmingham and Wigan, and they still have Burton and Rotherham to play in the last eight games. So it is unlikely. And if those four games don’t render enough reward to reprieve Ipswich, they will indeed deserve to get relegated.
And will McCarthy be fired ? And is he bothered? “Probably not”, and “no”. Ipswich is not a firing club. They have had only 15 managers in their history, two of whom left to manage England (“Sirs” Alf and Bobby) and one other (Scott Duncan) served for 18 years. Famously it has been said that there is “no crisis at Ipswich until the white wine runs out in the boardroom”.
And Mick McCarthy has supreme self-confidence and is seasoned and sanguine. He immodestly states that “I have done a good job”, and he has been described as “the perfect zen for the chaos of the championship”.
To resist gravity, some positivity is perhaps all that required. “We’ve got to stick together”, says Our Mick.