Updated at 21.40
IT’S BEEN A difficult season so far for Irish international James McCarthy.
The Everton star has not always been an automatic pick under new manager Ronald Koeman, while injuries have further limited his first-team opportunities.
Idrissa Gueye joining the club in the summer, coupled with the arrival of Morgan Schneiderlin for £20 million from Manchester United, has led to speculation that the 26-year-old midfielder is on his way out of the club.
Whereas just over a year ago, there was talk of a possible move to Man City or Tottenham, McCarthy’s stock seems to have fallen in a relatively short space of time, with Celtic, Newcastle and West Brom now being linked with the player.
The season didn’t start off particularly well for the Glasgow-born midfielder. In the Toffees’ first league game at home to Tottenham, he was deployed as a makeshift right-sided midfielder, with Gueye and Gareth Barry preferred in the centre.
A week later, the 41-times-capped Ireland international was substituted after just 38 minutes in the 2-1 win over West Brom, with Koeman subsequently explaining that it was a “tactical change”.
An FA Cup game against Yeovil aside, McCarthy did not feature again until October, when his appearance in two Ireland matches over three days clearly left Koeman unimpressed.
The Everton boss accused the Irish set-up of “overloading” McCarthy, a claim Martin O’Neill later rejected, though it didn’t stop the midfielder appearing less than a week after the Moldova game off the bench in the club’s 1-1 draw with Man City.
Yet further injury problems meant that this cameo aside, McCarthy did not appear for over a month thereafter, playing 72 minutes in the 1-1 draw with Swansea, before picking up yet another injury.
McCarthy then finally appeared to have shaken off these problems in December. The Irish star played the full 90 minutes in the 3-2 loss against Watford, and lasted for 89 minutes amid a 2-1 defeat of Arsenal. He starred in the latter game in particular, playing an important role in Everton’s fightback, and was consequently handed a starting spot in the Merseyside derby six days later.
Yet McCarthy broke down again, coming off at half-time in the 1-0 defeat by Liverpool, and he hasn’t played a minute of first-team action since then.
The purchase of Schneiderlin — a similar type of player to McCarthy — suggests he could find a first-team spot hard to come by in future, particularly with a footballer of the quality and reputation of Gueye occupying the other defensive midfield slot at the club.
Yet Phil Kirkbride, the Liverpool Echo‘s Everton FC reporter, still feels the club are unlikely to sell McCarthy in January.
“My understanding and my feeling is that he probably won’t leave. Everton have discounted any suggestion that he would leave on loan. I don’t think they would want to do that and anybody looking to buy James would need to make a serious offer.
He was bought for £13 million in the summer of 2013. Although he’s had his injury problems, to sell him, the figure would have to increase. Certainly, with the interest from the Championship, I think that’s put a lot of teams off.
“His stock with the manager seems to have ebbed and flowed. Early on this season, Koeman seemed to have almost disregarded him a little bit and made his mind up.
“But once he got himself fit… He played really well, he started three consecutive league games and was particularly good against Arsenal
It’s a bit difficult at the minute with James, I think Ronald still has doubts and I think he’s been made to reassess given the performances James has shown when he’s fully fit.
“A significant amount of the doubts stem from his fitness record of late. There’s a place for him maybe not from the start. I don’t think he sees him necessarily as first choice, but I think Ronald is beginning to like the idea of him as an option.
But I wouldn’t hang my hat on saying he’s definitely staying in January, because things can move and change very quickly this month.”
It must be difficult for a player once regarded as a key part of the side to suddenly be considered less than indispensable.
After signing for Everton in 2013 and linking up with his old Wigan boss, Roberto Martinez, McCarthy played an integral role in helping the club to finish fifth amid a highly encouraging debut season at the club. After signing late in the summer transfer window, McCarthy made 40 appearances in all for the Toffees, as they achieved their record Premier League points tally in the process.
The following season was less impressive, with the club finishing 11th and McCarthy making 37 appearances.
However, the player’s stock was still high enough that talk of a possible move to Man City in the following summer’s transfer window seemed credible.
Yet last year was a torrid campaign for both Everton and McCarthy personally. The team seldom seemed to live up to their potential, with a repeat 11th-place finish not enough to save Martinez’s job.
And having made 37 appearances in all competitions, McCarthy had to accept his fair share of criticism owing to the team’s poor form.
Having signed a new contract in August 2015, the Irish star was suddenly looking well below his best, with niggling injury worries not helping the player’s cause.
Although he’d had a difficult season when the injury problems started, everybody was still encouraged that the club had tied him down. Obviously the problems continued last season, which was a very difficult campaign, and people were beginning to wonder when is the real James going to emerge.
“People were saying: ‘Why can’t he shake the injury problems? They’re hampering him, they’re hampering the club, because you almost can’t rely on him because you don’t know how fit he’s going to be from week to week.’”
Nonetheless, a standout performance against Arsenal last month — one of just six Premier League starts he has made since the beginning of the season — suggested McCarthy was still capable of emulating the impressive form of his debut campaign.
His performances in those games, particularly Arsenal in December, that was the old James. He was significant in that victory, it was like ‘we’ve got the old James back’.
“There are conflicting feelings among the supporters. There have been flashes of the old James, but they’re conscious of the fact that he’s had two years of significant challenges.”
And has the much-publicised club-v-country row also impacted on his standing within the club?
Koeman never implicitly said it. It was more my reading between the lines, but you definitely got the feeling that, not that Ronald wouldn’t select him, but certainly, James became a victim because of it.
“Ronald was drawing a line in the sand and made it very clear, he almost was saying it to James as well — you’ve got to choose now between being half fit and unreliable for your club, yet being able to turn out for your country, or you turn down your country for a couple of internationals, get yourself fully fit, and start playing for your club again.
“The second time (he was called up for international duty), I think James took heed of the advice from his club manager, pulled himself out of the squad and that led to that run of games he had — the three starts (in December).
It was almost like the penny had dropped and he thought ‘if I get myself fit, I’ve got a better chance of actually starting for Everton’.
“If he plays like he can and plays like the James McCarthy of 2013 and 2014, he’s got a chance under this manager. It’s such a shame now that he’s suffered a re-occurrence of the hamstring problems — that’s the real worry and the doubt with the manager still.”
As for the remainder of Everton’s Irish contingent? Seamus Coleman, at least, has enjoyed an upturn in form following Koeman’s arrival in the summer, after an indifferent campaign last season.
The team, certainly latterly, have been playing in a way that suits him — very high energy, high press, aggressive,” Kirkbride explains. “I think that brings out the best in Seamus — he’s a very buccaneering full-back. He likes to get forward and feeds off a high-energy performance.
“We’re starting to see more of the old Seamus — they lost a little bit of it last season, similar to James. The team were playing very pedestrian football. It’s not conducive to getting the best out of Seamus.
If you’re going to get Seamus in behind the lines in an attacking sense and getting past his opposition full-back, you’ve got to play quicker football, we weren’t doing that. That’s slowly coming back under Ronald.”
Nevertheless, the outlook seems less promising for Darron Gibson and Aiden McGeady. The latter is currently on loan at Preston and both have been out of favour at the club for some time.
Koeman suggested at the start of this season that McGeady was not in his plans and Kirkbride feels it is unlikely he will play for the club again, while Gibson also appears to be in a difficult position, despite somewhat surprisingly signing a new two-year deal in the summer.
The 29-year-old former Man United midfielder has played for Everton only sporadically since picking up a serious injury while on Ireland duty back in October 2013 and has not featured at all in the Premier League this season. So, like McGeady, Gibson’s days at the club appear to be numbered.
“He obviously had his own injury problems, but from what I can gather, he’s more or less fully fit now,” Kirkbride adds. “He’s training with the first-team but he’s not playing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move this month or if not, in the summer. It’s difficult to see a long-term future for him as it stands.”
Originally published Wednesday at 20.48
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