Big Mick, promotion dreams and Ipswich’s unbeaten start to the new Championship season

The Tractor Boys have won all four of their league fixtures, leaving them joint-top of England’s second tier.

McCarthy is embarking on his fifth season in charge of Ipswich.
McCarthy is embarking on his fifth season in charge of Ipswich.
Image: Nigel French

IT’S JULY 2016 and Ipswich Town are the visitors to Tolka Park for a pre-season friendly with Shelbourne on a warm summer’s evening in Drumcondra.

A first-half wonder-strike from forward Brett Pitman is the sole highlight in a routine 2-1 win for the visitors, with Owen Heary’s side more than holding their own against the Championship outfit who had finished one place outside the play-offs.

After the final whistle, many of the 500 supporters hung around for a chance to meet their heroes.

The visit of an English side would usually see children swarm to catch a glimpse of their favourite Premier League and Championship footballers, but there was only one man they were barging to get near this time around.

Mick McCarthy happily welcomed all comers in front of the Shed End in Tolka. With a relaxed smile across his face, the manager was more than happy to patiently stand for photographs long after the final whistle.

Ipswich officials tried in vain to slowly move McCarthy  on, but for now the former Ireland captain and manager was happy to be back in Dublin.

Posing for selfies with kids who weren’t born before the 2002 World Cup, he was equally delighted to chat with men who had taken out second mortgages to see him captain Ireland to the quarter-finals at Italia ’90.

Mick McCarthy poses with a fan after the game McCarthy poses for a selfie after beating Shelbourne last summer. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Following his dismissal from Wolves five years ago, McCarthy has been in charge at Portman Road since late 2012 and is facing into his fifth full season in the hot seat.

In that time, the side have finished no higher than 6th and no lower than 16th. With that in mind, even he has been surprised at their stunning 100% start to the new campaign.

Before Saturday, Ipswich had played three and won three — beating Birmingham, Barnsley and Millwall, while also knocking League Two Luton out of the EFL Cup to make it four straight competitive wins in less than two weeks.

“I haven’t got a clue how the hell that’s happened,” he said rather seriously at a club press conference on Friday.

“Maybe it’s the work we did in pre-season, maybe it’s the signings we’ve made that have made a difference. I’ve had to change the shape a few times and the lads have bought into it.

Sometimes when the youngsters come in it gives everyone a buzz and a bit of a lift. We did a lot of work in pre-season and now it’s paying off.”

With Saturday’s 2-0 win against Brentford, Ipswich remain joint-top of the Championship alongside Cardiff with four wins from four (five from five in all competitions).

However, the sudden jolt of form does not correlate with where the team stood at the end of last season when their manager was on the brink.

McCarthy faced his share of criticism at the tail end of the campaign from supporters after the club finished 16th — the lowest position during his five-year tenure in.

They had lost the final three league games, two of which were at home, with one headline from April reading: “Mick McCarthy’s relationship with Ipswich Town fans looks beyond repair now.”

This season, however, has seen a drastic and entirely unexpected turnaround for the 58-year-old.

McCarthy himself admits his own surprise, but he has gone on record to say he does not celebrate highs too high in football, nor the lows too low — adopting a “consistent personality”.

Ipswich Town v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Portman Road Ipswich beat Harry Redknapp's Birmingham on the opening weekend of the season. Source: EMPICS Sport

Speaking to Richie Sadlier on The Player’s Chair this month, he said fans don’t realise the graft that is being put in even when results aren’t going a team’s way.

“I can’t say it’s pleasant,” he said on facing criticism during spells at Sunderland, Wolves and at Portman Road last season.

“I don’t think it makes you work harder because everyone is working as hard as possible to make it right in the first place. None of us ever sit back with our feet on the desk thinking ‘this is great’ with a fag on.

“It depends on how much you listen to it or read it. I know by my own barometre if we’re not doing well and on how the crowd react on a Saturday how the press are going to perceive it.

“Equally if we’re top of the league and doing well I don’t go looking for [praise] either. That would be hypocritical and I’m not that.

I get on with it. I’ve a lot of experience and have had a hell of a lot of highs. So when the lows come around then you’ve got to have a bit of self-belief. You’ve got to rely on your own instincts that you know what you’re doing.

“That and having a good support group — a good assistant, coaches, staff and then you’re family. Because it does get tough, it got tough towards the end of last season.

“But even when you’re struggling I look forward to every game because I always have that will to put it right. I think I have a consistent personality — win, lose or draw.”

Even in the aftermath of his side’s latest win at home to Brentford McCarthy said they had, at times, rode their luck during the 2-0 win — the first time Ipswich had won their opening four league games in 43 years.

Republic of Ireland v Netherlands - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium David McGoldrick has three goals for Ipswich so far this season. Source: Brian Lawless

“Let’s be honest about it,” he said, speaking to the East Anglican Daily Times.

“They are a very good side and how they are bottom of the league with a point is beyond me. First half we got away with a few things.

“They started really well, I’d accepted they were going to have a lot of the ball, I set up to sit back a bit knowing full well we’d catch them on the break with the strike force we’ve got.”

The end of last season and the poisonous atmosphere it created around the club had a clear impact, which is still visible in McCarthy’s comments this season.

With each passing win he puts the praise at the feet of his players and simply laments it is positive to have moved away from the negativity which surrounded Ipswich last year.

I’m more concerned that the club is on the up. I will leave here at some point and it’s the club that really counts,” he said.

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“I hated it last year when ‘everything was wrong’ with the club. I didn’t like that. It ends up being a horrible atmosphere. Nothing else in the football club matters if you’re not winning games and playing badly.

“Genuinely, this is not about me. I’m delighted for the lads that they are playing in front of a good atmosphere again. That’s lovely.”

There is no obvious explanation for his side’s run of form. However, a potent strike force thanks to signings Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner from Rangers has been at the forefront — seven goals between them this season — while David McGoldrick already has three goals to his name.

Rangers v Hamilton Academical - Scottish Cup - Quarter Final - Ibrox Stadium Former Rangers striker Martyn Waghorn has four goals in three games since joining this summer. Source: Jeff Holmes

The Ireland striker bagged two in their EFL Trophy win against Luton and another versus Barnsley, and Ipswich are the top scorers in the Championship with nine goals in their opening four games.

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of their rise to the top is not just the winning pedigree they have developed along with the team’s deadly attacking edge, but the injury crisis they have achieved it with as McCarthy had a total of seven players sidelined at the weekend.

The last time Ipswich won five consecutive games in all competitions the side was promoted to the Premier League in 1999/2000. A similar feat would have been thought entirely unimaginable four months ago.

But with McCarthy in charge and capable of remaining composed despite looking at the prospect of five straight wins, their winning form could yet last another week against 19th placed Fulham this Saturday.

Taking over the club when they were bottom of the table a little under five years ago before steering them clear of relegation in 2013, McCarthy has led them to the edge of the Championship’s summit.

When asked about Ipswich supporters cheering his name at the weekend following the backlash he faced at the end of last season, the McCarthy gave a blunt assessment.

“I treat it with the same contempt as the boos,” he said.

“It shows how fickle football is.”

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