James McCarthy is a footballer who creates headlines. However, it’s not because he wants to make the headlines or like so many other players ends up in the headlines because of indiscretions or bad behaviour. He makes the news for doing the right thing, and being in possession of that almost freakiest of traits found in a modern footballer, that streak of decency and humility which many seem to lack.
You may recall him as being the recipient of a Wayne Rooney elbow at the end of February. Or the scorer of a fantastic beach football style goal to help us beat Blackburn Rovers earlier in that same month. Well, that’s about all I’m going to tell you about him because we’d rather like to keep him to ourselves.
You want more? OK then, James McCarthy has been the star product of the Hamilton Academical youth system which enabled the Scottish club to compete in the SPL for several years. He made his debut for the first team at just 15 years old and quickly caught the eye due to his energy, pace and engine in midfield. It was rumoured that he went for a trial at Liverpool, who were keen to sign him as a 16 year old but he turned them down in order to develop his career in Scotland and carry on playing first team football. Wow, he’s got common sense.
McCarthy became infamous in Scotland however not just for his precocious talent but as a result of his decision as to where to utilise it on the international stage. Born in Glasgow and growing up as a boyhood Celtic fan in a family with strong Irish Catholic roots, James chose not to play for his native Scotland and fulfilled his grand-dad’s wish to play for the Republic of Ireland instead. Amazing, he shows loyalty to his family.
Of course, in the media scrum which followed the events of February 26th 2011, the name of James McCarthy was quickly overlooked with Fergie all too keen to credit the feeble lack of steel shown by Mark Clattenberg and quickly reverting to siege mentality mode. However, McCarthy’s impressive show of dignity literally in the face of Rooney’s elbow arguably went against the grain (and more cynically did his team no favours by refusing to roll about on the floor in mock agony). A footballer, who cops an elbow in the face? And just gets up and gets on with his game? And when asked afterwards of his opinion of the incident just mutters ‘these things happen’.
He is in every sense, what we used to term a box-to-box midfielder.
Just what kind of football player do we have here?
I’ve got to be honest here but I hadn’t heard an awful lot about James McCarthy when he signed for Wigan from Hamilton. When he arrived, he was clearly suffering from niggling injuries and was wearing a noticeable blue strapping on his knee. For the first half of the season, he barely played and was barely noticed. Some wonderkid! And he looked just like a kid, a mere 18 years of age and looking no more than 15, had he even started shaving yet? A little forlorn lost boy away at Bloomfield Rood as we ducked out of the League Cup getting stuffed 4-1 by Championship Blackpool. As ever, there was a long game at work here and as the season wore on, James gradually started playing a bigger part in first team activity.
Although he had appeared briefly as a sub in a 5-0 home defeat to Manchester United, he made his full Premier League debut away at Molineux in January 2010, scoring in a 2-0 victory and rubbing salt into the wounds of Wolves who’d also tried to sign McCarthy the previous summer.
Roll forward to the 2010/11 season upon our first sight of Jimmy it looked like he’d spent the summer training with the rugby league boys. He’d bulked up considerably, not to the extent that he could face palm prop forwards out of the way but to the size of a regulation central midfielder in the English Premier League. The team as a whole had a very sluggish start to the season and when McCarthy got clattered by Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba in October, he again found himself out of action for a long stretch just as he was beginning to really dictate and dominate games.
It is fair to say that with a mix of nationalities and cultures in the Wigan Athletic dressing room there seemed a distinct lack of leaders especially in the middle of the park and during a very short time this young man had seized the opportunity to become a major influence on the team and we missed him terribly during his three month absence. He returned at the end of January scoring a consolation against Villa and soon followed that up with another two against Blackburn, including the ball juggling wonder goal shortlisted for goal of the season.
However, it was never just about the goals with James. His energy and presence lifts the whole team and he never stops running. He plays the holding role well but is equally at home playing behind the centre forward. He can pass, tackle, shoot, cross and run with the ball. His key strength is probably his drive although his passing game is developing, as you’d expect under Martinez.
He’s not a dirty player but he’s no pushover either. He will chase lost causes but also clearly has a footballing brain as his on pitch decision making is very similar to that of the Man Utd schooled Tom Cleverley. Apart from lacking a bit of height, he really does look like the complete package and the fact that everyone is obsessed with pigeon-holing everyone into either a holding or attacking midfielder category these days seems to have bypassed him as he really can do either. Or both. He is in every sense, what we used to term a box-to-box midfielder.
McCarthycomes across as the sort of player who genuinely appreciates his good fortune in being able to learn his trade as a young, professional footballer.
He has in the past been likened to Steven Gerrard and whereas he’s not quite as lean or imposing as Gerrard, for his size he is intimidated by no-one and in the 2009/10 season at the DW he effectively marked Gerrard out of the game as Latics beat them 1-0. Despite still only being 20 years of age, most Wigan fans will be hoping that he can stay injury free this season and continue to enhance his reputation.
Although we have already suffered this week with N’Zogbia, there is also an air of resignation that James is also destined for greater things and the fact that the big guns are lurking is of no surprise. Liverpool have been continually linked with him as a natural successor to Stevie G as his injuries seem to be catching up with him in old age and now Arsenal have thrown their hat into the ring by all accounts.
The difference between James McCarthy and Charles N’Zogbia is that James seems content at Wigan in the medium term and he seems happy to wait for the big payday to come to him rather than go looking for it. He is playing and enjoying his football and the fact Wigan also have signed his near namesake James McArthur from Hamilton means he is settled in the area and amongst friends. Wigan, just like Hamilton before them, have become like a family to him and he comes across as the sort of player who genuinely appreciates his good fortune in being able to learn his trade as a young, professional footballer.
For how long, who knows? If he stays injury free and continues to improve his game, he can go right to the very top. Even at his current stage of development I struggle to see what Jordan Henderson has got that James McCarthy hasn’t and it’s a case of if rather than when a big club make their move for him.
I think most Wigan Athletic fans hope and believe that he will stay for at least one more season, or maybe two at a club where he will be more or less guaranteed a starting berth rather than bench warming elsewhere. Even though the N’Zogbia departure was expected, to lose James now, even for silly money would finish us off and destroy any hopes the fans have for the forthcoming season. But with United and a possibly Fabregas-less Arsenal crying out for central midfielders and Gerrard and Lampard not getting any younger at Liverpool and Chelsea, we know his days of wearing our shirt are numbered.
Can he step up to that level? Well right now, in my honest and totally unselfish and unbiased opinion, I feel that a full season of James McCarthy playing for Wigan Athletic will give him regular football, help strengthen him as a player, showcase his talents and answer the question as to just how good he can become. I expect, given the levelheaded attitude of the lad, that James McCarthy will feel the same way too.
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