Wigan Fan: James McCarthy Could Be Everton's Jack Wilshere...
First they came for Valencia. Then they came for N’Zogbia. Then they came for Diame. Then Moses. We definitely don’t have any more young protégés destined for bigger clubs left at Wigan Athletic. Definitely not. No sirree. Please move along, nothing to see here…..
How can I describe James McCarthy in one word, a word which encapsulates what he is about? Solid – that’s it. Not the most spectacular of words but when he’s playing in a team that encapsulates the word “flimsy” most of the time, you’ll understand why the quality of being solid stands out like a shining beacon.
He’s not a prolific goal scorer; when he does score he tends to get a couple – either in the same game or in quick succession or against particular teams. He’s not a set piece expert either – so that’s one less player to stand, hand on hips gesticulating to his team-mate that it is indeed his turn to blast the ball into the stands. He’s not a towering omnipresent man machine either who powers up the field like a tower block demolishing King Kong. So why the big attraction?
Because he’s solid. He runs all day, break up play, very comfortable on the ball and can dribble with it a little bit; he rarely makes a mistake and rarely wastes the ball. He’s got that attacking thrust but also can put a shift in defensively. And this is still a young boy who is continuing to grow physically and mentally in the English Premier League.
This wasn’t always the case. I hadn’t heard an awful lot about 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. A few of our less tolerant travelling supporters that evening suggested quite vocally and in a much more primitive manner that James may well have been better off getting the next National Express back up north, but Wiganers have never been the most patient of fans. 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.
James had 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. This is just not the done thing even though it makes perfect sense.
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 props 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 strike 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 Manchester United 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 thrives when he plays alongside his former Hamilton almost-namesake James McArthur, another player whom we thought for a while he might not quite be good enough but has since put in some stellar performances, scored some critical goals and become a lynchpin of our midfield. The two James' have become an irresistible partnership in the Wigan midfield that is capable of matching the best in the game on their day.
The pair are good mates and both come across as the sort of players who genuinely appreciate their good fortune in being able to ply their trade as professional footballers, 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.
We regularly get fans come down from Hamilton to watch Wigan Athletic home games to see how their star players are developing and I heard off one of their supporters’ club members that last time he was down we were at home to Everton, his phone rang just before full time and he was told to get down to the players’ tunnel in ten minutes. Soon after the whistle had gone, there was James McCarthy with a signed shirt to thank him for coming.
He also 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 granddad’s wish to play for the Republic of Ireland instead. Then, last summer he caused more controversy by pulling out of the Republic of Ireland squad due to his dad being seriously ill with cancer. Clearly, family and morals mean a lot to James, as a player he is a world away from the Xbox and Nandos brigade. From his relatively low volume twitter activity, he only ever seems to tweet to tell his bird how much he loves her. Altogether now – n'awwww.
But as for James the footballer, it’s hard for me to judge how he would succeed if or when he eventually moves on to a bigger club. He’s got a lot of the Steven Gerrard box to box and passing ability, but maybe not the goals. His industrious no-nonsense style would fit ideally into Everton’s midfield and Arsenal, who have rumoured to have made an £8m bid, a rumour which was rubbished by Roberto Martinez earlier this week, well he might just be a bit too British for Arsenal.
I suppose he’s similar to Jack Wilshere but less annoying so you’d question whether you’d want another player in that mould. It’s hard to know whether the £5m bid supposedly made by Aston Villa was derisory or imaginary, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if he’d be going anywhere unless there was a one at the beginning – which I suppose rules Everton out as well – unless Fellaini was to leave – and although I love James, I think he would struggle to fill the big Belgian’s lofty stature. You could probably put James McCarthy on James McArthur’s shoulders and they’d probably be a player of equivalent size.
I think most Wigan Athletic fans accept that James McCarthy will move on at some point – as ever we don’t want it to happen, but every summer we need to cash in on an asset to balance the books and James could unfortunately be the next one. We already have a 19-year-old kid in the reserves called Fraser Fyvie plucked from Aberdeen who is potentially being groomed as his replacement, albeit he’s even shorter and wears beige suits. It’s a sad reflection on our status in football’s pecking order that we know that time is coming when he will one day move on. We can only hope he goes to the right club and for the right reasons – which being the level headed lad he is, I’m sure that will be the case.