Mick McCarthy's long playing and managerial career included a four-season spell as a City player... in part one of an extensive interview, 'Big Mick' recalls his journey to Maine Road...
Born and raised in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley, Mick McCarthy began his career with his hometown club.
A strapping six-foot plus centre-half, he made his debut for Barnsley against Rochdale in 1977, aged just 18 and would play 50 times in his breakthrough campaign.
McCarthy became an integral member of the Tykes’ first team squad and was an ever-present for almost his entire spell at Oakwell, during which Barnsley went from the (then) Fourth Division to the Second Division.
But it was a League Cup run in 1981/82 that McCarthy caught the attention of a number of clubs, particularly during one frosty evening at Oakwell in December 1981 as First Division Manchester City – then challenging near the top of the table – came to town in a League Cup tie that would see the winners progress to the quarter-finals.
An incredible 33,792 packed into Oakwell that night and the majority left ecstatic as Trevor Aylott scored the only goal of the game to dump the Blues out of the competition.
McCarthy, up against Dennis Tueart, Kevin Reeves, and Tommy Hutchison that night, was a defensive rock and that stayed very much in the minds of City fans and management at Maine Road.
“I was in that team that beat City 1-0,” recalled McCarthy who has just returned to management with Blackpool.
“We had a good cup run, we played Swansea, we played Brighton, who were both First Division teams, and then we knocked Man City out before travelling to Anfield to take on Liverpool where we held out for a 0-0 draw. We lost the replay, but that night against City was fantastic, for us; it was a great night. It was a great period for us at Oakwell.
“It was my first experience of playing City - I'd played in the Second Division, but that’s as high as I'd played at that point.”
McCarthy had racked up more than 300 games for Barnsley by December 1983.
By that time, City’s fortunes had dipped significantly following a first relegation from the top flight in 17 years.
Billy McNeill had replaced John Bond as manager and the former Celtic legend was keen to find a defensive lynchpin to build his team around as the Blues looked for an immediate return to the top flight.
McCarthy was very much on the radar and when City heard a rumour he was unhappy at Oakwell, McNeill made his move.
“I'd been sent off which was - you know - not uncommon, and I'd lost my place to Larry May at Barnsley," he said. "I had played 300-odd games for the club, so imagine how brassed off I was at not being in the team?
“To be fair Larry May and Nicky Law were in the team and they had a couple of wins while I was suspended, so they left me out, but I wasn’t best pleased. Newcastle United had been sniffing around me for ages trying to tap me up and get me to go there, which I thought I was doing at one point, but the interest from City came right out of the blue so to speak.
“I didn't know anything about it, so the manager - Norman Hunter – God rest him, he was wonderful for me, but, we had we a bit of a fall-out at the time because I was out the team and when City came and it was a no brainer; it was the chance I needed.
“I loved my time at Barnsley, but like I said, I'd played 300-plus games from being 18 to 25, I needed to leave, I had to go and City coming in was absolutely wonderful despite the fact they were now in the same league as us. It was a completely different club and the new challenge that I needed.”
McNeill knew a good central defender when he saw one...
The former Celtic skipper led the Scottish giants to the famous ‘Lisbon Lions’ European Cup victory in 1967. One of the Hoops’ all-time greats, he played almost 800 times for the club, remaining his whole playing career at Parkhead.
From one centre-half to another, with a fee agreed, McNeill had his new defensive rock, and ‘Big Mick’ took the No.6 shirt for City.
“I had never met him before, but my history with centre backs with Norman Hunter and then Billy McNeil coming in for me, I always took it as a huge honour, centre backs of that stature, wanting to sign me on -well played me!
“I drove over from Barnsley that December day when I was and the Woodhead Pass was closed so I came over the M62 – but it was snowing and then that got closed, too! I had to come up over the moors and I stopped at a pub along the way to tell City I was going to be late - I don't like being late and being late to go and talk to the manager I was hoping to sign for, I didn't think it was a good start.
“But Billy was fine. I guess on the other side of it, they probably looked at it and said. ‘Wow, he stopped to phone and say he was going to be late. That maybe went in my favour.
“When we first met Billy McNeil, I think he used a negotiating tool, because he told me that if they could sell the goalposts at that time, they probably would!
“Apparently, everything was going at the time, he had no money, so I think that was the first negotiating discussion that we had, but you know, coming to City and parking my car outside and walking up those stairs... it was always impressive walking to Maine Road.
“Coming from Oakwell, speaking to the secretary, and then going into the office, it was big time stuff for me, you know.
“I think Billy thought I’d played in the Second Division for probably three years and must be well suited for that league and I think he thought that some of the City players he had inherited that had been relegated the year before, didn’t really want to be there and probably weren’t suited the second tier.
“I know he thought that, because he told me what he wanted somebody who has battled hard and played in that division, knew what it's all about, and would have a chance of getting the club out.
“It was a huge compliment to me, I mean, he was talking about me being a good Second Division player - and there can be a difference. Players will drop down from the Premier League, and suddenly they look like they've never played before. I wanted to get to the First Division as quickly as I could, but, wow, I was happy to be playing for Manchester City in the same division and I thought that just was a step in the right direction.”
With a contract signed, a new club to represent and a new life ahead, it was time to up sticks and leave Barnsley behind as he moved to Cheshire and the leafy suburb of Wilmslow.
“It didn't go through straight away and I travelled over the Pennines for quite a while, I don't think it went through until the following season, I wasn't renting a house or anything, it was a drive over the treacherous Woodhead Pass in the morning - how I escaped any injuries from that daily journey is beyond me," he smiled.
“I travelled over in all conditions – snow, ice, rain, strong winds – you name it, and it was generally a race to work in the morning in my Golf GTI.”
City had been expected to bounce back immediately to the top flight, but the lack of finances meant McNeill wasn’t able to strengthen the team as much as he’d wanted.
With some major clubs competing for promotion at the time in Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea, City's challenge would eventually peter out at the worst possible time, losing three and drawing two of the final six matches of the campaign to finish fourth and miss out on the only three automatic promotion slots available.
“I can’t recall that first season, but I know it didn't go too well,” said McCarthy.
“You know, we’d been doing okay, and I couldn't for the life of me think why it didn't go well. It was a difficult end of the season.
“We were a bit of a mixed bag all throughout and I don’t think we ever went on a real run where we won five, six, seven games in a row. I was only there from December 1983, so I don't know what went on beforehand. I do remember we went back to Barnsley within a couple of weeks of me signing for City.
“I got a great reception, but my mates were funny because they were walking to the game, as all my pals went to all the games back then, and they told me afterwards as they were walking down the Pontefract Road towards the ground,.
"One of them recalled, 'We heard the lads as we were walking down with all the chats around were about you.'
I’d only just left and I've played 272 league games, I've been the captain, I've been player the year for three or four occasions at Barnsley, and he’s telling me all the fans are saying, ‘What about this McCarthy then? Ah, he weren’t any good anyway when he played here - we'll sort him out when he comes back here!’
By the time they got to the terrace, they're still talking - different people this time - it's like I'm the talk of Oakwell that day because I'm coming back with City and my mates heard such comments as, 'He was never any good anyway, you know, we should have sold him earlier,' and 'We did well to get £200,000 for him!'
"Then the game starts, and I win the first header and my mates hear more comments - I went into a tackle, and another tackle, and then they were saying, 'He wasn’t that bad was he - he was alright?” and then, after about 15 minutes, 'Why the hell did we sell him so cheaply? He's been our best player!'
"It was hilarious, it went from complete bitterness to resentment, to ‘wow, he's a good player,' and I still laugh to this day about that.
“I think we were tipped for promotion because we were Manchester City and we had a decent team, and we maybe could have got there, but just don't think we were good enough.”
The 1984/85 campaign – Mick’s first full season with City – was a completely different story, however.
McNeill’s City were in and among the top three for most of the season, until it came down to the final day and a home game against Charlton Athletic.
A win meant promotion back to the First Division, while a loss and a win for Portsmouth who were just behind the Blues and Pompey would go up instead.
City fans had experienced these occasions too many times to count their chickens, but there was the added worry of not having the inspirational Mick McCarthy available.
As more than 47,000 packed into Maine Road, the knowledge that our most dependable defender – plus the excellent Nicky Reid – were both sidelined added extra tension to the sun-drenched crowd that day.
“I was suspended,” he recalled.
“I think it was probably an accumulation of bookings. I was suspended and Nicky Reid was as well. I think Reidy and me were sat down near the dugout in the Main Stand. Billy played Andy May at centre half, and Kenny Clements alongside him.
“The Bank Holiday Monday before the Charlton game, we must have taken 10 or 12,000 to Notts County, but we lost 3-2 and oh man, there was a riot that day in the dressing room and with our fans.”
But, even without McCarthy, City delivered to an ecstatic home crowd.
“I think Charlton started okay, then we scored an early goal -Andy May, wasn’t it?
“I think we were 2-0 up after about 15 minutes and then we scored three in five minutes just after the break. It turned out to be pretty routine in the end, but it didn't seem like that at the time. There was a massive crowd there that day, I remember that. We won 5-1, were promoted and that was that.”
The 26-year-old Mick McCarthy was, at last, a First Division player and his dream of playing in the top flight would finally be realised…
Find out what happened next to City and Mick in part 2, next week…