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Written by DurhamTownFan on Thursday, 24th Sep 2015 10:08
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so they say. Thankfully, I’ve never had to find out whether this is true or not, but what I do know, is that there’s more than one way to play football.
I’m 30 now, and so my Ipswich-supporting life has seen a wide sweep of styles: from the slick attacking football of the George Burley era, through the pragmatism of Joe Royle and Jim Magilton, and the unbridled chaos of Paul Jewell.
I have enjoyed supporting my team through all of these phases, with ups and downs to be celebrated as part of the life of a football fan (having in-laws who support Wycombe Wanderers has certainly helped me to develop a sense of perspective!)
Now we have something else. Let’s call it ‘McCarthyism.’ The basic principle, is this: minimise the potential for mistakes at the back by clearing the ball as far from your own goal as possible as quickly as possible, preferably playing it into what used to be called the ‘positions of maximum opportunity’ as the direct 4-4-2 developed thought the work of Charles Hughes in the 1960s and 1970s.
Players are not encouraged to dwell on the ball either in defence or in the centre of midfield, while most of our attacking threat either relies on the skill of an individual (think of runs by David McGoldrick, Daryl Murphy or, lately, Ryan Fraser) or a defensive mistake after a prolonged aerial bombardment.
After steady progress, last year, McCarthyism came to fruition in a glorious mid-season run which provided the foundation for us to creep over the line into the play-offs.
The highpoints were a typically dogged home win against Middlesbrough, and a gloriously ugly smash-and-grab win away at Brentford. I’ll never forget going 1-0 up at Griffin Park and celebrating with my best mates in that tight old-fashioned ground as long as I live.
Despite all this, I cannot call myself a supporter of McCarthyism. There is no doubt that McCarthy’s playing style is uncomfortable to play against: when it works. When it doesn’t it is limiting our players, and quite frankly, it is making them look like idiots.
Luke Chambers and Tommy Smith are great examples of this. Many posters on this site bemoan Chambers’s ability as a full-back, just as many criticise Tommy Smith on the right-side of defence.
But have a think of a minute, and consider how each of them plays or rather, what they try to do when they get the ball. Long ball into the corner, often losing possession? Often this happens, yes. Why? Because the manager has told them to do that. Why? Because McCarthy wants his players to clear their lines and minimise the chance to lose the ball in our own half.
McCarthyism works against lots of teams in our own division, and can work against teams from other leagues also. But a tactic which places more emphasis on territory than possession comes unstuck against the best sides. Think how deflating our FA Cup defeat to Southampton was last year. Consider the play-off defeats to Norwich, or the league thumping at Middlesbrough last season, or more recently Reading.
My disappointment at these results isn’t because we lost, but rather because our players were made to look stupid in doing so. You can say that Stoke City made great strides under Tony Pulis with a style quite similar to that of Mick McCarthy, but what was key is that they were also able to mix it up when necessary, in order to suit the conditions.
I believe that our playing style stifles our players’ development, and minimises their ability to play with cool, calm heads in different game situations. If Tommy Smith is told to clear his lines as soon as possible every time he gets the ball, he is always going to look uncomfortable when he gets that extra time and space, or when he’s chasing back towards his own goal. Inside he’s thinking ‘clear it, clear it’, and therefore stressing himself out.
Under McCarthy, we rarely dominate games and look like we are in charge. Wolves away last year is a good example. We took the lead, Wolves looked scared, but then instead of killing them off we sank back deeper into defence, and eventually drew 1-1. Derby at home last year is another example. We went 1-0 down, and everyone just panicked, because we are not used to grabbing games by the scruff of the neck and imposing our game on teams.
I just want to see in my team, a group of players who are at least trying. You can say all you like about how little our team has cost and what miracles McCarthyism has brought. But at the same time, we absolutely have the ability to play in different ways.
Watch our pre-match warm-up where the starting players play keep-ball in a box, and you’ll see that we actually have a lot of good footballers who are comfortable having the ball in tight spaces with little time to think. Look at some of our more relaxed players like Kevin Bru, Cole Skuse, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the ever-relaxed David McGoldrick and (when he’s back again) Teddy Bishop.
Could you possibly say that I was spoiled when watching the George Burley era? You could, but then my Dad would say that the Burley era was rubbish compared to the Robson era. Some of you younger fans might wonder what all the fuss is about, especially the poor lad I met at Old Trafford Metro stop after the game who said he first started going to games under Jim Magilton. I say, why can’t we ask for a little more? I think all football fans deep down think their side is better than it really is, and I think that’s a good thing.
I’m not calling for Mick McCarthy to leave the club, or for us to change the baseline of what was last year a winning formula. What I do want is for us just to be a bit braver on the ball. We’re losing 1-0 at Old Trafford, nothing to lose, so why not go for it a bit more? Instead, our long-ball tactic just gave it straight back to a team to were already dominating possession.
As a result, our players looked stupid, and our manager gets called a dinosaur. If we’re not going to try and use these skills, then we might as well scrap the warm-up drills and just blast 40-yard passes across the pitch at each other for 20 minutes!
While on paper, there is no shame in losing 3-0 against a world class side at Old Trafford like we did last night, I just couldn’t help but come away from the ground with a sense of bitterness. It was like we were back at school, playing a bunch of bullies two years older, and frankly I was a bit embarrassed. I’m worried that unless something changes soon in our set-up for big games, we might look a bit more embarrassed several more times this season.
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