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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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MVBlue added 10:53 - Sep 24
All very relevant. We are somewhat plodding with Mick but we are building gradually. Don't forget that his Wolves side were decent, he does know how to manage a team to the top flight. We have wingers now. We seem to be patchy at the moment, you may be right but i'm hoping for something to develop this season.... a style of play with wingers.

MVBlue added 10:55 - Sep 24
Other points to note are that Mick may be respecting the strong opposition in away games at Man U, Reading, Norwich.
Also that Van Gaal learnt from his defeat to MK Dons in the cup last year. Onwards and upwards.

Simonds92 added 11:03 - Sep 24
Completely agree that smith and chambers are made to look stupid with their distribution but don't believe it to be through McCarthy tactics. Bishop aside we have no central midfielder confident enough to drop off and collect the ball off the back four in the way in which a Magilton or garvan would have done in the past and like schweinsteiger and Herrera did continuously last night. We follow the same routine: Berra no option, pass it to smith on his wrong foot to deal with whilst a player is closing him down, he then has to get rid or pass it to chambers who as he is not a rb is very square and will not take the ball forward on a run down the line so he's got to just get rid down the channels and it happens the same the other way too when Knudsen ends up hitting an aimless ball down the line.

BossMan added 14:41 - Sep 24
I'm also not a fan of Micks style of football but there is denying he has built a stronger squad than what he inherited so hopefully the results will start to look more consistent as Oar, Bru, Bishop, Parr, Mcgoldrick, Bart and Murphy start to push themselves into the starting eleven.

tractorgrl added 14:58 - Sep 24
Great blog with lots of good points, however, we are what we are in terms of footballing ability. Not that i dislike the current squad, far from it, they're all getting better and more skilfull imo. At ManU we could have put all of them on at once, would have still lost! I think our problem is we give other teams too much respect and don't 'bully' enough especially at home.

rickw added 15:12 - Sep 24
I don't think the defence are encouraged to hit it long quickly, but I do think they're told not to take chances and if in any doubt then hit it long.

With Bru and Bishop out we haven't had that link player between defence and attack - who wants the ball in the middle and can pass forwards, so recently we have been hitting more long, but now they're coming back as long as Mick puts one in the team I think we will start passing the ball more, because I agree all these long balls (especially when Murphy's not in the team) are largely just giving the ball back to the opposition.

RegencyBlue added 19:57 - Sep 24
I agree its not pretty to watch at times but given the financial constraints any manager of Town is now clearly required to work under who do you think could have done a better job than MM?

There is a basic lack of quality in certain areas on the pitch and we revert to 'hoofball' too often when the going gets tough as a result. Whilst our squad is clearly stronger than last seasons its equally clear other Championship sides have also strengthened significantly. I think Sky said Championship sides spent over £100 million on transfer fees in the summer and not a lot of that was us!

As tractorgrl said above, we are what we are and unless there is a change in the owners attitude in terms of paying significant transfer fees for players with real quality that is how it will stay. We tried to play expansive football against Reading and look what a car crash that was!

GeorgiDoundarov added 21:10 - Sep 24
All this blog is talking about is stuff you cannot deny. Yet I am a great Mick fan and I was very happy when I heard he was the new Manager after Jewel. I think that under the circumstances with the FFP rules and not being able to spent tons of money for good players, the only way to get out of this Championship (meaning promoted) is applying a style like Mick's as most of the teams in our division are not coping well against such style. I remember lots of the "nice to watch" attacking styles we were playing before and even during the George Burley time when we were having a great team in the Championship we were always beaten at the play-offs - usually by teams with much less quality players and worse style of play but more like what we are now. It was a big struggle for that great team to get promoted and we only did it after what I still call a "lucky" game with Bolton with 3 penalties given. And yes - we were much better off when we got promoted as we played fantastic football at the Premiership level but it was very difficult to get there.
Mick's style gives us much better chance to get promoted. After that... I don't know but to me it is imperative first to get promoted and then see what can we do up there.
Because of all this I think although some people doesn't like the style of play and because we are not playing "Barcelona" style, the most important is the goal - and the goal is to finally get promoted. As you very nicely put it - there are young fans who have never seen us playing Premiership football and this has to change.

SpiritOfJohn added 00:25 - Sep 25
Allan Hunter used to boot the ball over the Cobbold Stand on a regular basis when Mr Robson was the manager, and the crowd loved it. Tony Mowbray was no Franz Beckenbaur either and George Burley had no complaints. Mick started off by making us difficult to beat with uncompromising defence and direct attacking play which reaped dividends last term, but our style has changed this season to accommodate the wide men and when Bru and Bishop are fit we should be better at retaining possession. Time will tell but my glass is still half full.

md_blue added 13:13 - Sep 26
I did notice that in the roll call of recent managers, R. Keane was missing. Perhaps because his team had no identifiable style? I do not get to see many games on this side of the Pond but agree with the main point that we can play more attractive football especially with players like McGoldrick, Bishop, and Fraser in the squad. Last year was about making sure we were not sucked into yet another desperate flight against relegation and we far exceeded expectations. This year, with expectations higher and a reinforced squad, I think we can alter the approach a bit. There will be times when Route One will work (although Murphy's lack of form is a bit worrying). But, we seem to play better when we have actual wingers in the squad and try to play the ball to feet instead of the sky! To me, Skuse has always had the ability to play the ball, let's use it! Keeping the ball keeps the pressure of the center backs and lessens the chances of the panicked clearances that make Smith look so awkward. But, Mick wants to get back in the Premier League as badly as the rest of us do and hoofball will get us close but not into the top two positions (which must be the goal this year). He'll figure it out. COYB!
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