Alex McCarthy had a firm hand in the chain of the events which dragged Leeds United out of the play-offs last season. For the next month he will do what he can to keep the Championship club in view of the same target.
The Reading goalkeeper signed for Leeds on loan yesterday morning, joining the team whose resolve he broke at Elland Road in April. His man-of-the match performance in a goalless draw on Good Friday was a partial reason behind United’s failure to lay their hands on sixth position in the final table.
The club fell beneath the division’s play-off positions that night, for the first time in many months, and Simon Grayson’s side never recovered. A defeat to Crystal Palace three days later drew a firm line through their season. With his existing squad in 10th and regaining their equilibrium after Wednesday’s staggering loss to Blackpool, the Leeds manager has turned to a former adversary to do for him what Paul Rachubka could not.
McCarthy is a young and relatively inexperienced keeper at the age of 21 but Reading cannot speak highly enough of him. It is a mark of the wealth of goalkeeping talent at the Madejski Stadium, when Adam Federici rules the roost, that Brian McDermott was willing to dispatch him on loan at all, let alone to a side in the same league.
Grayson, for his part, has already seen what McCarthy offers at his best. In front of an intense crowd of almost 25,000 last season, multiple saves from Robert Snodgrass and Max Gradel earned him and Reading the moment of fortune they needed when Bradley Johnson crashed a volley against the bar in a breathless second half.
A rueful Grayson admitted afterwards that the “man of the match shows what their keeper is all about.” Reading boss McDermott drew a sigh of relief, saying: “He’s a very good goalkeeper and we’ve come away with a very big point.”
Speaking ahead tomorrow’s game against Leicester City, in which McCarthy will make his debut, Grayson said: “He’s got huge potential and he’s used to playing in the Championship. Last season he played in all of their games from the turn of the year and keeping Federici out of their team while they were on a great run says a lot.
“He wouldn’t be in the England Under-21 squad if he wasn’t a good player and there’s no tougher test for a keeper than coming to Elland Road on Good Friday and getting the man of the match award. His temperament can obviously handle that and it’s something I thought about. Like every manager does in this situation, I made five or six calls on Thursday, asked about certain players and by dinner time I needed to make a decision.
“Some were available and others weren’t but when it came to it, I felt Alex was the best option we had. He fitted the bill for everything we required.
“I picked him above more experienced goalkeepers who’ve played at a higher level. He’s got a desire to succeed and sometimes that can be better than going for a more established keeper who’s comfortable and stuck in his ways.”
McCarthy’s selection against Leicester was taken as read from the moment he signed. Grayson’s preferred keeper, Andy Lonergan, has a broken finger, and the possibility of selecting Rachubka evaporated as error followed error in Wednesday’s 5-0 defeat to Blackpool.
The former Manchester United player was culpable for Blackpool’s first three goals and Grayson took the only avenue open to him by removing Rachubka at half-time and handing a thankless senior debut to 18-year-old Alex Cairns. The United boss kept his cards close after full-time but said enough to suggest that he was not ready to rely on either player for Championship game which already promised to be difficult enough.
Rachubka trained with McCarthy and United’s senior squad at Thorp Arch yesterday but Grayson confirmed that Cairns would take a place on the bench in Leicester. It is a decision which hangs great doubt over Rachubka’s long-term future at Elland Road, five months after Grayson signed him from Blackpool.
Grayson, however, refused to call time on Rachubka’s Leeds career, saying: “I’m not going to say he’s finished here.
“He feels he’s let me down, the players down and the supporters but he’s a thorough professional who analyses everything and I’ve never known him have 45 minutes like that.
“Confidence plays a massive part in a sportsman’s life and you can be affected mentally very quickly. That’s obviously drained away from him. Alex McCarthy will start tomorrow and Alex Cairns will be on the bench.
“I’ll be writing him off in terms of the next couple of games but I’m not going to say he’s never going to play for the club again. He’s my signing and I believed in him when I signed him. I still do now.
“Down the line there’ll be options for us. Do we keep training him and put him back on the bench when he regathers his confidence or does he go out on loan? Like a bike, once you come off you need to get back on quickly. I know that’s what he wants to do.
“He’s very shaken up by the whole thing and the criticism of him on the night was a bit unfair. Supporters are entitled to their opinions but they were a bit harsh. He doesn’t go out to make mistakes. I’ll keep him out of the limelight for a bit and we’ll work out what we need to do for his long-term future.”
The next international break begins on Monday and Grayson is anxious not to reach it as a team out of form. United waved the flag of seven games without defeat until their loss at Birmingham City but the club have dropped 10 points in their last five matches and eight in their last three.
This weekend, Grayson is without suspended centre-back Tom Lees through a suspension carried over from his dismissal against Blackpool, and the absence of Darren O’Dea is expected to bring Patrick Kisnorbo and Andy O’Brien together in the centre of defence.
O’Dea has been undergoing tests with parent club Celtic after suffering a loss of vision against Cardiff City last weekend, and Grayson said: “Darren’s going to be a major doubt. We’ve had the reports back and everything’s fine but he’s more or less ruled out because of rules about injuries like his.”