Fighting fires has been Alex McCarthy’s speciality this season. Drafted into Leeds United to tackle goalkeeping issues in November, the new year has embroiled him in a more deep-seated crisis at Ipswich Town.
Both scenarios asked much of his temperament but the 6ft 4in keeper has taken them in his exceptionally long stride. “I wouldn’t have called the situation at Leeds desperate,” he says, “and I don’t think Ipswich are in a relegation battle. It doesn’t feel like one to me.”
The clubs will converge at Elland Road tomorrow with United’s concerns about goalkeepers long since resolved. As for Ipswich, the threat to them is a matter of opinion. Four points above 22nd place with January ticking by, it is premature to claim that their team are in trouble but dangerous, too, to assume that relegation is beneath them.
They are the prime example of a squad who, in the eyes of anyone with an interest in the npower Championship, should ultimately be too good to go down
This weekend’s game is as important for Paul Jewell as it is for Simon Grayson – two managers whose plans for the season are struggling to take hold. McCarthy did Grayson a good turn over six games before Christmas and will attempt to do the same for Jewell over the course of a half-season loan from Reading. He can expect to be busy at a club which has already conceded 51 league goals.
The job McCarthy took on at Leeds was not altogether dissimilar. Signed in the hours after Paul Rachubka sacrificed his career with United during a 5-0 defeat to Blackpool, McCarthy finished a two-month stint at Elland Road with a record of four wins, one draw and a defeat.
His form was convincing enough to beg the question whether Grayson would recall Andy Lonergan, formerly United’s undisputed first-choice, when the latter recovered from a broken finger, but Grayson took the sensible course and stood by his under-contract keeper. After sitting on the bench during Leeds’ victory over Burnley on January 2, McCarthy returned to his parent club with thanks from Grayson ringing in his ears.
“I loved every minute at Leeds,” McCarthy says. “Genuinely loved every minute. I said at the time that they’re the biggest club I’ve played for and I meant it.
“I’m a lad from the south who’d never played for a club up north before, but I really took to the place – the club, the city, the people. If I was looking for another move in the future then I could see myself trying to find another club up there. To be honest, if there was every an opportunity to go back to Leeds and the circumstances were right then I’d be back like a shot.
“The trouble was, it didn’t really make sense for me to stay on any longer. They’ve got Andy Lonergan and he’s a very good keeper. He’s their keeper as well and it’s right that he plays. They’ve also got Maik Taylor, so the chances of me being involved weren’t too great. To come away from there and get another loan somewhere like Ipswich is ideal. For me, it’s all about playing games.”
McCarthy’s impact at Leeds was telling at a time when it needed to be. His loan peaked with an immense performance during a 2-1 win at Burnley on November 19 – a match which Leeds might have lost comfortably without him – and his save of a Marvin Sordell penalty helped salvage a point on his last appearance at Watford.
Having come to Elland Road with Leeds 10th in the Championship, he passed the gloves back to Lonergan with a play-off position regained.
“I didn’t feel much pressure when I signed,” he says. “Or maybe I should say I didn’t feel any more pressure than I normally would. I understood what had gone on (with Rachubka) and why I was needed, but a game of football’s a game of football. I prepared as I always do and got myself ready.
“You can sense the expectation of the supporters but it’s not something that plays on your mind. I don’t think the players there suffer from that or find it hard to deal with.
“When you’re out on the pitch, you’re completely involved in what’s going on, but I know the club’s history and there’s obviously pressure to live up to that. As I said, I haven’t played for a bigger club.
“The little run of games I had got them back into the play-offs, and I think they’re good enough to go up this season, but I saw the news about Jonny Howson going to Norwich and that’ll be hard for them to take, a big loss. He’s a top player for them, one of their best.”
Some in Reading say the same of McCarthy, and the fact that Leeds and Ipswich have been permitted to sign him is down to the unusual surplus of outstanding goalkeepers at the Madejski Stadium.
McCarthy is an England Under-21 international and has held a starting place for the Royals before. In front of him at present is Adam Federici, with Danish prospect Mikkel Andersen in reserve. It was bizarre that at a time in November when Grayson lacked a single reliable goalkeeper, his counterpart at Reading – Brian McDermott – had no fewer than three.
“That’s life for a keeper,” says McCarthy, who recently committed himself to the Royals until 2016. “If you’re in the team and playing well, you’ll never be dropped. But if you’re on the bench and the guy in front of you is doing well, you’ll never play. How many times do you see a keeper thrown on for the last 10 or 20 minutes? It doesn’t happen.
“I’ve been so grateful to Reading for letting me out and letting me out to Championship clubs. The last time I went on loan for a long period of time, it was for the whole season at Yeovil. Playing in the Championship is what I need and the manager (McDermott) understood that. He accepted that I wanted to be playing and I guess it suits everyone.”
It certainly suits Ipswich, who saw Fulham recall David Stockdale from his loan at Portman Road a week before Christmas. McCarthy’s time in Suffolk began with a 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City and continued last weekend with a 2-2 draw at home to Blackpool.
For different reasons, both Leeds and Ipswich need points tomorrow, though McCarthy does not accept that Jewell’s expensive squad are in peril.“There are so many good players here,” he says. “I look at the squad and think ‘surely this is going to change’. You have to earn your points and results, but we’ll get it right. And we’ll go to Elland Road thinking we can win.”