James McCarthy: Wigan’s unheralded, lung-busting gem

After playing a vital role in their desperate scramble to avoid relegation in the last two seasons, Wigan’s Irish midfielder is helping Roberto Martinez’s side attempt the great escape again with a series of battling performances at the heart of the side.

McCarthy will also turn out for the Latics at Wembley this Saturday in the FA Cup semi-final with Millwall, a huge achievement for a side that continues to fight above all expectation with a squad that, with the likes of McCarthy, has been assembled sensibly on a small budget.

 

Profile

22 year old McCarthy was born in Glasgow and after numerous trials with childhood club Celtic, he was turned away after the club had already taken on a large quota of players. He then joined Hamilton Academical where he became the youngest player to turn out for the club in the 21st century.

His full debut, against Airdree United in 2006 came a day short of his 16th birthday, his talent being spotted from a very young age.

He continued to break club records with his goal in a Scottish Cup defeat against Livingston, aged just 16 years and 55 days, making him the youngest ever scorer in The Accies’ history. He earned a reputation for being an unheralded force in the side, allowing others to thrive as he went about his business quietly and intelligently in midfield.

His performances helped Hamilton gain promotion to the Scottish Premier League in 2008 and he duly signed a three-year contract extension in the summer, going on to play 37 times in the club’s first year back at the top in 20 years. It was a successful year as the club finished a respectable 9th place and McCarthy, who scored 6 goals, was rewarded for his quality by winning the SPFA Young Player of the Season.

Despite reported interest from Chelsea and Liverpool at the time, the Blues were said to have scouted the midfielder at least four times, it was Wigan Athletic who acquired his services for £1.25 million in the summer of 2009 with the promise of first team football appealing to the player ahead of approaches from Spurs and Wolves who made no such guarantees.

Martinez initially eased McCarthy into the team, handing him 20 matches in his debut season, scoring his first goal in an FA Cup tie with Hull before marking his full Premier League debut with a goal against Wolves.

An impressive start to the following season was stalled by a foot injury that ruled him out for three months, though he still managed to make 24 appearances, helping Wigan to stay up and managing to earn a five year contract extension the summer of 2011.

He has grown into an integral member of Martinez’s squad since, making 33 appearances in total last season and then going on to make 31 so far this year. He has cemented his place in Wigan’s midfield alongside James McCarthur, who McCarthy also played alongside at Hamilton, pulling the strings in Martinez’s favoured 3-4-3 system.

Despite being born, raised and receiving his education in Scotland, McCarthy was influenced to play for Ireland by his grandfather, and he has gone to represent them at all youth levels since receiving an invitation to play for the Republic at the age of sixteen.

He has yet to score for Ireland but has eleven caps to his name, plus an inclusion to the country’s Euro 2012’s squad from which he later withdrew after his father was diagnosed with cancer.

 

Strengths, style and weaknesses

McCarthy can play in defensive midfield, but mainly operates as a centre-midfielder in a double-pivot with Scotsman McArthur in a 3-4-3, he has appeared 30 times there so far this term.

Comfortable on the ball, he is also able to mix it in the engine room of Wigan’s side, attempting 87 tackles so far this season and winning 74% of them. He has also made 51 interceptions at an average of 2 per game, showing his effectiveness at patrolling the areas in front of his defence. His dogged attitude towards midfield play has also conceded a lot of fouls, impeding players with 49% of his attempted challenges for which he has picked up 8 yellow cards.

However, his defensive contributions hasn’t managed to detriment McCarthy’s creative influence and he remains a very tidy player, averaging 59 passes per match at an accuracy of 87.9%. Despite his 28 chances created, he seldom manages to get forward, taking just 19 shots in this campaign and scoring just 2 goals. He has also managed just 1 assists from his 31 matches so far.

His main work is carried out in the centre of the park, using his vision to feed the ball forward rather than leave his disciplined station in-front of the defence. With the pace and movement of Arouna Kone, Jean Beausejour, Franco Di Santo and Shaun Maloney in front of him, McCarthy is not short of options, able to avoid going long, as indicated by his avoidance of the long ball, attempting just 157 in contrast to his vast amount of short passes, over 1,300 in total.

It shows that McCarthy is always on the lookout for a pass, constantly willing to keep the ball moving, in-keeping with the Martinez philosophy of ball-retention.

Despite only being 22, McCarthy, having been exposed to professional football since the age of 15, has bags of experience to call upon, vital in Wigan’s annual fight for Premier League survival. It is this strong know-how, in tandem with his youthful endeavour in a midfield partnership with his 25 year old counter-part James McCarthur that is providing a solid back-bone to Wigan’s run to the latter stages of the FA Cup and has given them a great chance of avoiding Premier League relegation for an eighth successive year.

 

Transfer situation

Whilst there can be no doubting McCarthy’s ability or his worth to this Wigan side, there is a growing feeling that the club, who continue to operate on one of the smallest budgets in the Premier League, may not be able to hold on to their battling midfielder for much longer.

Arsenal and Liverpool have both recently been linked with the Irishman who has done little to dispel speculation, saying “it is always nice to (receive links with other clubs) but I remain a Wigan player and we shall see what the end of the season brings”.

Although McCarthy has said he’s happy at the club, he may have to leave to further his career and become a more permanent inclusion in the Irish team, Giovanni Trappatoni has only picked him eleven times in the last three years despite his emergence in the Premier League.

With his career still in its relative infancy at just 22, McCarthy’s ambition may want to move to something higher than yearly battles with relegation. The possibility of an FA Cup success, together with yet another great escape, could provide him with the perfect chance to leave Wigan.

There is no doubt however, that the Latics will demand a big fee for their energetic, dynamic midfielder who has been a revelation since his bargain move in 2009.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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