A definite method to Mick McCarthy's madness

The Wolves manager does not care what people think of him but his strategies, while puzzling, can be spot-on.

Infamy comes the way of a select few. For Mick McCarthy, it appears to be acquired on an annual basis.

The last time the Wolverhampton Wanderers visited Manchester United in the Premier League, McCarthy fielded a second-string side to earn widespread opprobrium, plus a suspended fine from the game's governing body.

This season's skirmish with notoriety came courtesy of Karl Henry, his own captain, whose hideous challenge on Wigan's Jordi Gomez prompted Danny Murphy, the Fulham captain, to bracket Wolves alongside Stoke and Blackburn as the principal culprits for ill-disciplined, dangerous tackling.

Factor in McCarthy's past as a no-nonsense centre-half and it is possible to view him as the unacceptable face of pragmatism, the purveyor of an outdated and unacceptable brand of football.

The truth is somewhat different. Professional, bloody-minded Yorkshireman as he remains, McCarthy should not be reduced to caricature.

A sharp sense of humour helps. "My initials stand for Mick McCarthy, not Merlin the Magician," he said earlier in the season.

When Wolves were being portrayed as thugs, he commented: "I'm really disappointed because I sent them out to kick seven bells out of West Ham. What we were doing with all that free-flowing football in the first half I've no idea. That's not the orders I gave."

Irony is married with an obdurate loyalty and a defiant refusal to give way to a baying mob. Henry was retained as captain, despite his misdemeanours, and when Wolves returned to Old Trafford 10 days ago, albeit in the Carling Cup, another weakened side was named as he revisited the scene of the alleged crime in unrepentant mood.

McCarthy was deemed to have ceded last year's game against the defending champions last season to prioritise a match against Burnley, three days later, that Wolves won. Last week, Manchester City were defeated by the full-strength side, some of them spared an outing against United.

Now, with Arsenal due at Molineux on Wednesday, the parallels continue.

Except, as Sir Alex Ferguson can testify, Wolves put in a spirited showing on their last visit. George Elokobi scored their first goal at Old Trafford since Mel Eves' winner in 1980; but for Javier Hernandez's last-minute goal, Wolves would have taken United to extra time.

Fielding some of the reserves could not be deemed damaging to the spirit of the sport when they displayed sufficient adventure that both full-backs, Elokobi and Kevin Foley, scored away against Manchester United.

And, just as he did last season, McCarthy has found a brand of redemption on the field.

Then it was a consequence of dogged attempts by Wolves to avoid relegation, when the ends justified the means. Now it has come courtesy of the victory over Manchester City. It was partly the emphatic nature of the Wolves comeback, partly the disparity in resources and partly the sense that McCarthy had outwitted Roberto Mancini tactically that contributed to its rehabilitative effect.

That David Edwards, bought from Luton, delivered the winning goal and Matt Jarvis, signed from Gillingham, produced the match's outstanding performance highlighted McCarthy's philosophy. Few raid the lower divisions so frequently.

It leads to criticism. McCarthy is an outstanding judge of a Championship player but he has been more erratic in his attempts to find bargains in the Premier League; players such as Greg Halford, Steven Mouyokolo, Segundo Castillo, Stefan Maierhofer and Andrew Surman have had a negligible impact.

Yet there are notable successes, and his is an approach that produces unity and team spirit. In addition to Gillingham and Luton, alumni of Brentford, Shrewsbury, Colchester and Cheltenham featured against City. With so many players from humbler backgrounds, Wolves seem shorn of the egos that undermine many a team.The difficulty is making them prolific.

David Jones and Nenad Milijas are talented technicians in midfield while Jarvis and Stephen Hunt offer pace and feistiness on the flanks.

Yet survival was secured last season with a defensive 4-5-1 formation. The club-record signing of Steven Fletcher in the summer indicated a willingness to play two forwards. But the two-month wait for a win before City arrived at Molineux prompted a return to the one-striker system, with Kevin Doyle toiling alone in attack.

It made them hard to break down; they drew 0-0 three times in the space of four games in March and April and, if neat play is not allied with a cutting edge, a repeat could be feasible this year.

It could reunite McCarthy with the role of pantomime villain. But he is used to it by now.

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