McCarthy 'Scotland's Best Ever Product'
Insight into midfielder's rise from former coaches.
From an early age, James McCarthy has been in the limelight.
A senior first-team debut at the age of 15, Scottish Young Player of the Year at 18, FA Cup winner at 22 and now the second most expensive signing in Everton’s history.
As the clock ticked away on transfer deadline day last month, it looked as if McCarthy would remain out of the Blues’ grasp with Everton and Wigan apparently struggling to strike a deal for the highly-rated midfielder.
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The breakthrough finally came minutes before the deadline with McCarthy arriving at Finch Farm.
The rest, as they say, is history.
McCarthy made his Goodison Park bow in the impressive 1-0 win over Chelsea, and has followed that up with some accomplished midfield displays. It comes as no surprise to those who uncovered and developed Everton’s new number 16 though.
Indeed, he has been hailed as the best player Scotland has ever produced by one of his former mentors.
But the Tartan Army will never get to see James fulfil his potential at Hampden Park after he chose to represent the Republic of Ireland instead.
Frankie McAvoy, Academy Director at Hamilton Academical, discovered James as a youngster and it was he who dished out the high praise following the 22-year-old’s £13million move.
“There’s no doubt about it, he’s the best player Scotland has ever produced,” he declared. “Technically he’s great, he’s got a fantastic right and left foot, he can pick passes and he’s got great energy levels to go and support.
“We brought him to our academy, which has produced some great players, but James was certainly the best. We knew as time was progressing we had something special. The Scottish set-up had some top-notch players at the time but we knew James was better than them.
“My honest opinion is that Everton have got a cracking young player who’s 22 years of age with a long career ahead of him. I think in the current financial climate the £13million Everton paid for him is fantastic business.
“The manager (Roberto Martinez) knows him well and I think he’ll add a real bit of finesse to the team. I certainly think in the long term he’ll be a fantastic acquisition for the club.”
The story of McCarthy is something spectacular. Within 18 months of joining Hamilton’s academy just prior to his 14th birthday, he was ready to enter the pitch for his senior debut at the tender age of 15.
September 30th 2006 is a date that will be go down in folklore at New Douglas Park as the fresh-faced youngster became the club’s youngest ever player as he appeared as a second-half substitute against Queen of the South.
Billy Reid, Accies manager at the time, had no qualms putting the youngster straight into the action even though other managers may have thought twice about the decision.
“Obviously throwing him straight in, we weren’t so sure," said Reid. "But because of the level James was at already, it meant he was a super talent at our level right from the off. He came straight into the side and once he was there he was never out of the team.
“There were one or two times we could have possibly given him a rest to stop him from burning out but the team needed him at the time. Even from that early age he was a big player at that level.”
McCarthy’s importance to the team was there for all to see.
He played a key role in the Accies returning to the top flight of Scottish Football in 2008 after a 20-year absence, with a number of commanding performances at the heart of midfield alongside Alex Neil and future Wigan teammate James McArthur.
With trips to Ibrox and Celtic Park then on the horizon, the sudden jump in standard may have fazed a number of 17-year-olds, but not the Glaswegian.
The youngster continued his remarkable rise by claiming the Scottish Young Player of the Year award ahead of current Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher and former teammate McArthur.
“I did say back then to everyone in Scotland at the time that he was the best young player in the country at that level and I’d never seen someone as good as that,” added Reid.
“A couple of years later he was playing in the Premier League in Scotland and he was Young Player of the Year in the division and from then clubs were starting to show a lot of interest in him. You’ve got to remember he was playing for one of the smaller clubs in Hamilton Accies in the SPL and he showed up straight away.”
If McCarthy’s performances in the top flight of Scottish football hadn’t brought him to the attention of a number of clubs already, collecting that Young Player of the Year award certainly did.
A move to his boyhood club Celtic fell through with the Bhoys unable to agree a deal with Hamilton. The Park Head outfit’s loss was Wigan’s gain with Roberto Martinez taking him to the DW Stadium to kickstart his Latics revolution.
The Spaniard’s assistant, Graeme Jones, had been at Hamilton during McCarthy’s breakthrough campaign as Reid’s number two, and he had witnessed first-hand what the player was capable of. With the midfielder still only 18, Jones believed he was ready for the switch to English football.
“Roberto asked me to be his assistant at Swansea and I was pushing him the whole time to get James in,” revealed Jones. “We were a League One club and then a Championship club and the eventual fee was too much for Swansea to spend at the time.
“When we moved to Wigan we had the cash and James was on the verge of moving to Wolves - but myself and Roberto did everything we could to make sure that he moved to Wigan. We really didn’t want to lose him, knowing the talent, knowing the boy and knowing the player, so luckily we made that happen.”
McCarthy’s progression at Wigan certainly took Martinez and Jones by surprise with the original plan to ease him in to life in the Premier League.
“James was still 18 so we knew he wasn’t going to go straight in and play, he was one for the future,” continued Jones. “What we couldn’t do was measure how quick his progress was going to be. He had a six-month settling-in period to the Premier League and once Roberto picked him to play in the cup against Hull and he scored, then he never looked back at this level.”
It’s not just at club level where the player has made his name. McCarthy has enjoyed a steady rise through the Republic of Ireland’s age groups before making his full debut for the national team in February 2010, seven months after joining Wigan.
He couldn’t have asked for a better international debut with Brazil the opponents. Former Everton midfielder Kevin Kilbane was in the team at the Emirates that night and admits he and his teammates were impressed by the youngster from the moment he joined up with the camp.
“He was very quiet and shy when he first got called into the team, but then again most players are,” recalled Kilbane. “We all recognised straight away what a fantastic player he was and to make your international debut against Brazil is extra special, even though it was at the Emirates. He just had that confident way about him which probably belied how quiet he was away from the pitch.
“We were chasing shadows against Brazil that night but I think overall his international career has got better and better with the more games he’s played.
“He’s going to be one of our main players for the national team alongside Seamus Coleman. They are two of our most exciting prospects. The future is bright for both Ireland and Everton over the next 10 years.”
With the player signing on at Goodison for the long-term, the next few chapters of his remarkable story are going to be told on Merseyside.
And the man who helped start James’ career couldn’t be happier for the way the tale has unfolded so far.
“I’m so proud of him,” said McAvoy. “ I don’t think some people know that when James came to the club his mum and dad were such a big part of his progression as they always went to watch him. They also gave him a good grounding and kept his feet firmly on the ground.
“When success comes to kids at a young age it can go to their head and they don’t go on to fill all the potential that people see in them, but not James. I think his family have had a massive impact on him and that has helped him become such a special player.
“It’s a great story and we always look to see how well he does. When James comes to Scotland he always comes in to see in how we are doing and he’s just a great lad who we wish all the success with Everton.”