The important context for James McCarthy's start at Celtic and that worrying report
James McCarthy seems to be the talk of the Celtic support today, and unfortunately, it’s not for good reasons.
Before we start here I have to acknowledge that I am in agreement with those who thought McCarthy had a poor game against Livingston yesterday. He was slow, ineffective, wayward with passes and generally just not up to the standard we need from someone who is ostensibly a stand-in for Callum McGregor.
The performance has provoked a lot of debate, opinion and in the case of The Athletic, a rather worrying report.
Journalist Kieran Devlin cites “dressing room sources” who say that McCarthy has struggled with the training regime under Ange Postecoglou so far and that, in fact, the manager had little to do with his signing. There’s no way around it, that’s a concern.
However, what I feel is missing in Devlin’s report and indeed the current discussion around McCarthy, in general, is the potential reasons for this poor performance both at Lennoxtown and in matches.
First of all, McCarthy as a free agent didn’t have a pre-season to speak of over the summer and didn’t sign for Celtic until August. Is it in any surprise that in the weeks since he hasn’t quite been able to match the other players who were so profoundly put through their paces at a training camp in Wales by the manager? It would be unusual and almost superhuman if he was able to get to that intensity straight away.
Secondly, McCarthy is said to have been suffering from Covid-19 recently, as discussed by former goalkeeper Pat Bonner on national radio. The Republic of Ireland hero said he had spoken to McCarthy last week who clued him in on the circumstances around his slow start, including a full 16-day absence from training.
So, what Devlin reports can both be true and not quite as worrying as it first appears at the same time. Personally, I’m not surprised at all that McCarthy isn’t up to speed, nor performing to his potential or to the standards set in his career so far. It certainly doesn’t mean he is a write-off.
If you accept this context though, you also have to question why Ange Postecoglou thought he was ready to start against Livingston, when he clearly wasn’t. The manager has to share responsibility for that call.
Overall, I think it’s completely fair to say that the jury is out on McCarthy’s signing. However, I think you also have to understand that circumstances are different for every player and there is no perfect adaptation to a new club. The midfielder has time. Yesterday was his first start.
Unfortunately Celtic are up against the clock in terms of securing consistent results, so Ange will have to weigh up the personal situations of players like McCarthy, and indeed Giorgos Giakoumakis, while protecting the Celtic team as a whole.
Celtic and our season is what matters, not any individual.