Goalkeeper on his rapid rise to number one
Alex McCarthy feels different when he comes into work these days.
Life as a goalkeeper can be lonely. It’s black or white – you’re in or you’re out.
As with any professional sportsman, the trick is to stay level. Never too high, never too low – the peaks and troughs are inevitable, so you just deal with them as best you can.
Fortunately, McCarthy isn’t one to change his tune overnight. A dominant, imposing presence in front of 30,000 at St Mary’s, off the pitch he’s quiet, unassuming and reluctant to embrace the fame that comes with being a Premier League number one.
His career has turned on its head in the last eight months. Until the very last match of 2017, he was still waiting to make his Saints Premier League debut and had not played a first-team game in over a year.
By his own admission, it was a difficult time.
“It’s a tough one,” McCarthy explains. “Being a goalie, it’s not like you’re an outfield player who comes on for 20 minutes here and there.
“You’re either in the team or you’re not in the team. I had to wait a long time to get in, but once I got my chance I wanted to make sure I stayed there.
“Being the first choice this season, I want to make sure I stay there and play as many games as possible to keep progressing.
“Every day when I go out to train, I always want to be the best I can be, but with a game on the weekend you do concentrate that extra little bit harder.
“I’ve had times when I’ve been out of the team and haven’t been playing, and you do have those days in training when you can drift a little bit and lose concentration.
“When you’re playing, you seem to be more tunnel-vision focused on the job ahead, so it is that little bit different.
“I’m one of those players who has to train the way they want to play.
“I can’t turn up to training and have days when I’m not where I should be, because I know I’ll have that in the back of my mind and it could creep into my game.
“Every day I’ll give it my best in training to give myself the best opportunity to play as well I can on the weekend.”
McCarthy is one of the first to arrive at Staplewood every day.
That was the case even before he was thrown in at the deep end, at Old Trafford, for his Saints league bow last December.
Since keeping a clean sheet that day, the former England Under-21 international has not looked back, having started every game since – league and cup.
His dedication to his profession is something he owes in part to his position – there’s a certain singlemindedness every stopper needs – but also to Head of Goalkeeping Dave Watson.
“Everyone who works with Dave knows exactly what he’s about,” he grins.
“He’s so professional and that does filter through to the other goalies. We’re always out there first, getting our work done before we go with the rest of the team.
“He’s been a big part of my development – not just the work we do out on the training pitch, but inside as well, running through clips from matches and bits from training.
“Dave has been massive for me.”
McCarthy also credits his friendly rivals, the other senior goalkeepers on Saints’ books, who provide plentiful experience, potential and ambition between them.
“It’s massive at a club like this to have good competition all over the pitch in different positions,” he adds.
“We’ve obviously brought Angus (Gunn) in, Fraser (Forster) is here and we’ve got Harry (Lewis) as well, so there’s a great stable of goalkeepers here.
“Every day we go out to train we always look to push each other, because whoever’s not playing at the time will always be there supporting.
“If things were to change, for whatever reason, the same would apply vice-versa.
“At the end of the day, you need that competition to push you even more and get the best out of each other.”
Such was McCarthy’s contribution to Saints’ successful survival mission earlier this year, the keeper swept the board at the end of season awards – despite only playing in half of the games.
It proved the start of a fruitful summer for the 28-year-old, who was promoted – officially – to number one status, and helped himself to a long-term contract in the process.
A far cry from where he found himself pre-Old Trafford.
“I was up at the end of this season, so to sign a new four-year deal is massive for me,” he says.
alex mccarthyfrom playing the games that i did last year, coming back this season i was that little bit more excited to get going again.
“I want to be at this club for a long time and achieve things here, but it’s also that security for me and my family moving forward.
“I think both parties were very happy, and I’m just looking forward to the season ahead now.”
It was a successful end to a turbulent year, but that familiar theme of black and white in the world of a goalkeeper has left the whole squad motivated to avoid going through such uncertainty this time around.
“I’ve been relegated a couple of times at other clubs – being in the position we were in last season was a place where no one wants to be,” McCarthy admits.
“It’s very stressful, and we knew we had to win games – or at least draw games – every week.
“Thankfully we did that, but I think it was a real eye-opener last season to all the lads to make sure we’re not in that position again.
“From playing the games that I did last year, coming back this season I was that little bit more excited and wanted to get going as soon as possible.
“To keep a clean sheet in the opening game of the season is always nice.
“It would’ve been even nicer to get the three points, but we’ll take the point. We knew it was always going to be a tough game against Burnley.
“It was disappointing last weekend (at Everton); we didn’t start the game as well as we wanted to, but we were a lot better in the second half and hopefully we can build on that.”
It’s fair to say things are looking up for Saints’ last line of defence, whose stock has risen more than most in recent months.
Where does he go from here? When the conversation turns to international recognition, McCarthy doesn’t blink – it’s a realistic target for 2018/19.
“Growing up as a kid, your dream is to play for England,” he enthuses.
“I’ve been away with England once or twice before but never played, but the main thing for me is to concentrate on club football and to keep playing week in, week out.
“If I was to get the call-up, I’d make sure I was ready and take it in my stride.”
He’s right there. After all, it’s McCarthy’s preparation and levelheadedness that’s taken him this far, so don’t expect anything to change on that front.
The above interview was included in the Leicester edition of our matchday programme, along with a host of other original features. To secure your copy or subscribe to SAINTS, visit saintsprogrammes.co.uk.