James McCarthy on solving 15-year Celtic riddle, his injury-prone reputation and why Rangers is only option for his footballing twin

Signing for his beloved club Celtic is a life-changing experience for James McCarthy in a way few might have considered.

James McCarthy holds up the Celtic number he will now wear after joining his boyhood club...with 16 close to the number of year fans have spent asking him when he would make the move. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
James McCarthy holds up the Celtic number he will now wear after joining his boyhood club...with 16 close to the number of year fans have spent asking him when he would make the move. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The 30-year-old midfielder may have left Scotland to pursue his footballing career down south 12 years ago, but the Celtic-daft, Castlemilk boy was never a stranger in his native land. Across his spells with Wigan, Everton and Crystal Palace, he would travel back home to visit family whenever he could, nip up to go watch his favourites whenever he could. Indeed, the documented evidence of the latter - McCarthy bedecked in a green-and-white-hooped scarf outside Hampden in recent times - has been doing the rounds on Twitter in recent days.

With those trips came one constant; one that even pre-dates his departure from Hamilton Accies in 2009. A constant that instead can be traced back to making his senior debut for the Lanarkshire side as a 15-year-old footballing prodigy who never made any secret of his affection for the club where he was a season ticket holder by the age of 11. Realising his lifetime ambition has meant McCarthy will never again have to hear the question directed at him for half of his days on this good earth: when are you going to sign for Celtic? “Every time I’ve been at home for the past 15 years fans have been asking me that,” he said with a grin. “It’s an honour to finally be here now and I’m looking forward to getting started and making sure I do well.”

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McCarthy would challenge the perceived impediment to creating that desired impression. There is no denying he has had his issues with injury. He was out for the entirety of 2018 with a leg fracture, has lost more than a year to a variety of hamstring problems over the past decade, and had three months sidelined with a groin issue. One social media post this week pointed out that Celtic captain Callum McGregor played more minutes last season than McCarthy has over the past five campaigns. Yet, that can give a false impression of what limited game involvement during the past two years were spent with the Selhurst Park club, and how his body has behaved in that period. “[In that time] I have been fit for the majority of games – near enough them all,” he said. “Last season I had a wee issue. Nothing serious. I think I was out for two or three weeks with it. Apart from that, I’ve been fit and ready to go. It’s just been one way or another why I haven’t been selected but I’m delighted to be here and really looking forward to a new challenge.”

James McCarthy in action for the Republic of Ireland, battles Scotland's Alan Hutton. The midfielder has 43 caps for the Irish. (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group).

Even against that backdrop, it would be reckless were Celtic manager Ange Postecolgou not careful to avoid looking for too much too soon from McCarthy. Not least because he has had no proper pre-season, having spent the summer keeping up his fitness with morning runs in remote pitches away from prying eyes as a consequence of allowing his Palace contract to run down. The Australian appears to recognise this in talking of a “slower introduction” for McCarthy compared with his propensity, thus far, for enlisting his other new signings in games almost as soon as they have pitched up at the club. The player, still to meet Postecoglou and his new team-mates through not having travelled for the club’s 4-2 win in their Europa League qualifier assignment away to Jablonec on Thursday that came only two days on from his arrival, is philosophical about when he will first be involved in the senior set-up. The cinch Premiership encounter at home to Dundee tomorrow would seem far too early, though.

“I don’t know if it’ll be this week, next week, two weeks. I just need to wait and see what the manager says,” said the 43-times capped Republic of Ireland international. “I know the medical staff here and spoken to them quite a lot since I’ve signed. They have said they will make sure I am up to speed before anything. I feel good. I have been training a lot on my own and had a couple of sessions this week. I’m looking forward to getting started with the team on Saturday.”

The switch from Palace has cut the footballing umblical cord that has seemed to so often entwine McCarthy with fellow midfielder James McArthur. The pair became known as the James twins as they seemed to enjoy a symbiotic relationship courtesy of cutting their teeth in the game as graduates of Hamilton’s youth academy. Within a year of McCarthy moving to Wigan, Roberto Martinez acquired McArthur to re-establish their special relationship. It was then further cemented when the now Celtic man found his old chum waiting for him on pitching up in the south London two summers ago. The fact that the one notable divide between the pair is the identity of the Glasgow rivals that claim their affections means McCarthy dimisses a fourth club posting as team-mates. Not that he rules out them being on the pitch at the same time in a confrontation between the ancient adversaries.

“We’ve followed each other throughout our careers but I can honestly say I don’t think he’ll be coming here...maybe the other side of the city,” the midfielder said of renowned Rangers fan McArthur. “He’s still under contract down there so I might not be against him any time soon. He’s happy for me – he’s been winding me up on the text. I’ve known him since I was a wee boy, but he won’t be here anyway.”

James McCarthy and James McArthur became known as footballing twins coming through th ranks at Hamilton, and joined up again at Wigan and Crystal Palace. But Celtic's new signing said his Rangers-supporting buddy won't be sharing a pitch with him at club level again...unless he signs for his Ibrox favourites. (Photo by Jeff Holmes/SNS Group).

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