James McCarthy was finally beginning to look like his old self before the coronavirus pandemic caused football’s postponement in March.
For the first time since 2015, he had started 10 consecutive Premier League games, his snarling performances in Crystal Palace’s midfield helping them win their last three in a row without conceding a goal.
“I felt fit and I felt sharp,” he tells Sky Sports via video call. “It was as if I was getting back to where I was.” Where he was, that is, before the cruel run of injuries which stalled his career and threatened to derail it entirely.
It goes back to his second season at Everton, who he joined from Wigan for £13m in 2013. In his first year there, he played a crucial role in securing the club’s highest-ever Premier League points total. Roberto Martinez, the Everton manager, declared he had doubled his value in 12 months. There were rumours of interest from Arsenal, Tottenham and others.
That, though, was as good as it got for him at Everton. McCarthy would stay there for another five years, but reoccurring hamstring problems hampered his progress, costing him his place in the Everton team and even causing disputes between his club and the Republic of Ireland national side.
McCarthy was limited to a handful of starts between 2016 and 2017 as Ronald Koeman came and went. Then, just as he appeared to be working his way back into the side under Sam Allardyce in January 2018, he broke his leg in a freak collision with West Brom striker Salomon Rondon.
It was a devastating blow for a player already desperate to make up for lost time and he concedes that it hit him hard. “That took me back to square one,” he says. “It was tough mentally, to be honest, just trying to get my head around how long it was going to be.”
McCarthy recalls switching off from football for the first six weeks – “until I was able to start walking again,” he says – but his family pulled him through those dark, bed-ridden days and he is also indebted to his Everton and Republic of Ireland team-mate Seamus Coleman, who had suffered the same injury around a year earlier and whose support he found invaluable.
“Seamie was always there for me from the minute it happened,” he says. “He showed me videos of the kind of work he had done during his recovery, and the physios at Everton were brilliant too. It was a long road, but as you get closer to recovery, you get more confident with your leg. First, you get back into the gym, then before you know it you’re back on the grass.”
McCarthy returned to training midway through last season, but there was more frustration to come as Marco Silva, Allardyce’s successor in the Goodison Park hotseat, continued to leave him out of the team.
I felt I had worked hard to get back from the leg break and I was training daily with the team. But then it would come to the weekend and I wouldn’t be playing
“It was all good at the start,” says McCarthy. “He was telling me to get fit, and that we would look at things once I’d got back to training.
“Personally, I felt good. I felt I had worked hard to get back from the leg break and I was training daily with the team. But then it would come to the weekend and I wouldn’t be playing.
“It was frustrating. You train all week to make sure you’re fit and you look forward to the game. But at that time it just wasn’t happening for me. Marco had brought his own players and I respect that. Managers want to bring their own players. But unfortunately, it meant I didn’t play.”
McCarthy made his first Everton appearance since the leg break as a substitute in a 4-0 win over Manchester United in April of last year – but it turned out to be his last. “By that time, I knew in my head that I wanted to go and play again,” he says.
When his move to Crystal Palace was confirmed in August, that 14-minute cameo against Manchester United was McCarthy’s only senior appearance in 20 months. The deal felt like a gamble on Palace’s part, but Roy Hodgson was adamant that he would rediscover his best form and McCarthy has relished working under a manager who believes in him.
“It’s been massive, to be honest,” he says. “From the moment I heard that he was interested, it was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to go and play again and I felt I’d get a look-in here.”
McCarthy was required to show patience and persistence again – he only started two Premier League games in the first four months of the season – but he certainly looks worthy of his place in the side now.
“The gaffer has been great with me,” he says. “He didn’t throw me in straight away. He made sure I worked with the boys to get up to speed and then he gave me a chance. It’s brilliant to be playing again and I am thankful to him for the faith he’s shown in me. Hopefully, I can keep repaying him.”
McCarthy has endeared himself to Palace’s fans as well as their manager. His confrontational style has given them an edge they previously lacked and his ball-winning ability at the base of midfield has helped too. According to Opta, he has averaged more successful tackles per 90 minutes than any other Premier League player this season.
He is certainly playing without inhibition again – he hopes his club form will earn him a Republic of Ireland recall and has already been in contact with new head coach Stephen Kenny – but after all he has been through, he is too superstitious to say his injury troubles are fully behind him.
“It’s a weird one,” he says with a smile. “You don’t want to get carried away and say, ‘That’s me, I’m back to normal and I’m ready to go’ because you don’t want to jinx anything, do you know what I mean?
“But I feel good and I’m ready to go when the season starts again. We’ve got nine games left – nine big games, to be honest – and we want to finish on a high, especially with how we were playing before the lockdown. We’re on a good run and, as a squad, we believe we can push on and make sure we’re looking up rather than down.”
For McCarthy, that also means looking forward rather than back.