x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

McCarthy ready for life at the top

The Wigan midfielder comes up against Liverpool, a club the Irish international turned down in the past.

Three years ago, James McCarthy rejected an approach from Liverpool. He was just 16 and playing in the Scottish First Division with Hamilton Academical, but not bewitched by the prospect of teaming up with Steven Gerrard, one of his inspirations. Since making his Hamilton debut at the age of 15, McCarthy has shown a mature outlook on his career.

It is why the flame-haired midfielder joined Wigan last summer rather than the raft of bigger clubs who had tracked his progress and where he might not be playing first-team football right now. It is why he chose the Republic of Ireland as his national team - to fulfil the wish of his late grandfather - rather than Scotland, the country of his birth. And it is also why, less than a week after facing Kaka on his international debut against Brazil, he will relish trying to outshine Gerrard when Liverpool head to the DW Stadium tonight.

Roberto Martinez, his Wigan manager, said: "Nothing fazes him. James is a true ambassador and you don't get many players like him." When he signed, the Spaniard predicted McCarthy would be a "big star in world football". Quick, skilful and with superb vision, he has all the necessary attributes to make it to the top, but perhaps has not received the plaudits he might have, had he been at Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool.

For an initial £1.2million (Dh6.66m), he would have been much better value than Alberto Aquilani, who has warmed the Anfield side's bench far too often for a £20m buy. While there is often a tendency to laud young talent too early, McCarthy has looked increasingly comfortable in the Premier League since Martinez decided he was mentally ready for this level. His first two appearances in August saw Wigan beaten 5-0 by Manchester United and 4-1 in the Carling Cup at Blackpool. At 18, it was a harsh welcome to the reality of life at the top and Martinez kept him out of the limelight until the FA Cup tie with Hull in January when he scored and impressed in a 4-1 victory.

"For six months he has been coming to terms with his position, what he had to do, and how to fight to get into that role," said the Wigan manager. "If we had started him in the first league game, we would have lost James McCarthy because we are human beings. "He was a substitute against Manchester United earlier in the season and looked like a young boy. The other night he played against Brazil and looked like a real player.

"He can play out wide, in the middle, and he is the only player at 19 who I can change to three different positions during a game. You can normally only do that with experienced players." With fellow teenager Victor Moses also adapting well since his arrival from Crystal Palace and a new pitch that should finally help their quick passing style, Wigan are hoping to haul themselves away from relegation trouble.

Martinez added: "We need to make sure that we remain strong and mature going into the end of the season, putting together all the lessons we've learned." That is something Liverpool have done since failing to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League. One defeat in 10 league games has left fourth place within reach and the influential trio of Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun are back in harness.

Rafa Benitez, their manager, said: "We have much more quality in attack and we are still strong in defence, so I think we are in a good moment. But you have to win more or less every game if you want to be sure that you will be there [in fourth place]." akhan@thenational.ae Wigan v Liverpool, midnight, Showsports 1 & 2