BY ANDREW McSTEEN
With 106 days between their last Premier League outing, a 1-0 home win against Watford, and their next, away at Bournemouth a week on Saturday, Crystal Palace’s James McCarthy is looking forward to getting back to action perhaps more than the rest of the squad.
The reverse fixture against the South Coast team back on 3 December saw a 1-0 home win for the Eagles with McCarthy coming on as a half-time substitute and since then, he has featured in all 15 games, starting the last 11, becoming an integral part of Roy Hodgson’s first team.
This run of matches marked a turn in fortunes for the midfielder after a series of persistent hamstring problems and a leg break at Everton had the potential to end his career, but Hodgson signed the Republic of International last August, and once back to match fitness, he gradually worked his way back into contention, before coronavirus stopped all football in March.
“It’s been brilliant to be back playing football, to be honest it’s been a couple of years where I haven’t really played much but it’s a nice feeling to be back on the pitch,” said McCarthy about this season and the recent return to socially-distanced training.
“At first it was a bit weird with this social distancing and stuff and the first week was basically just working on your own in a straight line and making sure we weren’t getting close to anyone but then as it has eased up a little bit it has been a lot better. We were all in certain groups as well, so you didn’t see all the lads as well but now we’re starting to see everyone and train together and it’s good to be back.
“The gaffer has been speaking to everyone individually and making sure everyone was okay and keeping on top of things and he has been constantly on the pitch making sure of every detail in training. With Ray [Lewington] he’s got a good set-up and he’s constantly tuned into everything; every little detail gets pointed out.
“Before this pandemic we were constantly having meetings in the afternoon making sure every little detail was taken on board, but with the way things are just now we’ve had meetings on the pitch with social distancing. We’ve not had a sit down meeting [yet] and I don’t honestly know if that’s do-able at this time, but going into matches he ticks every box and then leaves it up to us to go onto the pitch – he’s done his job making sure that we’re ready to go.”
Ahead of the pause in action, the Eagles had won each of their last three games 1-0 and moved up to 11th in the table, just two wins behind Manchester United in fifth spot, with nine games left. Could there be talk about a European place?
“It’s everyone’s ideal scenario, but we won’t get carried away obviously. We’ve got a lot of tough games to come up and we’ll take it a game at a time but we’re mainly making sure we’re looking up the table rather than behind.
“It has been a bit frustrating to be honest the way things panned out, but it’s one of those things, we were on a good run and now we need to make sure we are ready to go against Bournemouth. It’s going to be a tough game and with the circumstances around the world it’s one we need to make sure we are all focused in.
“All the games in the Premier League are tough, but Liverpool have been flying all season,” added the former Wigan player about the next match after Bournemouth. “It’s a home game for them at their own stadium, but we go into every game to put up a good fight and try and get maximum points.
“Within this squad we know we can push on this season and make sure we finish strongly, there’s no reason why not, but we won’t look too far ahead. we were on a good run and we need to get that momentum back and go again and finish the season on a good high.”
That season will end with all games played behind-closed-doors, with no fans in stadiums and just 300 essential staff, including players. But for McCarthy, while the experience may be unfamiliar, he will be hoping that on the pitch, he and his fellow players can inspire the Palace faithful wherever they are watching but admitted their physical presence will be missed.
“Before I came to Palace, we’d always say it was a tough place to go, especially if the fans were right on it; they do create a great atmosphere,” he said.
“The fans are massive for us; especially the noise they make in the stadium at home, week in week out and they travel in good numbers. They will be watching us all over the world at home and we need to make sure we put on a good show for them.
“Hopefully they’ll make loads of noise and make sure they’re doing their job by staying at home and we can make sure we do our job and put a good smile on their face with the games, but we need to adapt to it and make sure we’re ready.”
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