Why family comes first for the most laid-back goalkeeper in the Premier League...
Alex McCarthy has had to get used to spending more time at home this year, but nothing is more important to Southampton’s No. 1 than family life.
People across the world have experienced their own version of working from home in 2020. For McCarthy, “WFH” meant spending the first national lockdown training in his back garden, replicating Staplewood as best he could, aided by the delivery of a ball machine to his house.
The gadget would fire out footballs at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, testing the handling and reaction speed of Saints’ stoppers.
McCarthy invited daughter Baylie to feed the balls into the machine – the perfect blend of family bonding and productive working.
“She really enjoyed doing that,” says McCarthy, who also has a one-year-old son, Lake, with fiancée Rachel.
“She got involved in a lot of things. She picked up a golf club and started hitting balls, and we were really lucky with the weather so we could get outside in the garden a lot. It was a good time at home.
“It’s been a complete change – the same as everyone else. Obviously with the lockdown it was completely different, and definitely the first week it took me a while for me to get used to being at home every day.
“I’m used to being out of the house, being at football and just coming home for a couple of hours in the evening, so it was a big change for me, but, looking back now, it was a nice change.
“I’ve spent a lot more time with the kids and the family, so that side of it was nice, but I was missing football at the same time.”
Beyond temporarily giving up the day job – at least in its purest form – he missed playing golf, particularly when the sun was shining.
Based in Windlesham, Surrey, an hour from St Mary’s, he’s only a short drive from Guildford, where McCarthy grew up and his parents still reside.
Outside a host of loan moves in his rookie years, he’s played for Reading, QPR, Crystal Palace and Saints, so home has rarely been far away.
The 31-year-old has always maintained a very close relationship with his parents, and not being able to see them in person was a major adjustment.
“I’m really close with my dad,” he reveals. “He’s been involved since I was really young and always pushed me – not been too hard, but he’s showed me the right path.
“Lockdown was tough because they’re only 20 or 25 minutes from here and I wasn’t seeing them.
“I do a lot of stuff outside of football with my dad – we go out on the bike a lot and play golf, so it was tough, but we used Zoom to speak to the family and spoke pretty much every day.”
Golf helps him switch off from the stresses of football and parenting – not that anything ever seems to faze the Premier League’s most chilled-out goalkeeper.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘you’re so laid back – every goalie I know is crazy!’, but I think I just get that from my dad,” he laughs.
“I did miss golf a lot. It’s a time when I can get away from everything and completely switch off. The weather was unbelievable, and that’s the time I want to be out on the course.
“That was frustrating. They’re open again now, but it’s a lot colder so I won’t be playing as much – I’m a bit of a fair-weather golfer!
“I play with my dad every now and again, but mainly just with a couple of my mates from around here.
“I’ve offered Prowsey and Longy to come and play a couple of times, but it’s hard when you’ve got the kids and you don’t get many days off, so it’s just about trying to fit it in.”
In his teens and early 20s, McCarthy’s eight loan moves from Reading spanned every division from National League South to the Championship – a key period in his development, both as a person and goalkeeper.
The home boy was pushed out of his comfort zone. It was the making of him.
“I went up to Leeds and it didn’t bother me at all – I had a really good time up there, but this will always be my base down here,” he says. “It’s the part of the world where I’ve grown up.
“Obviously my family are here and it’s a place where I will retire and end up staying around here, but during my career when I’ve had to move about it hasn’t bothered me at all.
“At that time I was on my own, so it was a lot easier. It would be different now with the kids and schools and stuff like that, but I feel really settled here and it’s nice to have the family close by.
“Being young, you need to go out and play. You need to make mistakes and learn from them, and I think that gave me a really good platform to where I am now.
“You realise from going out and playing in those leagues how tough it is. Obviously the training facilities aren’t as good as what I have now, but it makes you hungry and it makes you want it that little bit more.
“I think the main thing was just playing men’s football week in week out at a young age, and having decisions to make.
“Like I said, making mistakes and learning from them – I think that’s massive for a young goalkeeper. It’s put me in good stead for where I am now.”
Fast-forward to the present day and McCarthy is too modest to agree that he’s in the form of his life, but Saints are flying high and the England international is statistically among the league’s best keepers – none of his rivals have kept more clean sheets this season.
When he signed in 2016, the club had just finished sixth in the Premier League. Under Ralph Hasenhüttl, his fourth Saints boss, McCarthy believes scaling similar heights is achievable.
“I think this season we can go as far as we want to go,” he states. “There’s a massive buzz around the place, we’re all confident in what we’re doing, we all believe in the manager, so it’s going to be an interesting season. I look forward to seeing where we end up.
“I’ve been here a while now and I’ve seen a few managers, but I think the work that Ralph’s put in and the way he’s got us playing has been unbelievable.
“He doesn’t leave any stone unturned – he’s so thorough in everything he does. After all the games, we’ll have a debrief and he’ll pick certain things out.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I didn’t even see that’. He doesn’t miss a thing. He’s so thorough, he’s so clear in his messages and I think since the lockdown the penny’s just dropped.
“Results have turned for us, we’re playing really good football and we’re all believing in each other. It’s been a joy to be part of.”
Another of McCarthy’s hobbies is playing the Fantasy Premier League game, in which more than 7.5million online managers pick their team of top-flight stars within a budget, gaining points for goals, assists and clean sheets.
“I’ve lost a bit of interest in it because my team has been struggling a little bit,” he admits, with a rueful grin, before revealing he picks himself in goal.
“Last season I didn’t, but this season I’ve just left myself in. I’ve got myself, Kyle and Ingsy.
“After the game the other night when I got booked (against Brighton), I thought, ‘cheers Bertie, you’ve just cost me a point in my Fantasy team!’ – I wasn’t even the one wasting time!”
That win at the Amex Stadium saw Saints play in front of a crowd for the first time in nine months.
For a goalkeeper, the closest player to the stands, that inevitably means being the butt of a few jokes from opposition fans. But has he secretly missed that terrace trash talk?
“You always get a bit of stick, but I never tend to take any notice of it,” he shrugs.
“I think most people who know me know I’m a really laid-back guy and nothing seems to bother me.
“I think it’s important for a goalkeeper to be like that; you never want to be too high, you never want to be too low – you want to keep your emotions level, otherwise I think it affects how you play and the decisions you make in a game.
“I’ve just remained level-headed. I’m always going to get stick, but I just concentrate on the job I’m doing.”
Since then, fans have returned to St Mary’s too, as McCarthy kept his fifth clean sheet of the campaign to frustrate Sheffield United.
Next up on home soil, after a midweek trip to Arsenal, Saints welcome a Manchester City side sure to pose a sharper attacking threat than the Blades. Just don’t expect football’s calmest keeper to get too flustered by that.