IT is 2pm the day before Ipswich travel to QPR and Mick McCarthy has just been asked how he feels about his opponents boasting a former England manager on the coaching staff.
“Well,” he says, raising those fearsome white eyebrows.
“There’ll be an ex-Ireland manager on the other bench, you know. Got to the last 16 of the World Cup an’ all.
Just thought I’d remind you!”
McCarthy, of course, is only messing.
And these days, with Ipswich in rude health, the deadwood dumped and fans on his side, the famously no-nonsense Yorkshireman is entitled to crack a joke or two.
Like his verdict on QPR’s infamous plastic pitch.
“I always liked playing at Loftus Road,” he says.
“Until they put that astroturf down. It was the worst pitch in the league, and there were some bad ones in those days.”
Or his rumination on poor set plays: “There’s nothing more frustrating as a centre-half.
You come running up and you’re relying on your mate to put it anywhere near you.
Then they miss you by a mile.
It’s a long way back, especially when you’re shouting abuse at him all the way!”
This time last year, nobody at Portman Road felt like laughing.
In the final days of Paul Jewell’s ill-fated reign, Ipswich were less a football team and more a punchbag, gleefully pummelled by anyone requiring an easy three points.
A 6-0 defeat to Blackpool in late August precipitated a run of 13 games without a win and in October, with the Tractor Boys lying prone at the foot of the Championship, Jewell was escorted from the premises.
Into this mess walked McCarthy, recently sacked by Wolves.
When I suggest it was a tough gig, those eyebrows arch again.
“Tough?” he says incredulously.
“I should say so. I don’t think tough quite covers it.”
Yet however tough it was, McCarthy was equal to the task.
By the end of the season, Ipswich were safe in mid-table with the best defensive record in the bottom half.
Of their 60 points, 53 were gained by McCarthy, a tally of 1.
6 points per game.
Over the whole season, that would have been enough for fifth place and a play-off berth.
But perhaps the most impressive factor of all is that those results were achieved with the same set of players who’d embarrassed the club for two months of the season.
So what did the 54-year-old do?
“I won a game,” he says.
“Honestly, that’s all it takes. I arrived on the Thursday, picked a team to play Birmingham on the Friday and we played them on the Saturday. Thankfully, we won it.
“If we hadn’t, who knows what would have happened? If you walk in and win a match, people believe in you. We could have played a lot better at Birmingham and got beat. Then everybody goes ‘Ey up, same old, same old’. Fans have nothing to shout about. Players think ‘Well, we played better than we did but we still got beat’.
“Performances change nothing.You need a result. Get that and people believe in you, they believe in themselves. You get on a roll and that’s what happened.
“We did get slapped twice after that (5-0 at Crystal Palace and 6-0 at Leicester) but it’s all about that first result.”
Ipswich don’t get slapped anymore.
As McCarthy says: “I can’t imagine anyone thinking ‘Happy days, Ipswich are coming – this’ll be an easy one.”
“It’s just not going to be. And that’s not because of me. It’s the players. Yeah, they might get beat but it’ll never be for want of trying. I’ve got 16 players all busting their nuts for this club.”
Yet if Ipswich don’t lack effort, they could certainly do with a bit of cash.
Like Jewell, McCarthy has been hamstrung by the largesse of the Roy Keane era, which saw millions spent on a string of flops.
While QPR are splashing £3m on Scott Parker and Forest forking out £2.5m to snatch Kelvin Wilson from Celtic, McCarthy – who has targeted the top six – has barely spent a penny over two transfer windows.
This summer’s marquee signing, Cole Skuse, was a freebie from relegated Bristol City.
Paul Anderson also came from Ashton Gate, a straight swap for wayward striker Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.
Jay Tabb was released by Reading, Christophe Berra offloaded by Wolves.
When someone suggests his budget isn’t ‘anywhere near’ that of Harry Redknapp or Billy Davies, McCarthy laughs.
“Anywhere near? You mean nowhere near. I haven’t spent anything! Sorry, that’s not quite true. We bought Jack Docherty for 20 grand.
“But there’s no point being envious is there? It won’t get you anywhere. And I’m not convinced there’s that much difference between any of the players in this division.
“A higher price doesn’t always mean a better player. It just means he’s on a longer contract. The difference between me and Billy is he can buy players who are under contract.
“We took Jay Tabb for nowt. Tabby’s fantastic, a really good Championship player. Had he been under contract, who knows what we’d have to pay for him? More than we can afford. We couldn’t have bought Cole Skuse or Christophe Berra.
“So good luck to Billy. He can get who he wants. But that doesn’t mean they’re better than our lads.”
Of course, after two decades in management with Millwall, Ireland, Sunderland and Wolves, McCarthy knows that the feel-good factor can quickly wear off.
Just look at Wolves, where a promotion to the Premier League and two solid seasons counted for nothing when the Midlanders plunged into the relegation zone in early 2012.
Molineux turned nasty, McCarthy was sacked and now Wolves are in League One.
“It was a tough time,” he admits.
“But the Wolves fans were no worse than anyone else. If you’re not doing well, the crowd’s on your back, the players are nervous and it’s a pretty unpleasant place to be.
“The only difference is that some places have 30,000 fans and some have 25. They’re both horrible.
“That’s why it can’t just be a case of ‘Mick comes in, changes things round, it settles down and it’s all OK’.The players proved last year they are good enough. Now they have to keep proving it. Over and over again.”