Before we were blessed by Illan Meslier, the life of a loanee goalkeeper at Leeds United used to follow one of two paths. If they were lucky, they’d sneak in unnoticed through the back door, sit on the bench for a bit, then go home. This worked so well for Frank Fielding he was called up to the senior England squad a year after passing through Elland Road. Jack Butland was also dreaming of England when he joined on loan ahead of the 2014 World Cup, but he took the second path. Forced into playing, he conceded nine goals in three days in home defeats to Bolton and Reading. Butland returned to Stoke that summer, still shaking, to watch the World Cup on TV.

Rachubka, McCarthy, Lonergan, United in nightmares
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

Alex McCarthy was a rare exception. His two months at Leeds make a perfect snapshot of turmoil during the wilderness years, arriving after the ordeal of Paul Rachubka’s 45 minutes against Blackpool, holding his own through the raw emotion of Gary Speed’s tragic death, and leaving shortly before an explosion of Bates Out angst amid the sale of Jonny Howson and sacking of Simon Grayson. McCarthy played six times and we wanted to keep him longer. We did keep him longer, but didn’t play him again. Welcome to Leeds in the Championship, a club where nothing ever made sense.

McCarthy’s relative success was surprising given the pressure he was under to perform. He had proven his talent at Elland Road the previous season, frustrating Leeds with a man of the match display as Reading left with a 0-0 draw that knocked Grayson’s side out of the play-offs in April 2011, never to recover. The following November first-choice goalkeeper Andy Lonergan was injured with a broken finger, and Grayson was trying not to write Paul Rachubka off as a lost cause, not easy after what had happened on a Wednesday night at home to Blackpool (and you know what happened).

“We’re taking Paul Rachubka out of the limelight for a few weeks,” Grayson said. “After that, it may be that he comes back on the bench or even goes out on loan. I’ve spoken to him at length and he is very disappointed because he feels he let down me, his team-mates, the club, and most importantly the fans on Wednesday. As I’ve said and I will keep saying, he is an experienced player with a strong character and he will be okay, but his confidence has obviously taken a huge knock.”

The replacement, on a month’s loan, was McCarthy. Brian McDermott was feeling pretty smug about Reading having three goalkeepers good enough for the Championship, and could afford to let McCarthy join a rival. Grayson gave his new goalkeeper a backhanded pat on the head with an unflattering comparison. “We asked the question of them and Brian was uncertain about whether he wanted to do it, but he felt that he owed it to the player to allow him to get games, like we did with Billy Paynter when he went to Brighton.”

The only consolations for Leeds in the Championship were the other clubs also flailing from one existential crisis to another. Leicester spent their summer throwing money around the transfer market and hiring Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. Sven had already been sacked by the time Leeds triumphed 1-0 on McCarthy’s debut, Adam Clayton scoring a spectacular winner from 25 yards. Leicester helped Leeds’ cause by bringing on Jermaine Beckford, who we could rely on not to score against his favourite team.

Burnley were also beaten away, 2-1, but McCarthy couldn’t save Leeds from their annual defeat to Barnsley. Consecutive clean sheets followed in wins over Nottingham Forest and Millwall, played against a backdrop of grieving for Speed.

McCarthy saved his best until last. Knowing he was ineligible to face his parent club in the final game of his one-month loan, he left a lasting impression by saving an 89th minute penalty at Watford, leaving just enough time for Robert Snodgrass to snatch a point by converting a spot-kick of his own.

Despite both Grayson and McCarthy saying they hoped the loan would be extended, he was allowed to return to Reading on the condition he would not reveal any of Leeds’ tactical secrets (erm, we might bring on Lloyd Sam?) ahead of the upcoming fixture. “Brian assured me that he won’t be asking Alex about Leeds,” Grayson said. “It would be unfair on the lad. If he’d been training with us then I wouldn’t have put him in that position.”

Reading captain Jobi McAnuff didn’t get the memo. “Alex knows where his loyalties lie,” he said. “He knows what to say (to us) and what not to say (to Leeds) and we will try and get all we can out of him. It’s a good opportunity for us to get some good inside information. He’s been there a while, knows their players and I think it will be an advantage for us.”

Whatever McCarthy did or didn’t say had less of an impact on the result than who was in goal for Leeds. After just two minutes, Andy Lonergan was standing way beyond his front post, while Simon Church was lobbing the ball over his head and into the net for the only goal of the game. McCarthy had already agreed to come back to Leeds for another month, and Lonergan was facing up to more time out. He knew he’d blown his chance. “I feel like I’m starting from scratch again,” he said. “I’m upset because I thought this was my chance to get back into the team. I’ve played about 250 games — I know that I’m a good goalie, so this is just a minor blip. I don’t expect to play at Derby, not after that. I don’t deserve to be back in the team — I was poor today. It’s frustrating but that’s life. Somebody’s come in and done well and fair play to him.”

Except McCarthy didn’t return to the team at Derby. Lonergan started again, and Leeds lost 1-0 again. Grayson made his bed and was now determined to lie in it. McCarthy was still only watching from the bench as Lonergan started in a 4-1 thrashing at Barnsley and a 2-1 win over Burnley, after which he went back to Reading for good without playing at all in his second spell. After helping Leeds back into the play-offs following his penalty save at Watford, they dropped back to 8th in his absence. With Rachubka banished to Tranmere on loan, Leeds decided to give 40-year-old Maik Taylor a contract until the end of the season.

It wasn’t long before McCarthy was back at Elland Road, when we learned he hadn’t escaped the curse of Leeds United loan goalkeepers, he’d just delayed it. Six days after returning to Reading, he joined Ipswich on another loan, and was facing Leeds two weeks later. It turned out to be Grayson’s penultimate game, but he might have gone sooner as Leeds were trailing 1-0 for much of the match. Then our old boy changed the game. With twenty minutes remaining, McCarthy rushed out of his box and was sent off for handling the ball. His replacement was Arran Lee-Barrett, who is now director of a company called Masika Flood Protection. He was not able to, ahem, stem the tide, as Ipswich capitulated in a calamity of errors that gifted Leeds a 3-1 win and had Eddie Gray giggling away on the LUTV radio commentary. Eddie couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but it was all too real for Ipswich manager Paul Jewell. “This took things to another level,” he said. “You have to have seen it to believe it.”

The delayed curse lasted longer than expected. Everyone agreed McCarthy was destined to play for England. He was first called up a year after leaving Leeds but didn’t play, and it took him until 2018 to win a cap, by which point he was only just establishing himself as a Premier League number one at Southampton after periods behind Fraser Forster and Angus Gunn, and similar frustrations at Reading, QPR and Crystal Palace. Now 31, the 2020/21 season was the first time McCarthy played thirty games in a single Premier League campaign, putting Meslier’s ridiculous progress while ten years younger into perspective.

Yet McCarthy only had good things to say about playing for Leeds United. “I’ve loved every minute here,” he said all those years ago. “It’s a massive club and they’re striving for big things. It’s been a pleasure to play for them. If the chance is there to extend my loan I will. Playing for Leeds has been one of my career highlights.” Alex McCarthy may not be Illan Meslier, but he wasn’t Paul Rachubka, either. ⬢

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