Mick McCarthy's task is to focus on Euro 2020 qualification amid Ireland instability
Injuries, players’ allegiance and other off-field distractions add to challenges in Euro 2020 bid with team seeking an upturn
Captain Fantastic is back. Mick McCarthy, that epitome of Barnsley bluntness, is once again leading the Republic of Ireland in another qualification campaign.
But having whittled down a 38-man squad to a 23 for Saturday’s away game with Gibraltar, followed three days later by a home fixture against Georgia, there is scant evidence that McCarthy’s extensive recruitment drive since taking over in November has delivered fresh talent.
The former Ireland captain has struggled to attract new blood, and the Declan Rice fiasco became an unnecessary distraction. The 20-year-old West Ham United midfielder dithered for months about whether to switch to England, jumped ship and days later was given the FAI’s Young Player of the Year award. A nation groaned. McCarthy’s view on Rice’s gong? “Chuck it in the Liffey.”
McCarthy, clearly exasperated, called for a Fifa rule change whereby a player who tuned out for senior international duty – including friendlies, as Rice had done three times for Ireland – would then be prevented from switching allegiance.
Securing allegiance also dogged attempts to call up Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford. McCarthy said the striker, 25, had been in touch about representing Ireland but as the second-tier Championship side chase promotion to the Premier League, it is looking more likely that Bamford will make his decision in the summer.
Injuries haven’t helped McCarthy’s cause either, with Southampton’s Michael Obafemi ruled out for the rest of the season with a hamstring problem.
Admittedly, Luton Town’s James Collins has got a call up; the 28-year-old forward’s 20 goals in 39 games for the League One side having caught McCarthy’s eye during his March trip to Kenilworth Road. Daniel Crowley, plying his trade with Dutch side Willem II, has applied to transfer to Ireland and McCarthy will travel to watch the midfielder in the Dutch Cup final against Ajax on May 5.
But although some familiar faces from the Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane “bad cop and bad, bad cop” regime – such as Aiden McGeady and Cyrus Christie – have been left out, there is a familiar feel to the squad travelling to take on Gibraltar at the 2,000-capacity Victoria Stadium.
Glenn Whelan is back, despite five months having passed since it was assumed that 35-year-old Dubliner had called time on his international career. Winger James McClean made the cut. Harry Arter, who fell out with former Ireland assistant manager Keane, is also back in the fold.
But despite Newport County's Pádraig Amond scoring over 100 goals in the English leagues, the former Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers striker will not be pulling on the green jersey this time.
In truth, Gibraltar and Georgia are chances to bank points and deliver solid performances before the heavy lifting begins in the Euro 2020 qualifying. The other Group D contenders – Denmark and Switzerland – are a different matter.
Ireland need six points from their first two games and the services of the likes of Bamford may be vital if qualification comes down to a November 18 nail-baiter in Dublin against Denmark, who thrashed Ireland in their last meeting in the Irish capital.
The 5-1 humiliation included giving up a 1-0 lead at home, letting Christian Eriksen bag a hat-trick and seeing Christie score an own goal. Bye-bye World Cup qualification and, seven days later, bye-bye O’Neill and Keane.
This is where McCarthy comes in. Ireland have gone from the relative success of Japan and South Korea in 2002 to a point where they have not won a game, bar friendlies, since 2017. Last year they scored a grand total of four goals in eight games.
McCarthy was booed during his last game in charge in November 2002, with Ireland losing their opening two matches in Euro 2004 qualification. The Irish public had had their taste of success and were not willing to accept the reality of Ireland’s place in the pecking order. Contrast this to when McCarthy took over from Jack Charlton in 1996; Ireland went seven games without a win.
This impatience for success was a mimetic twist on Keane’s disgust for complacency – a force of nature when harnessed correctly but corrosive and self-defeating when misdirected.
It was an unfair end for McCarthy’s first stint as Ireland manager. The man’s passion for the green shirt can’t be denied. McCarthy was capped 57 times for his country and captained Ireland during their breakthrough success at the 1990 World Cup in Italy where they went out to the hosts in the quarter-finals.
Seventeen years have passed since the bloodletting at Saipan – that fratricidal split between McCarthy and Keane which even saw Ireland’s then prime minister offering to mediate.
But time passes, wounds heal, and McCarthy remains popular with the Irish public. A recent appearance on Ireland’s leading TV chat show went down well – and in a small country, the personal touch matters.
And countries don’t come much smaller than Gibraltar. How much will be learned from Saturday? Perhaps not much, but every Ireland fan remembers the 2007 horror show where Ireland, including the formidable Damien Duff and Robbie Keane partnership, scraped past the mighty San Marino (population 33,400) 2-1. The year before, Cyprus thumped Ireland 5-2 in a Euro 2008 qualifier with Duff conceding they had conceded “joke goals”.
But this second coming of McCarthy only has two years to run. In an unorthodox move, it’s been agreed that he will hand over the reins to current Under 21 manager Stephen Kenny after the Euro 2020 finals.
How much time does this leave for long-term planning? McCarthy has said he is looking to Iceland as an example to draw on, a small team and country punching well above its weight. He has also vowed an end to experimentation – a change to O’Neill’s style which led to him being regularly accused of fielding players out of position.
McCarthy also insists there are goals in his squad, pointing to Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick (who played under McCarthy at Ipswich Town), Portsmouth’s Ronan Curtis and Callum O’Dowda of Bristol City.
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Off the pitch, there is plenty to watch, too. It was reported this week that FAI chief executive John Delaney provided the association with a €100,000 (Dh416,000) “bridging loan” in April 2017.
Delaney, who is also on Uefa’s executive committee, took High Court legal action to prevent The Sunday Times from publishing but lost after a three-hour hearing on Saturday night.
In January, it was also reported that FAI board members could serve 20 years in the organisation, something at odds with the Irish government’s Corporate Governance Code.
But McCarthy’s job is to deliver results on the pitch and, overall, this campaign depends on which Ireland turns up. Will it be the Ireland who beat Italy at Euro 2016? Or will it be grinding out those 1-0 wins or 0-0 draws and hoping Switzerland and Denmark punch each other out?
As is so often the case for Ireland fans – it’s not the despair they can’t take, it’s the hope.
Updated: March 23, 2019 02:29 PM