No matter how much Mick McCarthy says it is not about completing unfinished business, his second coming as Republic of Ireland manager demands a happier ending than his first.
Nearly 17 years ago, after “fighting a war I never wanted” with Roy Keane and suffering a bad start to the qualifiers for Euro 2004, McCarthy recognised he was still being scalded by the fires of rage ignited by the conflict with Keane so terminated his six-year reign. On Saturday, in Gibraltar, he starts anew, with time and increased exposure to Keane having softened many people’s views of McCarthy. A nation wants and needs him to do well.
“I’m pleased to see him back because he got a raw deal last time,” says one of Ireland’s all-time greats, Liam Brady. “But he has his work cut out because I’m afraid he doesn’t have the quality of players he had in 2002. But he is an even better manager now and he will need to be. The calibre of players available to our main rivals in the group, Denmark and Switzerland, is superior to ours but with Mick in charge we’ll have a fighting chance.”
McCarthy inherited a rebuilding job when he took over after Jack Charlton in 1996, giving 20 international debuts before the end of his second year. But the newcomers included rare gems – Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Ian Harte and more – which is why the squad he eventually led to the last 16 of the World Cup glimmered with class even after the loss of Roy Keane. By contrast, the current crop is largely lustre-free.
Martin O’Neill spent much of his last year at the helm blooding new players but the best of them, Preston’s Callum Robinson and Southampton’s Michael Obafemi, are not fit to play against Gibraltar or Georgia. Only seven of the 23 players selected by McCarthy for the upcoming matches have featured in the Premier League this season and one of them, Shane Long, had to pull out through injury, replaced by Millwall’s Aiden O’Brien.
O’Neill and his assistant, Keane, seemed to grow frustrated by their squad’s limitations and that, in turn, exposed their own limitations. By the end O’Neill was advising players to juggle tennis balls in their spare time to improve their technique – helpfully noting that he could do 200 keepie-uppies by the age of 10 – while Keane was prone to outbursts like the sweary one aimed at the injured Harry Arter and Jonathan Walters. The atmosphere in the camp turned sour, which did nothing to enhance performances. 2018 was an abysmal year, with one win in nine matches.
Matt Doherty, the Wolves defender, said there was too much tension and also suggested the coaching was not as precise as many would have liked, which might explain why Ireland looked ragged and aimless. McCarthy, according to Doherty, has already been a breath of fresh air. “The atmosphere is definitely different,” he said this week. “Everyone seems to be a bit happier, enjoying it a bit more, training is a bit more fun. It’s down to Mick.” He added rather pointedly: “You’re not in limbo. You know what you’re doing.”
What McCarthy does with Doherty will be interesting. The pair have had a good relationship since McCarthy brought the player from Bohemians to Wolves in 2010. Now Doherty is Ireland’s best performer at club level, but as a right wing-back, a role that McCarthy is unlikely to deploy. He could be stationed at right-back but that is the one position where Ireland have strength in depth, with Séamus Coleman also available. The manager has intimated that Doherty will be asked to show his attacking menace from right midfield.
Beyond that, however, McCarthy has suggested he wants to make players as comfortable as possible by playing them in their club roles. That is a sound policy but he needs to show it is practical. One notable omission from his squad is Cyrus Christie, the Fulham right-back whom O’Neill resorted to playing in central midfield on the grounds that none of the specialist midfielders were dynamic enough. McCarthy hoped to coax Declan Rice back but failed to talk the West Ham player out of defecting to England.
Not that that should prove an issue against Gibraltar, against whom McCarthy will hope to piece together a solution to Ireland’s scoring problems. They did not find the net in O’Neill’s last four matches and seldom looked like doing so. Preston’s Sean Maguire will probably lead the attack, and McCarthy has called up James Collins in the hope that a 28-year-old who has been prolific in League One for Luton can make a belated impact at international level. Another interesting selection is the winger Jack Byrne, drafted into the squad after McCarthy saw him excel for Shamrock Rovers last Friday. Byrne, 22, was once a hot prospect at Manchester City.
The idea of McCarthy introducing more verve might amuse Ipswich fans who hounded him out of his last job by complaining about ugly football despite consistent finishes. But McCarthy is not as limited a manager as his caricature suggests. He was expected to perpetuate the Charlton “put-’em-under-pressure” style when he first took over Ireland but produced tidy stuff. His instincts tend towards the cautious but most of Ireland’s slickest performances of the last 25 years came during McCarthy’s first spell. “Mick is not a one-trick pony,” says the former striker David Connelly, given his Ireland debut by McCarthy in 1996. “He can mix it up. He is a practical manager who makes the best with the players available. Looking at the current squad, I don’t expect them to suddenly become an amazing possession-based team but they will be as effective as they can be.”
“Mick is a great organiser and will produce a cohesive unit that give their utmost and could prove more than the sum of their parts,” says Eoin Hand, the manager who awarded McCarthy the first of his 57 Irish caps in 1984. “I’m delighted he’s got a second chance. He’s older and more experienced and will be even better for it. I’m optimistic.”
Given the problems he inherited in 1996 McCarthy took eight matches to gain his first win. He will need to start much faster this time or his eighth match will be his last before he is replaced by Stephen Kenny, who is scheduled to step up from the under-21s after Euro 2020. But if he leads Ireland to the finals and rekindles the love between fans, their national team and him, then McCarthy’s return may last longer than planned. “It’s always the public who dictate what happens,” says Hand. “If he does really well, people will clamour for him to stay.”