Mick’s Euro 2020 kicks off

Photo of Mick McCarthy courtesy WikiCommons

By David Prendeville

Mick McCarthy began his second tenure as Ireland manager with an unsurprisingly dour game away to Gibraltar.

Both sides were woefully lacking in quality in difficult playing conditions. Jeff Hendrick scored the only goal of the game, though Gibraltar did have chances of their own, forcing one excellent save from Darren Randolph.

Of course, the game itself was overshadowed by recent revelations about FAI Chief Executive John Delaney loaning the FAI €100,000 last year. This curiosity was rendered even more suspicious by the fact that Delaney sought to take out an injunction to stop the Sunday Times publishing the story. 

It was revealed late on Saturday night that John Delaney was stepping down as CEO after fourteen years in charge. But, in a brazen move that misjudged the mood of soccer friends in Ireland, it was also confirmed that he would be a moving into a newly created role as executive vice-president. 

Protests followed at Ireland’s 1-0 home win against Georgia, with fans throwing tennis balls on the pitch. This ironically, or aptly, took place just before Ireland scored the only goal of the game – a fine free kick by Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane.

It was undoubtedly a much-improved performance from the Irish team than what we saw in Gibraltar, but the way some pundits waxed lyrical about it you would think that Ireland had beaten Spain rather than lowly Georgia, ranked 91st in the world.

More disturbing to this writer was the, for the most part, dismissal of the Irish fans’ protests by RTE’s George Hamilton and Ronnie Whelan in commentary and Damien Duff in the studio. Richie Sadlier, usually the only voice of sense on the show, fittingly was the only one who spoke in defence and understanding of the protests. Irish fans have every right to voice their unhappiness at recent revelations in FAI and at the state of Irish soccer in general. The outrageous fervour of a Dunphy was sorely missed in this instance. 

The biggest indicator of how woeful a job the FAI are doing is reflected in the horrendous dearth of quality currently in the Irish team. The FAI do not invest enough in the league of Ireland or youth teams to produce quality players. Hoping that we can pinch some players on the granny rule is a dire long-term plan, as is throwing money at McCarthy in the hope of re-creating a mis-remembered nostalgia. Ireland had good players in the last era of McCarthy, as opposed to having a good manager.  

In terms of the Georgia game itself, there were some positives, as already stated. Conor Hourihane was excellent. He followed up some decent set-pieces against Gibraltar with a terrific free for the goal. David McGoldrick was also excellent up front and it was good to see Robbie Brady come back to fitness.

Ireland played some nice passing football and did deserve to win by more than the single goal. It would, however, be remiss not to acknowledge the weakness of the opponents or some baffling decisions by McCarthy.

The entire team played poorly against Gibraltar. What was McCarthy’s answer? Why, drop Matt Doherty of course, by far and away Ireland’s current best Premier League performer. Apparently, he and Seamus Coleman looked disjointed down the right, as opposed to the whole Irish team looking like they had never played together before. The linking up of those two players of quality is surely something that should be persevered with and practiced rather than abandoned the first time it doesn’t yield the desired results.

I also feel Irish fans, like myself, must have felt a sinking feeling at the sight of Glenn Whelan being reinstated back in to the team after being brought back from retirement. To be fair, Whelan played well on the night, but the fact that we are again turning to a 35 year-old who has always been divisive amongst Irish fans and who now is a bit-part player for a Championship club, is not a cause for optimism. McCarthy suggesting before the game that he was looking for Whelan to start off our play and dictate the game, as if he was Xavi, was almost beyond parody. 

I know it may seem churlish to point out these selection problems when Ireland won the game, but they hint at problems that will come to the surface when we play better opposition. Even others positives, such as McGoldrick’s performance, are hampered somewhat by the knowledge that he’s thirty-one and has never played regularly in the Premier League, though his club Sheffield United are currently on course for promotion.

Optimists will point to the fact that after two games Ireland sit top of their group, helped by Switzerland’s 3-3 draw with Denmark. That is fair enough, but after we’ve played the Swiss and the Danes, it will really be time to assess how we’re doing.

As for the FAI, they are due before the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on the 10th of April to discuss the details of Delaney’s loan to them. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.