Campaign ends, problems remain

Mick McCarthy
courtesy Wikicommons

By David Prendeville

And so Ireland’s EURO 2020 qualifying campaign concluded with Ireland having to enter the play-off games in March, needing to win both of those, to get in to the tournament we are co-hosting next summer.

This campaign would do little to convince anyone that this is something we can pull off. Teams need to score goals to win games, something which Ireland seem chronically incapable of doing. The team scored a miserable seven goals in eight games in the qualifying round, in a group that had Gibraltar in it. By comparison, the Danes scored twenty three in the same number of matches. 

If Ireland fail to qualify for next summer’s competition, it will be the short-termist eggs of the FAI and John Delaney coming back to bite them, rather than coming home to roost. The appointment of Mick McCarthy as manager for two years was a travesty. This is a manager who under-achieved with a much better group of players nearly two decades ago. Re-appointing McCarthy seventeen years after he was sacked for failing to qualify for Euro 2004, was a clear sign that more progressive thinking was needed to steer the team in the right direction. 

It was also amusing at the time to hear of how McCarthy was a good replacement for Martin O’Neill because he likes to play attacking football. I don’t think the long-suffering fans of Wolves and Ipswich would have agreed with that assertion of McCarthy’s “style”. The genuinely appalling goal-scoring stats in this qualifying tournament are a withering riposte to those claims. Yes, McCarthy can say he doesn’t have much quality up front. But it is he, who chose not to start the hugely promising Aaron Connolly (fresh from scoring two goals against Tottenham in the Premier League) in the 0-0 draw against Georgia. It is he, who chose not to play Matt Doherty, such a brilliant creative outlet in the final game against Denmark, all through the qualifying round. It is he chose to leave David McGoldrick so isolated in the first half of the Denmark game, with Jeff Hendrick (not a player renowned for creativity or goals) the closest man to him. At Sheffield United, McGoldrick essentially plays as a number ten, with the pace of Lys Mousset or Ireland international (benched by McCarthy for the Denmark game, that we needed to win) Callum Robinson, playing further forward than him. 

I have long decried McCarthy’s neanderthal tactics and team selections. Even more galling and lethal, however, is the mix of this with his stubbornness.

The embarrassing omission of Doherty in most of the qualifying games stems in no small part from McCarthy’s idea that he knows better than pundits and fans alike. With Doherty enjoying a wonderful season with Wolves last year, fans were understandably eager for him to be integrated into the team, something that never happened under Martin O’Neill.

Standing in Doherty’s way, of course, was the fact that already in the position of right-back was Ireland’s captain Seamus Coleman. However, as people sensibly pointed out, in Wolves’ system Doherty played more as an attacking outlet, as a wing-back, so there’s no reason he couldn’t play further forward on the right wing for Ireland.

McCarthy tried this for the first half in the first qualifying game against Gibraltar. The Doherty-Coleman combo on the right hand side didn’t pull up any trees in that half, but the entire Irish team played abysmally. Doherty was the fall-guy, after one half of football, and the combination of him and Coleman down the right wing, was never tried again. 

Surely this warranted more work in training and in matches? Surely one of McCarthy’s priorities in training should be to try and figure out a way that the two best players can play in the team? It was an abdication of duty on McCarthy’s part not to work on this further. McCarthy’s stubborn streak is also, I believe, the reason Aaron Connolly didn’t start that key game against Georgia. The 19 year old had just scored two goals against the Champions League finalists and ran their defenders ragged in his Premier League debut the week before.

But why would that convince McCarthy of him being worthy of a start, when he had James Collins? The target man striker playing his maiden campaign at Championship level with Luton at the age of 28, having played further down the leagues before that?

The public desire for Connolly to start, as it did for Doherty to be integrated into the team, meant that there was no way McCarthy was going to oblige. Who are these people to tell him what he should do? He, of course, always knows better. One can also be sure that if it weren’t for Richard Keogh’s injury, the excellent John Egan would not have gotten his chance either.

It remains to be seen if Ireland can squeeze their way into the Euros through these upcoming play-offs, beginning with Slovakia in the semi-final. If they win that, either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Northern Ireland await in the final. If they do, McCarthy and the FAI will have gotten away with it. But in no way does he deserve credit for what has been another miserable campaign nor the FAI for the decision to hire him. A quintessentially Irish type of failure – honourable failure – against a sleep-walking Denmark team does little to alter that. It’s painful to see such praise for the performance. Fans shouldn’t have to have their expectations so low that a game in which Ireland can string a couple of passes together is praised as a revelation. 

Realistically, if Ireland make it to the tournament, we will only be making up the numbers under this manager, in terms of our on-field competitiveness. However, the buzz of having Ireland play games in a major tournament at home in Dublin is something every football fan desperately wants to experience.

Let’s hope something comes over him that he picks a better team for those qualifiers, that he puts his stubbornness to one side and picks the younger, exciting players we have as well. Let’s hope Troy Parrott makes an impression on Jose Mourinho (unlikely, given his track record with youth) and makes his debut for Spurs sooner rather than later, forcing the manager’s hand to pick him.

There is still hope, but the ineptitude of the manager and this organization has meant there’s an awful lot riding on what is essentially the lottery of two play-offs. Let’s hope McCarthy is a lucky manager, if not a good one.