Easy rider enjoying life in pole position


On the nights when the business gets done without fuss or bother it's always quiet. The little media room is half empty and the loitering hacks are eager to get the business over and done with. Mick McCarthy arrives presently. Showered, spruced and smiling. Back to back wins and all weapons are decommissioned. He could fax in the answers if he had a mind to.

"I'm pleased," he says, "I'm satisfied with the result."

And there is a hideous silence. No probing questions about tactics, substitutions or errors. Malta, one of the least talented teams to come to Lansdowne Road in an age, have been ushered off the premises without incident.

"I'm not coming in here saying this was a great win tonight," says Mick McCarthy. "We expected to win. It was expected, I've been listening to it all week that we are going to get a hat-full of goals. In the end we got five goals and it's a good victory. Can't do any more."

Time to extract the obvious answers. Nothing better for that purpose than an obvious question.

"What did you think of Robbie Keane?"

McCarthy glowers. Denounces Keane as a spoiled degenerate wastrel who we won't be seeing in an Irish jersey again.

Well no, he doesn't actually. He shrugs.

"You know," he says, "you all know how I feel about Robbie Keane, I'll leave you lot to talk about it tomorrow morning then (about) what a good player he is."

Robbie Keane is a good player. Done.

Of course, as befits Robbie Keane's comic strip rise to stardom, the lad hasn't just scored two goals, he has exhibited the sort of maturity and judgement usually found in actuaries and accountants.

He had asked to be substituted.

"He came to me about 15 minutes from time and said his knee was bothering him," noted McCarthy. "Which was nice. Bit of common sense, shows the sort of character he is. We all would have liked him to get the hat-trick, and I'm sure he was desperate to get it himself, but he still had the presence of mind to come to the side and say my knee is sore. He has a responsibility to Wolves. It was an nice gesture."

Robbie Keane for Taoiseach. A Croatian journalist has infiltrated our sleeping ranks. He asks the hard one.

"Well, Mr McCarthy, two wins out of two. Top of the world."

But Mick is from Barnsley. Hubris-free zone "Hold on mate. Top of the group. Not top of the world."

The sparring continues.

But how do you feel about going to play Croatia in Croatia? (This is some 10 months away, but, hey, it's a slow quotes night.)

"We'll go and play them. I bet they'll be looking forward to us coming," says McCarthy. We reflect that we are indeed perfect guests for a host nation. The manager elaborates.

"Having been beaten here, they'll be looking forward to that. It's not really a concern of mine. For today we enjoy the result and the performance."

Credit where it is due, the question of the night, indeed of the campaign so far, comes from an Irish journalist.

"Mick, it must be nice to win 5-0 with so many players under-performing?"

Fearless. The press room shudders with uneasy laughter. The lights actually go out for a second. There is a nervous cheer. No shots ring out. The lights come back on and, surprisingly, the journalist is still among us.

"Well, it's good night from me then," says McCarthy, ignoring the invitation to ponder the prosaic performances of Jason McAteer and Steve Staunton in front of their manager Gerard Houllier.

"Yugoslavia will be a good team if and when we finally play them. We have done what we hoped to do. Six points from two games.

"Roy Keane? He leads by example. His play in the first half, well the game had gone a bit dead and they had the ball and he ran 20 yards to go into a block-busting tackle and won it. Lifted the crowd and lifted us. He's an inspiration to the rest of them."

The combination of Quinn and Keane in attack will have to face defences with a bit more guile practically every time they play. Still, with three goals between them it would be churlish to pick holes.

"Up front it worked well considering Quinny has been out for so long even this season as well. He's not done a lot of training. I know I said to him give me your lot, even an hour. He's not been training. He said he felt fine. I thought the two of them played well. Good combination."

If Robbie Keane had one of those scrapbook occasions, Damian Duff's evening was less memorable. All part of the learning curve, however. McCarthy was mellow and suitably generous.

"Damien Duff did okay. It's a big step up. They usually had two or three up against him, which made it hard, but he's learning. I'm pleased with him. He's by-passed under-21, come straight into this. He'll be a very good player."

And the talk turned to Yugoslavia and the game which should go ahead on November 18th. McCarthy is non-committal on the issue.

"Yugoslavia? Well if we play them and win 1-0, it would be better wouldn't it if it goes ahead. If we lose I'd have to think all over Christmas on the back of a defeat. I'm not bothered when we play them really.

"It doesn't concern me just now. If we have to go on the 18th that will be our toughest test to date.

"I hope it goes ahead. I hope we play. I would like to have it resolved. My problem in not playing a football match is minuscule, it's insignificant compared with the problems they've had out there. Wouldn't it be nice for the sake of sport if we could go and play and not have any political problems. If it is resolved. I have no problems with that."

Two wins and everybody happy. Not a cross or grumpy word. Mick McCarthy, used to sourer occasions then this, must wonder sometimes where it all went wrong.