Irish win would be great confidence boost
IT SEEMS like it has been a long time coming but, after all the talk about whether he was the right choice and what sort of manager he was going to be, Mick McCarthy has finally given us the first indication of the approach he will bring to his new position in the Irish setup and, on the face of it, the signs look very good.
With what he has got at his disposal for this match this looks a very bright selection. As it happens, the impact of just about all of the enforced changes from what might be considered his natural first choice side has been softened by the fact that the players who have come in are very familiar with the system that he is looking to employ.
Liverpool and Aston Villa use the three centre halves to great effect and both Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath are likely to be quite happy with it while Alan Kernaghan, who can't match either of their individual ball skills, will probably be the man marker which is a role which he looks capable of fulfilling well for the side.
Staunton, in particular, will be delighted to be playing in this game after a season when he has had his problems with injuries and after the disappointment of not getting a place in the starting line-up in Sunday's English League Cup final. This may not be the position most suited to his abilities but a player of his quality should have no great difficulty adapting while his availability for corners and free kicks will make him a potent weapon for McCarthy in attack.
The thought that this system might help us get another year out of McGrath will surely have crossed the new manager's mind and if the system protects him sufficiently then Phil Babb's return could leave McCarthy with some flexibility at the back - at least in the near future.
Of course this, or any other system, is only positive as long as the players themselves understand it and implement it in a positive way but, in Terry Phelan and Jason McAteer, McCarthy could hardly have asked for two better exponents of this particular game.
Phelan was purchased by Chelsea specifically to play this role while McAteer has adapted so well to it at Anfield that Rob Jones, who many people feel is the best choice at right back for the England team, has been forced into playing on the other side.
The system gives them a lot of freedom to exploit the space that becomes available in front of them while allowing them to draw back and add strength to the defence as required. But it is important that they think as midfielders tonight because they must not allow Andy Townsend and Roy Keane to become outnumbered and completely overrun in the centre of the pitch.
These two should link up well and Keane should now have the opportunity to really establish himself as a force in the team. I think one of NcCarthy's main strengths as a manager is that of man management and he will know how to draw the best out of Keane. The Corkman has blossomed at Old Trafford this season since Paul Ince departed to Italy and, although he will not be the senior partner in midfield this evening, he and Townsend should cover for each other and complement each other nicely.
For the third man in midfield, Mark Kennedy, the new approach should also be a very good thing. It will take a lot of pressure off him and give him the freedom to get into positions where he is picking up possession in a bit of space. That should mean that the first few yards he moves with the ball will be unchallenged and in that sort of situation Kennedy has the pace that should be very useful to us.
More than any other player in the side he can ghost past defenders. He is a very talented prospect and his relative lack of success so far says far more about Roy Evans's success at reestablishing a strong squad system at Liverpool than it does about his abilities. In the pre-Dalglish era it regularly took new players a year or 18 months to establish themselves in the first team at Anfield and this will be a fine opportunity for the youngster to show Evans what he has got to offer.
Up front there is still no doubt that we need Chris Armstrong to declare for Ireland but here too, the players we have at our disposal should fare better under this way of playing. This looks like a side capable of getting a lot of ball into the box and it is from that sort of situation that John Aldridge and Niall Quinn could thrive. For Aldridge, like McGrath, this could help to extend his career as, in the absence of anyone new coming on the scene, he is still the best finisher we have and if he is asked to do a lot less of the chasing and closing down that Jack Charlton expected of him then he will be dangerous around the goal area.
That just leaves the goalkeeping position and there the emergence of Shay Given will have been a real boost for McCarthy. To suddenly have two young and fit men putting each other under pressure for their place would he an unexpected bonus at this stage for the new manager and a friendly match at home is the best possible opportunity to give a goalkeeper his first outing.
All in all then it looks as though McCarthy has used the assets at his disposal in the best possible way. He has several players like Phelan, Staunton, Kennedy, McAteer and even Aldridge with points to prove to their new boss and a few others missing who will look at the side and be alarmed about their own places in the future.
All he needs now is a win. That would be a great help to the team's confidence and it would enhance his own stature with the squad as they start the countdown to the serious business of qualifying for the World Cup.