McCarthy gives new beginning a radical feel

 

TWO years ago this month the Republic of Ireland drew 0-0 with Russia at Lansdowne Road in a friendly. Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb mace such successful forays into international football that day they conducted their own press conference. The age of the Three Amigos was upon us. Something similar tonight wouldn't be at all bad.

Tonight's match is the first of eight preparatory friendlies, under a new manager, for the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign. To coin a well-worn cliche then, the performance is at least as important as the result if not more so.

Of course, Mick McCarthy desperately wants to herald the beginning of his reign with a win. Accordingly, he has selected a largely experienced side, with a couple of teenagers, to implement his new system.

In comes 19-year-old Lifford-born Blackburn goalkeeper Shay Given, who is currently thriving at Sunderland where he is on loan. Protecting him are three centre-halves Alan Kernaghan, Paul McGrath and Steve Staunton. The wing-backs are Jason McAteer and Terry Phelan, currently revelling in the same roles at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.

The biggest surprise is the inclusion at another 19-year-old, Mark Kennedy, as a free-ranging midfielder, alongside Roy Keane and Andy Townsend and behind the front two of Niall Quinn and John Aldridge.

At first glance, there is just one new cap and an additional central defender, but in its way this is a radical departure. In all, there are six changes in personnel from the last outing, the 2-0 defeat to Holland at Anfield, and much more besides.

For starters, McCarthy has immediately placed his trust in the precocious young talents of McAteer and Kennedy, not to mention Given, while there is a greater attacking edge to the side.

The team that took the pitch at Anfield was loaded out wide with full-backs effectively two on each flank. Although McCarthy's system employs three centrehalves. it has the additional attacking threat of Kennedy.

"Mark will have a bit more of a role to get involved with the front two. It's a bit like Steve McManaman does at Liverpool gets on the ball, gets forward. That was the thinking behind Mark," said McCarthy, of his former protege at Millwall.

One English paper recently described Liverpool's £2 million reserve teenager as a "forgotten man". Aside from bolstering his attacking options. McCarthy is also giving the young man a bit of a boost.

Kennedy has played only once for Liverpool this season, in the 1-1 home draw with Southampton on December 2nd. "I was disappointed not to play at Forest last Saturday when Rob Jones was injured, but this makes up for it," he said.

I'm not worried about the responsibility. I've played in a similar position at Millwall and Sammy Lee, the reserve team manager at Liverpool, feels it's my best position. It's not like Bergkamp at Arsenal. I'm not playing as a deep striker. I will be going from box to box. The difference is I've got a little more freedom than the other two (Keane and Townsend)."

The thought of Kennedy taking on Russian defenders through the inside-left channel or anywhere else, a la McManaman, is an exciting one. Similarly, the thought of McAteer scampering down the right and whipping in crosses, a facet of his play that has improved perceptibly in his time at Liverpool. Like it or not. the frustrated central midfielder may yet be there to stay.

"I haven't seen anyone play better in the role that Jason plays this season," said McCarthy, justifiably, yesterday. "I've seen him a few times and he's been excellent. Terry Phelan (on the other flank,) is playing very well there as well."

McCarthy's relaxed air appears to have transmitted itself to the players. An unfazed Given echoed the words of his manager when saying: "With my confidence the way it is, there's no better time for me to play." Aside from his extended family, he says "half of Donegal" will be at Lansdowne Road.

The change in training methods - more five-a-sides and short passing - and the new system also appears to have refreshed everyone. With a packed house, whose expectations ought not to weigh too heavily, the climate for McCarthy's first game is healthy - even if yesterday's sodden conditions forced the squad away from Lansdowne Road to Richmond Park.

"It brought back many happy memories," said St Patrick's Athletic graduate Paul McGrath, for whom another chapter in his career may be about to begin.

The Russians will unquestionably provide a stern test. They have pace aplenty. That certainly was the abiding memory of the Blackburn Rovers players once - they had drawn breath again - who were defeated by Spartak Moscow twice in the Champions' League.

The former Spartak manager. Oleg Romantsev can select two from five strikers based in Italy, Spain and Germany, and may employ Andrei Kanchelskis behind the in-form Real Sociedad rightwinger Valeri Karpin. The brilliant Ukraine-born utility player Yuri Nikiforov may be the source of the ammunition.

If the new system can contain that lot, and the likes of Given, McAteer and Kennedy emerge with their reputations enhanced, a draw would even do nicely.