Setback for McCarthy as Quinn is ruled out

 

Hopes of an important win for the Republic of Ireland at the start of their European championship programme against Croatia on Saturday, suffered a serious setback last night with news that Niall Quinn is out of the game. After visiting a Harley Street specialist for a further examination of his damaged back, Quinn was advised that it would be inadvisable to return for some time.

The injury was diagnosed as a muscular one touching on a nerve and in that situation, there was never any likelihood of the 31-year-old Sunderland striker being cleared to return.

Quinn, who earned a new three-year contract with Sunderland on the strength of his performances in the club's end of season performances, was expected to lead the Irish attack on Saturday.

"It's a big blow to the team and, of course to the player, himself," said McCarthy. "He could, conceivably, have played with the aid of a pain killing injection but that would have done nothing for his career in the long term. It is better to let nature take its course with this kind of injury."

The effect will be to force the manager to look again at his attacking options and consider the possibility of pairing Keith O'Neill with Robbie Keane for the first time.

Meanwhile, McCarthy is today expected to confirm that Roy Keane will captain the team in what is likely to be one of Ireland's most difficult home games in years.

McCarthy ducked the question of a successor to Andy Townsend during yesterday's press conference in which he was more comfortable speaking on generalities rather than any specific topic.

Yet, in spite of the obvious claims of players like Steve Staunton and Ken Cunningham, the likelihood is that he will hand the captain's armband to the man who currently leads Manchester United.

It would mark a significant stage in the rehabilitation of the player who incurred the wrath of a section of the Irish football public after his refusal to join the summer tour of the United States two years ago.

Since then, he has made his peace with the Ireland manager who has frequently referred to the player's exemplary attitude since his return to the team against Iceland in November 1996.

His only previous experience of the job at international level ended in something of a personal disaster when he was sent off against Russia in one of McCarthy's early games in charge.

That was an error of judgment he was later to regret but in a sense, it has merely heightened his ambition to prove his growing maturity at a time when he has assumed responsibility at Old Trafford without sacrificing any of his competitive instincts. Now, it looks as if he will be given the chance of redressing that situation.

Two members of the squad, Shay Given and Ray Houghton didn't train yesterday because of minor injuries but both are expected to prove their fitness before the last of the scheduled training sessions on Friday.

Like Tony Cascarino, Houghton is returning to the squad for the first time since the World Cup play-off against Belgium in Brussels last November, a decision which suggests that McCarthy has decided that this is a game for mature, hardened professionals.

The players were possibly as surprised as any by the call, summoning them to Dublin but the manager is dismissive of speculation that their inclusion now amounts to fire brigade action.

"It's possible that the two of them sensed that they wouldn't be back but I never ruled them out of my plans," he said. "Sure, they are not going to be around in two or three years time, but just now I am happy to have them on board.

"Tony is playing well for his club in France and Ray has had three club games in the last 10 days. So there is no question of them, not being match fit."

Perhaps, it was the inclusion of some old, familiar faces which sent out signals of reassurance, but whatever the reason, McCarthy likes the look of what he has already seen in training, at the team's base near Dublin airport.

"Somebody remarked how well training is going and that's an opinion I share. No disrespect to some of the younger players we have introduced over the last two years but now the squad really looks like a real international one. The players are flying in training and I'm very happy about that".

With the exception of Quinn, David Connolly and the two Kellys, Alan and Gary this is the strongest squad available to him for some time and one gets the feeling that he is particularly happy to have O'Neill back in the reckoning, after the Norwich player's injury problems last season.

"Yes, I'm very happy about that," he said. "Keith has had a full pre-season programme, has done well in Norwich's games so far and is again looking very sharp. It's good to have him back."

For all the compliments, however, the popular Dubliner is going to have to wait and hope for some time yet before knowing if he has secured a place in the team. Now, more than ever, it seems, McCarthy is determined to ponder his options until as late as possible before going public with his first selection of the new season.