Ireland set for rougher waters with a fair wind behind them
Next assignment in Denmark will be a big step up but McCarthy’s side have momentum
Ireland’s Robbie Brady is tackled by Georgia’s Nika Kvekveskiri during the Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
When Mick McCarthy got the Ireland job for the first time he had eight friendles to find a winning formula and seemed to use all the dry runs well. When the World Cup qualifiers finally came around, his team easily won the first two; scoring eight and keeping a coupe of clean sheets in the process.
A month later, though, the music suddenly stopped when they were held at home to a scoreless draw by Iceland. And things would get worse before they got better again.
With Denmark away to come next there is every chance that at least a little of the wind will be taken out of the team’s sails again this time too. But critically, they will head for Copenhagen at the start of June with a bit of momentum.
Two wins in the last five days has been enough to restore some confidence to a side that had been quietly haemorrhaging it since the tail end of 2017.
McCarthy moves forward with some significant gains to show from the recent double-header. David McGoldrick and Conor Hourihane have done enough over just two games to transform their stature with the squad while the faith the manager put in Glenn Whelan was rewarded with a standout performance from the 35-year-old on Tuesday night.
Whelan’s ability to replicate that sort of impact over the course of the campaign that runs well beyond the term of his current contract at Aston Villa remains uncertain and he might be very quickly made to look his age with Danish rather than Georgian midfielders running at him. At the Aviva, though, he set the tone with the defensive work-rate and generally offensively minded passing.
If he never kicked a ball for his country again, this would surely have been far closer to the exit he would have wanted than that showpiece smile, hand on shoulder and nudge towards the door he got in November. If he stays fit and keeps getting games at club level, though, he can confident of another cap or two at least.
A man with rather more to be anxious about is Matt Doherty whose moment seemed to have come with the return of McCarthy only for it to blow right past him at some early stage of the second half at the Victoria stadium on Saturday.
The manager came away from that game saying that while the gambit of having Doherty play in front of Seamus Coleman had not worked out, he would not rule out giving it another go, Instead, a less than fully fit Robbie Brady was restored to the right hand side of the Irish midfield.
If McCarthy had been hell-bent on getting Doherty, who has probably been the country’s best player in the Premier League this season, into his side then left back was an option but in the wake of the win over Georgia, and a second straight clean sheet, the manager seems to have decided Doherty might have to be patient again.
Asked if he had had a tough time deciding between the pair for the right back position, McCarthy suggests that his own tactical preferences ensured that there had, in fact, barely been a call to be made.
“Seamus plays right-back every week,” he says. “The Doc plays right wing back. And having played him on Saturday, I was never going to change it.
“It’s unfortunate for them,” he says of a positional overlap involving two of his strongest options, “but it’s not unfortunate for me because if one of them is injured I’ve got another good one.
“I said when I first got the job, I’ll play one of them and I’ll talk about the one that doesn’t play. Then, of course, I played the pair of them and it didn’t work. So I’m playing Seamus and I’m afraid it’s just tough on the Doc. But if he gets in for any reason then it’s his place to keep.”
As for left back? The manager’s position seems just as clearcut.
“Well,” he says, “if I’ve got one as good as Enda Stevens then I won’t be doing that [replacing him with an out of position right wing back], that’s for sure.”
The immediate winner in all of this is Robbie Brady who might suddenly have found his automatic starter status coming under threat if Doherty had done much better at the weekend.
The 27-year-old missed most of 2018 through injury but was a generally sporadic performer for much of his time before that under Martin O’Neill. At his best, he had a lot going for him but we rarely saw it and there was the odd time when it felt like only his set pieces were keeping him in the starting line-up.
Even with that wide midfield spot available again, he will hopefully have to raise his game. He was not great on Tuesday as Hourihane showed every sign of eclipsing him with the quality of his corners and free-kicks.
If he is to step things up for Ireland again, he accepts, he will have to nail his place back down at Burnley.
“Of course,” he says.
“I can’t come in expecting to play when I’m not playing, especially on the back of my long injury. I was delighted to play, every minute counts and I’m feeling stronger as the weeks go on. But I need to work on that myself and get back in the team at Burnley if I want to play here, which means the world to me.”