Ken Early: Worst thing about watching Ireland has been listening to Mick McCarthy

Former Ireland manager fails to follow Jack Charlton’s example while on co-commentary duty

Stephen Kenny looks on as Aaron Connoly tries to win possession during Ireland’s defeat to Finland. Photograph: Kalle Parkkinen/Inpho

Stephen Kenny looks on as Aaron Connoly tries to win possession during Ireland’s defeat to Finland. Photograph: Kalle Parkkinen/Inpho

 

Finland had just scored a confusing goal apparently out of the blue, and all the Irish people watching on TV, who weren’t quite sure what had happened, were trying to figure it out by gauging who among the Irish defence looked guilty and who looked merely aggrieved.

The replays revealed that Darren Randolph had taken a quick short goal kick, too quick - a goal kick that Teemu Pukki was anticipating more readily than Randolph’s team-mates. In a virtual re-enactment of the goal Finland had scored to win in Dublin, Pukki scooted down the left and crossed low for Fredrik Jensen at the back post. Last time it was Enda Stevens who looked like he might make the last-ditch clearance, this time it was Dara O’Shea - but once again the clearance never happened, and once again Jensen buried it past Randolph.

At least one onlooker did not sound in the least bit surprised. What do you expect when the goalkeeper passes up the chance to launch the ball deep into enemy territory? Knocking it about at the back is all very well to pad the passing statistics but you shouldn’t need to be reminded that in football there is only one stat that counts.

“I can tell you from experience, you’ve got to win games!” boomed the Voice of Experience from the commentary box. Mick McCarthy would know. If he had only managed to win any of the crunch games in the last qualifying group, he might still be in the job.

Instead Ireland are now managed by Stephen Kenny who has taken charge of five matches, which have produced three defeats, two draws and one goal. It’s a start that has divided opinion, but one thing most people seem agreed on is that the single worst thing about it has been having to watch it on TV where we have been forced to listen to McCarthy talk us through it, play by play.

Dara O’Shea made his Ireland debut against Finland. Photograph: Jussi Nukari /Getty/AFP
Dara O’Shea made his Ireland debut against Finland. Photograph: Jussi Nukari/Getty/AFP

In the opening minutes Mick had set his stall out by declaring that Ireland had not been “unlucky” but rather “profligate, wasteful” in their failures to beat Slovakia and Wales. Something tells you that if he were still the manager, he’d have remembered that the squad had lost more than a dozen players to injuries and Covid restrictions over the course of this triple header. One wonders whether McCarthy even remembers that his own first stint as Ireland manager began with a run of seven matches without a win, as Ireland racked up five losses and two draws before Bolivia were defeated in a Lansdowne friendly.

Of course Mick is not Stephen Kenny’s PR man, it’s not his job to make excuses for the man who followed him in the job. Sky Sports have hired him to give blunt, unvarnished, straight-talking analysis, which seems to mean concern-trolling Ireland’s efforts to pass the ball and panting with excitement every time Shane Duffy goes up for a set-piece.

Last month McCarthy did a piece with The Coaches’ Voice paying tribute to his old manager and friend Jack Charlton. McCarthy remembered the classy way Charlton had behaved towards him after he’d succeeded him as Ireland manager. “Getting his support and his backing was important,” McCarthy said. “He also said he wouldn’t ever speak about the job while I was in it and he didn’t. He only ever supported me.” What a shame he chose not to follow Jack’s example.

. . . and Ireland are at least a little bit desperate

The faint air of unreality that circumstances have created around the Kenny era so far persisted after the match, where his post-match press conference was one of the shortest in Irish team history. He was asked only one question, as a communications breakdown meant that Irish journalists watching on YouTube had no apparent means of passing questions to the Finnish media officer in the room. Kenny pointed out that Matt Doherty had had two efforts, Aaron Connolly another two efforts, Enda Stevens had hit the bar and Ronan Curtis had hit the post - actually a save by the Finnish keeper Lukas Hradecky - “and that was only in the last half hour.”

But there had been few chances in the first hour - a Jeff Hendrick shot through a crowd, another one that Sean Maguire wasted with a heavy touch. Had Kenny picked the right team? In the absence of David McGoldrick, might Connolly have started in his preferred position in the centre? Kenny’s plans so far have involved Connolly as a narrow left-sided forward, but when you have failed to score in three matches, maybe the time has come to get your most dangerous players as close as possible to goal.

It might seem slightly desperate to look for goalscoring salvation to a player who has scored two club goals in the last year. But while Connolly has not yet proven himself a prolific scorer, his speed, power and technique are there for all to see, and Ireland are at least a little bit desperate.

Jayson Molumby earned his third Ireland cap against Finland. Photograph: Kimmo Brandt/EPA
Jayson Molumby earned his third Ireland cap against Finland. Photograph: Kimmo Brandt/EPA

Maguire’s contribution was notable mainly for his enthusiastic fouling of Finnish defenders, and Ireland improved after he was replaced by Robbie Brady, allowing Connolly to move into the middle. The best spell of the game came just before the Finland goal, with Stevens’ stretching flick scraping the bar and Doherty shooting wide from a good position at the edge of the box. That Jensen’s goal came against the run of play was little consolation.

Sky Sports tweeted after the game that “Ireland’s worrying form continued...” and indeed it is worrying for prospects in the Nations League campaign, now reduced to Operation Finish-Ahead-Of-Bulgaria. As McCarthy reminded us, you’ve got to win games.

But there are also other things you have to do as an international manager, and one of them is to bring new players into the team. Consider two friendly matches during Mick’s first stint: the 2-0 win over Paraguay in February 1999, and the 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic the previous year.

The Paraguay victory was forgotten immediately by all concerned, while the Czech defeat is still remembered, because it marked the debuts of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. If anyone in Ireland remembers Wednesday night’s game, it will be because it was the first time we saw Dara O’Shea and Jason Knight playing for Ireland, and not because it was the second time we saw Pukki and Jensen score that goal against us.

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