Watching for minefields in the new order


In ice skating they have a little area called "kiss and cry" where the contestants go to sit as they await the verdict of the judges. Mick McCarthy is no tiptoeing pixie, but he must know the feeling. You pull off the footballing equivalent of a quadruple back somersault on ice by getting away draws in Holland and Portugal and then have to sit and wait for the verdict to come in.

The little media room in Lisbon throbbed with heat and expectation on Saturday night. In a week when relations between portions of the Irish media and Mick McCarthy became seriously strained there was always going to be a good crowd in to see if the manager exulted in vindication or if any of his judges dared hold up a score of less than 9.5 out of 10.

McCarthy didn't exult. He was downbeat and restrained, fittingly so for a man with only half-a-week's work done. "This," said McCarthy, "this and Amsterdam, it means diddley squat if we don't win on Wednesday."

He sat there, greyer than a man of his age should be, most of the fun and humour knocked out of him, and you wondered was there any joy left in this job for him. Every move, every decision, every word gets magnified until all sense of proportion is lost.

He expressed happiness after a good draw in Holland last month and was crucified because his mood didn't precisely match that of his team captain. For what it's worth, this time they were more in tune.

"Two points from two tough games. Now we have to cope with a game where we make the running and we are favourites."

He ploughs on, a man who has to defend his successes as well as his failures.

"I know when I brought Matt Holland on there would be the usual criticism, `Oh, he's going defensive,' but I needed somebody to sit in front of the back two. They were causing us all sorts of problems there and we weren't getting the supply to Quinny, so I changed the way we played, went for more ball to Robbie's feet. Of course, I told Mattie to stay back, and I've had a joke with him there that I don't want him getting forward like that again."

He goes on to praise Holland's contribution to the team since the US tour, noting that if ever Roy Keane is unavailable the team won't miss him as badly as they have in the past because Holland has come on so well. He finishes the eulogy on another note, heavy with sarcasm and tinted with paranoia. "That's praise for Matt Holland. That is not a criticism of my captain."

He dismissed his critics as irrelevant, announced that he happened to think that he is doing a reasonably good job and that he enjoys the support of the FAI and his players. Given the cheering he received anytime he stuck his head outside in front of the lingering hordes of Irish fans, it was safe to assume that he has popular backing, too. It was a bad week for anyone to go to war with McCarthy.

Yesterday at the airport he mentioned the war, the bizarre rat-a-tat-tatting of machine gun fire from high up in the Evening Herald. How had it altered relations with the team?

"I'll tell you it's galvanised us. The relations it's altered and tainted are relationships with you guys, with the media. I think you've had good latitude over the years and then something like this happens. I think you'll find the atmosphere is a little changed in the future."

And there it was, the new order, skaters holding the scorecards up to judges. Low scores on each one.