Football: McCarthy's spirit haunts the `elite'

Steve Tongue says Ireland are showing how it should be done
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IT MAY have required Steve Staunton's wonderful 25-yard free-kick in the Ta'Qali stadium in Valetta on Wednesday evening to rescue the Republic of Ireland from a calamitous result against Malta, but the nation's collective exhalation of breath should not drown out the shouts from the Dublin rooftops - Mick McCarthy's team are better placed to take the high road to the Low Countries next summer than Kevin Keegan's. Furthermore, a substantial part of the reason is that McCarthy, like his predecessor Jack Charlton, has been able to get far more out of the players available to him than either Keegan or Glenn Hoddle.

Only Manchester United's Cork-men Roy Keane and Denis Irwin could reasonably expect an automatic place in a mythical Anglo-Irish XI. Yet McCarthy regularly takes good, solid club professionals like Mark Kinsella, Kenny Cunningham and Niall Quinn and inspires outstanding international performances from them.

After a difficult start, back in the spring of 1996 (seven matches without a victory), he has achieved that most desirable of aims for a national manager: a club spirit and style. Perhaps the very scarcity of resources helps. As St Jack observed recently, in conferring a blessing on his successor: "You can see a shape to the way the Republic play and Mick knows the players he will use if he is spared injuries and suspensions. You can't say that about England."

Even in Charlton's days, when the variety of accents in the Irish dressing- room resembled an average Premiership club, spirit was never a problem. Nowadays, they are an even tighter, more patriotic group, with less reliance on grandparents' birth certificates as young Dubliners such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Stephen Carr and Mark Kennedy have come through the ranks. The rate of drop-outs for the most mundane match is exceptionally low; a friendly against Paraguay last February was about as low-key as international football gets, yet only one player withdrew and, just as significantly, almost 28,000 turned out on a freezing night to watch. Keegan, and Wembley, should be so lucky.

So will McCarthy, the players and supporters receive their just rewards? The position in Group Eight has been a convoluted one almost since the moment it kicked off in Dublin a year ago, when Ireland received the massive boost of two goals in the first 15 minutes of their opening game against Croatia.

Had they managed to hold on as well in the return game last Saturday, instead of conceding a goal to Davor Suker four minutes into stoppage time, they would already have a play-off place guaranteed and could win the group by doing better in their final match, away to Macedonia, than Yugoslavia did at the same time in Croatia.

Now the position is more complicated, though still not unfavourable, partly because their two rivals face each other with so much - in political, as well as sporting terms - at stake. A win in Skopje would mean Ireland topping the group, unless the Yugoslavs become the first visiting team to succeed in Zagreb since Croatia regained independence nine years ago, which is, as cricketers like to say, a big ask. A draw would get them into the play-offs unless Croatia won.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it has been a demanding section, in which the Irish have performed with great credit. Given that Croatia and Yugoslavia are ranked much higher than Sweden and Poland respectively, England would certainly not have been a good bet to come through, and Keegan would undoubtedly rather be in McCarthy's boots now than waiting on the Swedes to do him a good turn.