Consistency the crucial ingredient for McCarthy

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The Independent Online

In illuminating contrast to England, who are playing tonight under their fourth manager in as many years, the Republic of Ireland are reaping the benefit of continuity and a cohesive policy. Mick McCarthy, their manager for the whole of that period, yesterday named an unchanged team for the third successive occasion, ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifying tie at home to Estonia.

In illuminating contrast to England, who are playing tonight under their fourth manager in as many years, the Republic of Ireland are reaping the benefit of continuity and a cohesive policy. Mick McCarthy, their manager for the whole of that period, yesterday named an unchanged team for the third successive occasion, ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifying tie at home to Estonia.

The game follows draws away to the Netherlands and Portugal that have shaken up Group Two and certainly shaken those two sides, who as semi-finalists at Euro 2000 were regarded as the clear favourites to dispute the one automatic qualifying position. They play each other in Rotterdam today well aware that the section is now a three-cornered contest.

As with any international side, there have been occasional bumps along the way since McCarthy took the steering wheel in February 1996 from Jack Charlton, whose 10 years in control were also testimony to the value of a consistent policy. Failing to reach the last two major tournaments by the narrowest of margins did not provoke panic, the Football Association of Ireland having stuck by their appointee to the extent of awarding him a new contract immediately after losing a World Cup play-off to Belgium, and doing so again before the end of the last European Championship campaign, which resulted in another play-off defeat, this time by an away goal against Turkey.

Despite those results, McCarthy is happy to be judged on his record in competitive games, which shows 10 wins, nine draws and only five defeats, each away from home and each by a single goal. Without wanting to draw direct comparisons with his country of birth, the adopted Tyke said yesterday: "If I'd gone after the last qualifying campaign, somebody else would have come in and changed things but there wouldn't have been continuity. Maybe people are being rewarded for being patient and showing faith in me. And maybe I'm reaping the rewards for showing faith in players. I knew the players were with me and that the public supported me as well. If I'd been hounded by the public, that would have been a different question."

The same principles clearly apply to team selection, which has remained as consistent as injuries, withdrawals and nocturnal pranks allow [Mark Kennedy and Phil Babb have not been considered for any of this season's three games following their alleged antics on top of a police woman's car in Dublin]. Naming an unchanged team was "an easy decision" McCarthy said in the wake of the 1-1 draw against Portugal on Saturday, which followed a 2-2 draw in the Netherlands that ought to have been a victory.

"We've played well enough to keep the same side," he added "If I was to leave anyone out, they'd wonder what was going on. Three times in a row gives players much confidence and continuity."

Charlton's Mark Kinsella, who formed a formidable defensive screen alongside Roy Keane in Amsterdam and Lisbon admitted that the gamble of agreeing to begin the campaign by playing the two hardest games first had initially looked "frightening". As he said: "It could have been the group all over and done with, but now it's a real plus point having the two toughest games behind us."

Two plus points to be precise, to which should be added three from Estonia, who have taken the opposite fixture route and got in two narrow wins over Andorra on either side of a home defeat by Portugal.

Derby County's Mart Poom, who wins a 75th cap tonight, remains the only one of their players with much of a reputation outside Tallinn, and even his form - 19 goals conceded in eight Premiership games - does not bode well. He is as keen to keep a clean sheet for the first time this season as Kinsella is to break his duck of 18 internationals without scoring and Niall Quinn is to beat Frank Stapleton's Irish record of 20 goals at last.

"A 0-0 draw is our dream," Poom said. The Irish will have nightmares for the next five if he is allowed to achieve it.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Kelly (Blackburn); Carr (Tottenham), Breen (Coventry), Dunne (Everton), Harte (Leeds); McAteer (Blackburn), Roy Keane (Man Utd), Kinsella (Charlton), Kilbane (Sunderland); Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Inter).

ESTONIA (4-4-2): Poom (Derby); Allas, Stepanov, Saviauk (all Flora Tallinn), Lamsalu (Tulevik Viljandi); Viikimae (Valerenga), Anniste (Flora Tallinn), Reim (Kotkan), Terehhov (Brann Bergen); Zelinski (Lahti), Oper (Aalborg).

Referee: T Hauge (Norway).

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