Irish choose a smooth path

Lessons for England: Calm continuity pays off in Dublin while Scotland stride on in Zagreb
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If Dublin remains fashionably hip, one trend the Football Association of Ireland are determined to resist in their smart Georgian square is the mania for changing managers every other year. At the last count, no fewer than 10 of the 16 coaches at Euro 2000 had left their positions, including two - Portugal's Humberto Coelho and Holland's Frank Rijkaard - whose teams reached the semi-final, and one - Italy's Dino Zoff - whose team lost the final only to a golden goal. While many have argued that Kevin Keegan should have joined their ranks sooner than one match into the next qualifying campaign, the Irish experience makes a compelling case for continuity.

If Dublin remains fashionably hip, one trend the Football Association of Ireland are determined to resist in their smart Georgian square is the mania for changing managers every other year. At the last count, no fewer than 10 of the 16 coaches at Euro 2000 had left their positions, including two - Portugal's Humberto Coelho and Holland's Frank Rijkaard - whose teams reached the semi-final, and one - Italy's Dino Zoff - whose team lost the final only to a golden goal. While many have argued that Kevin Keegan should have joined their ranks sooner than one match into the next qualifying campaign, the Irish experience makes a compelling case for continuity.

Since Jack Charlton was chosen as the Republic's first "foreign" coach in February 1986, England have run through five managers and a caretaker, all with their own ideas about assistants, players and tactics; Ireland have had just one other man in charge, Charlton having been succeeded by Mick McCarthy, who played under him no fewer than 46 times. Sensible progression though it was, McCarthy was shrewd enough to realise that the Irish could not live on past glories or dated tactics, and the country had to be patient while his own ideas were put into practice.

Regarded, like Charlton, as a big centre-half with little time for the fancy stuff, he turned out as a coach to favour a more sophisticated style, employed to good effect at Millwall (somewhat to the surprise of the locals) before the move up to international level.

Turning round an ageing squad from whom direct play had been demanded for 10 years was not an easy task. When five of the first six games - fortunately all friendlies - were lost, it was necessary for the Lansdowne Road crowd to keep the faith and the FAI to keep their nerve. McCarthy has always asked to be judged on his record in competitive games, rather than friendlies with below-strength squads, and with only five defeats in 25 of them, all away from home by a single goal, is justifiably proud of the relevant figures.

There have been times when those who judge the Republic's fortunes by the standards of the most successful of the Charlton years have mooted another change of leadership. "I came into the job at a very early age, inexperienced at this level, but I don't think any other candidates were better suited," McCarthy said last week in Dublin, where the Republic maintained their excellent start to the World Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over Estonia. "You need a thick hide in a position like this. I haven't met anybody that likes being criticised, but there's no way, shape or form that criticism is likely to change me. I know the players are behind me, and that's important."

Such criticism as there has been in the past four years has tended to stem from disappointment as much as anything, when the Irish have allowed promising positions to slip away, either in matches or in qualifying groups. In the last three major competitions, they have stumbled in a play-off, once after the team had famously been 12 seconds away from a place at Euro 2000.

Press censure has often seemed harsh. The manager himself clearly shares that view and has sometimes reacted to it in a manner that, while true to his Yorkshire roots, marks him as an unsuitable case for treatment by the even less charitable English media; any editor who turned McCarthy into a root vegetable on the back page, or compared him unfavourably with a donkey on the front, would have to be brave enough to withstand the sort of challenge that knocked the stuffing out of a few centre-forwards.

"One or two things have really annoyed him," said Pat Quigley, the FAI president. "But the bulk of us have always had a lot of faith in Mick. He's a man with a mind of his own, who is very, very determined and wants to win. He plans well, seems to come up with the right team for the circumstances, and he's kept a good relationship with the players while bringing some younger ones in. We have had some very good results and we think we are heading in the right direction."

If only his opposite number at Lancaster Gate could say the same thing.

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