McCarthy ready to emulate an Irish legend

'We thought that if we could split Holland and Portugal and finish in a play-off, it would be fantastic... but to win it, that would be awesome'
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Where else might you expect to find the home of an Irishman with a broad Barnsley accent but in south-east London? A smart detached house in a Bromley cul-de-sac is, accordingly, where I meet long, lean Mick McCarthy, who on Saturday has a chance of becoming the second most popular Republic of Ireland manager of recent times.

If the Irish beat the mighty Dutch in Dublin, they will become strong favourites to finish top of World Cup qualifying Group Two, which includes the mighty Portuguese.

"When the draw was made we thought that if we could split Holland and Portugal and finish in a play-off, it would be fantastic," says McCarthy. "By the way, it still would. But to win it, that would be awesome."

Too true, for Ireland copped a much tougher draw than England, but as McCarthy says: "Whether you think it's tough depends on whether you're a football manager, or a travel agent."

This is a reference not only to the current campaign but also to the group from which Ireland narrowly failed to qualify for Euro 2000. "Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Croatia, during the Balkan War, was not exactly what we had in mind," he says. "We weren't happy about flying into Croatia, but someone from Uefa told us we had to, and that we'd be OK because we weren't on the missile path. He said: 'It's all right, the scuds are going the other way.' "

McCarthy chuckles. He is a hugely engaging character, with a droll south Yorkshire wit and a neat turn of phrase. I whip out two tape recorders – one as insurance in case the other blows a gasket. "Bloody hell," says McCarthy with a twinkle. "It's professionalism run wild."

In fact, he of all people should appreciate the belt-and-braces approach to technology, his attempt to videotape the recent friendly between England and the Netherlands having failed dismally. "I should have got the kids to do it," he says, assuring me that he will get hold of the tape from one of the BBC lads.

"I have watched their 2-2 draw with Portugal, which will tell me more than the friendly against England. But, in any case, I'd sooner they worry about us at home than us change our game. I've never had anyone man-marked... Hagi, Bergkamp, whoever, at home especially."

Nonetheless, he cheerfully concedes that the Dutch will be wound up and raring to go on Saturday. "It's a massive game. Because if we win, they'll be out of it."

In which case, McCarthy might finally emerge from the long shadow cast by his predecessor and good friend, Jack Charlton. He has had big boots to fill these last five years, I observe. "I've got big feet," he says with the ghost of a smile. He does not always thank journalists for harking back to the Charlton era, so I change the subject. Will he talk to his captain, Roy Keane, about how best to stifle the midfielder's new team-mate, Ruud van Nistelrooy?

"I will, but you can get too wrapped up in that, to be perfectly honest. What if Roy says: 'Phwoar, he's a great player, with a great touch, great pace, good in the air, great goalscorer.' What do I tell my two centre-halves? That he's hopeless?

"I used to get that from managers. 'Watch this guy, he's quick, he's good in the air, good left-foot, good right-foot...', and I used to think: 'What am I doing out here?'

"If we start going through that Dutch team and working out what their strengths are... " Point taken. "They've got Reizeger, Stam, Van Bronckhorst, Cocu, Overmars, Zenden, Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy – and if he comes off, they've got Hasselbaink, Van Hooijdonk..."

Put it like that and the Irish might as well throw in the towel right now, except of course that in Amsterdam they led 2-0 and dominated the game for an hour before the Dutch got two back. McCarthy's team, like Charlton's, seems to have settled into the happy habit of over-achieving. "We have a great collective spirit," says the manager. "I know it's a cliché but there's always been that passion to play for Ireland, and I think there's a humility about the team which I've always liked.

"I don't like it when we get too ahead of ourselves. We've got no big stars – even Keane is just one of the lads when he plays for Ireland. It was the same with Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O'Leary. The biggest star then was Big Jack."

Big Jack, indeed, was once informed by the Irish President that the only thing preventing his canonisation was the technicality that he was still breathing.

What was it like, I ask McCarthy, to witness a human-being turning into an icon? I have heard, for instance, that there is a statue of him at Cork Airport. "Yeah, it's incredible. He's sitting there with a fishing rod, and the shoulder is gleaming from where people have sat and had their photo taken with him.

"When Jack took over his team could have walked down O'Connell Street in green tracksuits and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Now we'd get recognised if we walked along in full disguise. He's a legend, and he deserves it."

McCarthy, though, has never been in thrall to the legend. He was Charlton's captain and designated successor, but dispensed immediately with "route one" tactics and got the team building from the back in 3-5-2 formation.

"I was Jack's most loyal disciple. His system was working, and if something works you don't question it. But a lot of the players were getting on and I didn't know whether we could cope, legs-wise, in the middle. As it turned out, 3-5-2 didn't work. The clubs were all flirting with it at the time, but there were some seeds of doubt among the older players so we went back to 4-4-2. It's still different to the way we used to play, though."

It took McCarthy two years, he reckons, to acclimatise to the rarefied air of international management. Before he got the Irish job he had been managing Millwall. Suddenly there was nowhere to go of a Thursday morning.

"I'd take the kids to school, then come back here and have a cup of tea, or go for a run, or get on my bike, and I felt as guilty as sin. It took quite a while to get over that guilt complex, not having something to do, somewhere to go. The frustrations used to get to me."

Still, he put his spare time to good use by writing to every League club, asking whether they had any players eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland. "The first reply was from Rangers. I saw the funny side of that, but I also thought it was very professional of them.

"They said they didn't have anyone who qualified for the Republic of Ireland, and I thought: 'No, I didn't think so, somehow.' In fact, I didn't find out about anyone I didn't already know about. One or two 16-year-olds maybe. But I still look through teams for the Irish names.

"There was a Kevin O'Connor playing for Brentford the other day, and my mate says: 'I wonder if he's Irish?' I say: 'I don't know, but he's not going to be playing against Holland even if he is.' The quest to find players has been put on the back burner a bit."

He owes his own Irishness to his father, who died earlier this year. At Christmas they watched Angela's Ashes together and McCarthy asked the old man whether his own childhood, in County Waterford, had been full of such deprivation. "He said he went to school in his bare feet, too, but it didn't matter because his school was only 100 yards away. I said: 'Dad, that's not really the point.' "

McCarthy tells me this story by way of explaining why his father emigrated to Barnsley half a century ago, though even after making the grade as a professional footballer – for Barnsley – McCarthy junior gave no consideration to which country he might play for.

"I was fairly confident, but I'd have to have been arrogant beyond belief to think that I might end up playing international football when I was turning out against Halifax at The Shay on a wet Tuesday evening," he says. "Then Allan Clarke came to the club and asked me who I qualified to play for.

"When I said England or Ireland, he told Johnny Giles, who was Ireland manager at the time. Nothing came of it, which doesn't surprise me because Gilesy didn't rate me even when I did play for Ireland."

McCarthy finally won the first of his 57 caps under Eoin Hand and in due course became a stalwart of the team that performed so heroically in the 1988 European Championship, which is where he first encountered the Dutch – the Dutch team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.

"We played very well," he recalls. "We lost 1-0 to a Wim Kieft deflected goal after 78 minutes." A chuckle. "Not that I remember it well. We were excellent at stopping other teams playing, the best. We played the ball into channels, up to the big fellas, then got up behind them, squeezed and pressed, and there was an honesty and a work ethic about the team that's still there. We were one of the first to show that teams like that, with good players but not household names, could compete at the very top.

"Since then Norway have done similar. If you have a system, and people that fit into that system, and work very hard at it, then you're in with a chance in any walk of life."

Such is the philosophy that McCarthy will take into Saturday's game, with players such as Richard Dunne barely famous even in their own households. The Manchester City defender has stepped down a division since he made a fine international debut, against the Netherlands, but McCarthy will keep faith with him. "I tend to look at what they've done for me, not for their clubs, and Richard Dunne has done fantastically. That rubbed off from Big Jack. Towards the end of my career I was in Millwall reserves for 12 months, maybe longer, but he never dropped me."

Dunne played for City on Monday, a fixture McCarthy could have done without, just as Sven Goran Eriksson could have done without the Bolton v Liverpool game. "Richard Dunne might not have the same ring to his name as Michael Owen," says McCarthy, "but to me he does."

He thinks the Liverpool game should have been postponed. "Television has been wonderful for the game. But the TV people would have been the first berating Eriksson if England had lost five players on Monday and then lost to Germany."

McCarthy's name was one of those tossed into the ring during the search for an England coach to succeed Kevin Keegan, but he scoffs at the notion. "I do look at their squad sometimes, when I've got Quinny injured, and look at Owen, Fowler, Heskey, Cole... but then maybe that choice just gives him more headaches. No, I don't fancy that job. And, by the way, I think he's done wonderfully so far. He's brought calm to the team because he's not emotionally involved."

I ask McCarthy whether he would like, one day, to return to club management. "Yeah, definitely. Because no job in football is forever, and I miss the daily involvement with the players. I miss Saturday afternoons, and the elation, even the frustration and devastation, of club management."

After Barnsley, McCarthy played for Manchester City, Celtic, Lyon and Millwall. But Barnsley's is still the first result he looks for on a Saturday. Where, I wonder, would he rather be installed as manager – Oakwell or Old Trafford? "Oh, I'm as ambitious as anybody else. I'd love an opportunity to manage a team that could win the Champions' League."

Though I don't think we should take that as a job application. As McCarthy says: "To me, at the moment, there's no date on the calendar after September."

Should his boys beat the Netherlands on that date, I venture, and then prosper in the World Cup, he might yet find a statue of himself, perhaps in Waterford Airport, perhaps on a bike. He chuckles. "I'm not looking for that kind of status," he says. All the same, I don't think he'd object.