Mick McCarthy, Republic of Ireland manager

Irish find an ace to follow their Jack
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The Independent Football

There's no mistaking Mick McCarthy, even across the length of an airport concourse, when he comes striding towards you. Slightly bow-legged, but otherwise ramrod-straight as a sergeant-major on the parade ground, the head which has made a million clearances staring straight before him purposefully, he stands out from the crowd. At Stansted Airport, where we have agreed to meet, Irish travellers among the crowd lay their hands on anything on which to demand his signature.

Fortunately, on this occasion there is no baring of buttocks for that honour, as once happened to him in a bar in Valetta, Malta, after Jack Charlton's Ireland, of which he was captain, had secured their place in the 1990 World Cup. But otherwise anything will do. "Well done," a woman assails the Republic of Ireland manager, as she thrusts a carton containing a whiskey bottle for him to dedicate to her father. "Everyone in Ireland thinks you're great." He looks faintly embarrassed. "You'd never get tired of that, would you?" he says quietly, those strong Yorkshire vowels never diluted by contamination with the south of England, where he lives.

How the attitude towards him has changed. Initially, there was uncertainty about his capabilities, a man capped 57 times for Ireland, but one whose management experience amounted to four years at Millwall. Failure to qualify for France 98 or Euro 2000 provoked more doubt. But in this World Cup qualifying campaign, four results have reversed those impressions. Holland 2 Ireland 2; Portugal 1 Ireland 1; Ireland 1 Portugal 1; and Ireland 1 Holland 0.

It was the latest, victory over the Dutch – confirming a play-off against, as it transpired, Iran – that led to the unofficial re-naming of Lansdowne Road as Shay Stadium, in tribute to Ireland's goalkeeper, Shay Given. In fact, there are some who would contend that it ought to become McCarthy Park.

"That Holland game was the greatest moment of my career," he says. "Because of the result, the occasion, the pressure and coming through with 10 men, although maybe getting beat 1-0 in Iran [which was sufficient to earn Ireland a World Cup place] gave me the most pleasure because that was a really good, mature performance." At the BBC's recent Sports Review of the Year awards, he would surely have claimed the "coach of the year" accolade if it hadn't been for a certain Sven Goran Eriksson. Some may suggest McCarthy should have won it anyway. "It's been Sven's year, hasn't it," he says. "At least it was in my hands all through the campaign. Sven came in when England were at the bottom of the group and he's just turned it around completely."

He adds: "I see Sven at games and he seems to have a real air of calmness about him. Maybe that was the problem at first with me. You snarl at the media because you're passionately and emotionally involved if you're an Englishman managing England or an Irishman managing Ireland, which despite my broad Yorkshire accent is the way I feel [he is the product of an Irish father and English mother], and you can take it all so personally. It can end up with a siege mentality. And he's changed that." It will probably require an appearance in the World Cup final before McCarthy is sanctified like his predecessor, Jack Charlton. But the belief that Ireland possess sufficient quality and managerial acumen to advance beyond the first round has created a revered figure.

Not that everyone necessarily concurs with such sentiments. "Somebody sent me a cutting recently, saying to the effect that I have got a chance of doing well in the World Cup, 'having done so much over the last 15 months to erase the considerable doubts about his managerial qualities'. The tone was 'It's amazing how he's done so well'. I thought 'Come on lads, give us a break'." He adds: "Right from the Holland game, 18 months ago, we were expected to get beat there, the same when we went to Portugal. There's sometimes doubts levelled at me, always doubts levelled at my players. Jason McAteer, is he good enough? Gary Breen, is he good enough? All that stuff. And it annoys me. I fall out with people having a go at my players rather than what they say about me personally. I've developed a thick skin to that."

McCarthy, 42, entered management just under a decade ago, after a playing career with Barnsley, for whom he played 272 League games. Following periods at Manchester City, Celtic and Lyon, he arrived at Millwall, where he was appointed player-manager. Charlton, with whom he has always enjoyed an affinity, had already observed his potential on international duty. "What made him [McCarthy] special were his competitive qualities and his ability to motivate others around him," he once observed. "On the park, McCarthy made sure my instructions were carried out to the last detail." According to myth, McCarthy worked down the mines before he became a footballer. That is not strictly the truth. "I would have worked at the pit – I was waiting for a job as an electrician – if I hadn't signed for Barnsley. Still, it makes the story better, doesn't it? 'Mick McCarthy, the man who made it from Barnsley miner to international football manager'."

It is typical of his self-deprecation. He recalls his first game in charge at The Den. "It was against Port Vale, and we were winning 1-0 at half-time. I got as far as, 'Right lads, well done... er' and my mouth dried up completely. I had kicked every ball and none of it had sunk in. Thank God, I had Ian Evans with me who dug me out of a hole and did the team talk." He has continued to value Evans highly. The pair played alongside each other at Oakwell and the former Welsh international remains his assistant. "I'd say that without Ian, I wouldn't be here now."

When Charlton abdicated from the Ireland job, McCarthy was the obvious replacement, although he concedes he wasn't ready-made material. "At first, I wasn't an international manager. I had just four years experience. I've no problem saying that, although I wouldn't have admitted it at the time or I might not have got the job." When the adventure ends, McCarthy makes no secret of his desire to return to club management. "I'd love to manage in the Premiership," he says. "My six years as an international manager have given me an excellent grounding at dealing with top players and tactics."

For the moment, though, the World Cup, and Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia beckon. The belief is genuine that, with the likes of the two Keanes, Roy and Robbie, Matt Holland and Niall Quinn, Ireland can venture beyond the first phase and emulate Charlton's team in 1990 and 1994. "If we perform as well as we have done, and there's no reason why we shouldn't, we've got an opportunity to get through this group. We've got a good team if everyone's fit."

He still hasn't watched the video of England's 5-1 defeat of Germany. "I came off after Holland, had a couple of pints and was fast asleep, I was knackered. But I'll have a look at it and I'll speak to Sven."

The Swede will presumably offer encouragement that Germany will be vulnerable when Ireland meet them on 5 June. In his quiet way, McCarthy is clearly exhilarated by the prospect. Signing another autograph, he is aware that a nation expects. But after a year like this, so does he.