Public support for McCarthy

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The Independent Online
MICK McCARTHY'S rebuilt Republic of Ireland side can take command of their European Championship qualifying group by giving Malta a mauling at Lansdowne Road tonight.

Another full house provides confirmation that the team in green have captured the public's imagination again, in the wake of Jack Charlton's departure three years ago. McCarthy won only six of his first 24 matches while trying to unearth adequate replacements for the ageing Paul McGrath, John Aldridge, Ronnie Whelan and Andy Townsend.

With no Irish participation in the World Cup finals or the European Championship - almost customary under Charlton - it needed the staunch loyalty of McCarthy's employers at the Football Association of Ireland to keep him in a job. But more than 32,000 fans, encouraged by last month's impressive 2-0 victory over the World Cup semi-finalists Croatia, will be expecting a big win over Malta.

McCarthy is confident his team will stand on top of Group Eight at the end of what should be 90 one-sided minutes. "I like to think we have reached the stage now where we are a strong, first-class international squad again," he said. "We had nearly everybody fit and turning up for the Croatia game last month, just like the old days, and we came up with a terrific result. Since then we've suffered a couple of injuries but that's just another test we have to pass if we are to show what the squad is made of."

Coventry's Gary Breen and Blackburn's Jeff Kenna are recalled in defence to replace Denis Irwin and Phil Babb. But they should not be unduly troubled by the part-timers of Malta, who have not scored a goal in five previous meetings with the Republic and have won only two European Championship qualifying matches in 34 years. They are also without their leading goalscorer Carmel Busuttil, who has stayed at home because of a "family crisis."

The onus will be on the strikers Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane - the 18- year-old Wolves prodigy who is still looking for his first goal at this level - to deliver the goods.

Quinn, 32, returning to action after a back injury, remains one of the few links with the Republic's glorious past, and he said nothing will delight him more than helping new heroes like young Keane fulfil vast potential. "For raw ability and natural technique, Robbie's the best striker I've played with," he said. "And that's saying something, having had just one Ireland game together. But I believe he's that good."

Keane said: "That's good to hear from somebody like Niall who, not long ago, I could only have dreamed of playing beside for Ireland."

It is another Keane - Manchester United's Roy - who remains Ireland's key player. His goalscoring return against Croatia after nine months out with a knee injury delighted his manager. McCarthy said: "Roy's more relaxed these days and he's better for it. For me he's always been top class, though."

n A feasibility study has been commissioned for Ireland's principal milennium project: an 80,000-seat stadium catering for football, Gaelic games, rugby and athletics events.