Mick McCarthy likes to jest that it is just as well for him the Republic of Ireland did not qualify for the last World Cup, because 50 per cent of the coaches who did were sacked after the tournament. It is a good Irish joke, but in reality the manager was more desperately disappointed than anyone that Belgium edged out his team by three goals to two in a play-off, a sentiment compounded two years later when Turkey put them out at the same stage of the European Championship on an away goal.
Now the Nearly Man has become the Really Man and Ireland are back in the limelight, confident enough about the country's football and the Celtic Tiger economy to have joined forces with Scotland in a joint bid to stage Euro 2008. At least that would spare them the agonies of another qualifying campaign, a process which, whether successful or not, has rarely been straightforward.
Even back in 1988, when Jack Charlton first sprung his direct football on an unsuspecting international football world, it took a late goal by Scotland against Bulgaria to get the Irish through to a major championship at last and start the (long) ball rolling. McCarthy was his centre-half and lieutenant in those days, and remained so as captain at Italia '90, when the team managed only two goals in five games yet returned home as heroes after a narrow quarter-final defeat by the hosts in Rome. Four years later in the United States, scoring potential was even thinner with Niall Quinn injured, and Charlton's team went out to the Netherlands in the second round amid the fierce heat of Florida. Having inherited an ageing squad from a national hero early in 1996, McCarthy's task was never going to be easy. There was much grumbling when he went seven games without a victory, losing five of his first six, but they were all insignificant friendlies. He was trying out new, younger players and a different system – flirting early on with 3-5-2 – and, above all, developing a passing game at odds with his image as a rough, tough centre-half.
After six years he now regards the team as his own, while still acknowledging lessons learnt from Charlton, notably in the matter of loyalty to players. McCarthy has never forgotten being called up regularly even while playing for Millwall reserves, which is why his squad is essentially the same one that came undefeated through a daunting qualifying group in which Portugal and the Netherlands were the fancied runners. "If you're loyal to people, you get it back in spades," he said on announcing 23 tried and trusted names for Japan. If only one of those – Roy Keane – demanded inclusion in the category of world-class, there are two others, Shay Given and Steve Finnan, who also earned recognition from their peers in the PFA Premiership team of the season (England had only two players), as well as abundant experience throughout the first-choice team. Having blooded youngsters early, McCarthy also has more energy and exuberance available to him than Charlton, notably in his preferred striking partnership of Robbie Keane, 21, and Damien Duff, 23, who despite their tender years have almost 60 caps between them.
The Sunderland pair Jason McAteer and Kevin Kilbane will supply the service from the flanks, as they are used to doing for Quinn, who hopes his back will hold up long enough to offer a different tactical option from the substitutes' bench. In midfield Roy Keane's absence will mean starts for Charlton's Mark Kinsella and Ipswich's Matt Holland, two players who established themselves while in the Nationwide League and then flourished as Premiership players. Finnan and Ian Harte are adventurous full-backs, the latter capable of impressing the world with his dead-ball accuracy. But how they and the rest of the defence stand up to forwards with real pace, breaking and inter-changing quickly, will largely determine how well Ireland fare. Whichever combination of Gary Breen, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton and Richard Dunne is chosen will rely on cunning rather than speed; the Netherlands and Portugal should each have scored several goals in Dublin, yet eventually managed no more than one between them. The theory that heat and humidity will again undermine the Irish effort may, however, be over-pessimistic. Of their three group matches, two take place in the evening and, in any case, McCarthy is adamant that his team can slow the pace and pass the ball around when they need to. He has even suggested, rather bullishly, that a group involving Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia is no stronger than the one Ireland qualified from, as well as insisting: "The other teams don't concern me. It's not about them, it's about how we perform and prepare." It might have been Saint Jack himself speaking.
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