Monday 27 March 2017

Aidan O'Hara: Koeman and O’Neill spat leaves McCarthy in no-win situation

Austria clash unlikely but the damage may already be done

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Soon after Hamilton's James McCarthy had declared his intention to play for Ireland rather than Scotland, journalist Phil Mac Giolla Bhain went to see him play against St Mirren.

On his blog, Mac Giolla Bhain documented what he had heard from the St Mirren supporters which he believed was blatant racism and, when he asked a police officer whether he too was aware what was going on, the response was simply, "yeah, he gets a bit of stick doesn't he?" which Mac Giolla Bhain adds, was "said with a slight giggle".

McCarthy was similarly phlegmatic about the incident which was probably expected but, especially for a 17-year-old, can't have been pleasant.

"Yeah I heard it [the abuse]," said McCarthy. "But I just keep my head down and try to block it out."

Sadly, even as a 25-year-old with 41 senior caps to his name, his approach is going to have to be the same this week.

For most players, being part of international football is a relatively straightforward process. Either you're good enough to be picked among the best players in your country or you're not and that's pretty much the end of the story.

Depending on the cause celebré of the day, certain players become better by actually not playing and it's difficult to believe, given the level of criticism he has endured in the past few seasons, that McCarthy was once that player.

It's five and a half years since a mixture of excitement and relief spread around the Aviva Stadium when he replaced Robbie Keane with three minutes remaining of the Euro 2012 qualifier against Macedonia and finally played a competitive game for Ireland.

A hard-working, good-passing 20-year-old Premier League midfielder was just what we could build a team around and the fact that he had chosen us over Scotland made it all the sweeter given our desire as a nation to be told how great we are by those who didn't grow up here.

In terms of making a decision about which country he wanted to represent and then being abused for that choice, McCarthy has been forced to endure far more than almost any of his international team-mates, with Aiden McGeady in a similar predicament.

Last week, however, Ronald Koeman and Martin O'Neill would have given McCarthy cause to go back to his teenage coping mechanism of just hoping things will work out if he just keeps his head down.

Both managers have spent far more time than they would like discussing McCarthy's fitness and are showing signs of becoming irritated. But when both place the onus on the player, it's unlikely to be of benefit to anyone.

"James has declared himself fit. Remarkably, he trained the day the manager was bleating about it," said O'Neill, in his classic style of a dead-pan dig.

It's difficult to know whether Koeman's English language training included the verb "to bleat" as an insult, but it's very unlikely that O'Neill's message was lost in translation.

Before the game against Chelsea, Koeman re-iterated his desire for McCarthy to pull out of the Ireland squad

"We [he and McCarthy] spoke about this - what is the best, what we want and what I want," Koeman said." I think finally the player by himself is the same - he likes to play for Everton and play good for Everton. Then, of course, you get your call for the international team. But it starts with playing for Everton.

"It's always difficult because the player is between Ireland and Everton. But I think, first of all, you need to do what is the best for your club. If you are fit, you play for your nation - he needs to be fit first. If not, he will struggle again."

It's a peculiar approach being taken by both managers to pile pressure upon the player who now finds himself in a no-win situation.

Had Koeman not said what he did, McCarthy could have pulled out of the Ireland squad through injury - or any other game in the future - just as hundreds of players have done in the past and nobody would have thought any more about it. Instead, the scenario has been created by Koeman that the player has chosen to put his club first ahead of a crucial qualifier for his country which opens up the possibility for anyone so inclined to believe McCarthy has been unpatriotic - something he would hope to have left behind him as a teenager.

It's not Koeman's job to win games for Ireland any more than it is O'Neill's to win games for Everton and McCarthy's absence from a midfield thoroughly over-run by Chelsea could go one of two ways.

In normal circumstances, an important player returning from injury would be put straight back into the team but if McCarthy were to go against Koeman's wishes and even train with Ireland, he could "struggle" and the Dutchman doesn't seem the sort to shrug off having his authority challenged.

This, after all, is a manager who told Oumar Niasse - a £13.5million signing last February - that he was not wanted at the club after one 45-minute appearance in pre-season. In an interview with the Guardian last month, Niasse revealed how he had been ordered to train with the club's under-23s and doesn't even have a locker to put his gear into while he does that.

McCarthy isn't likely to suffer the same fate but a 25-year-old with more than 400 senior appearances can quickly develop a reputation of being injury-prone or having too many miles on the clock if that's the route Koeman wants to take to make his point.

McCarthy's "head-down" approach and attempts to let his football do the talking has created a persona that makes him a soft target whenever a team is in need of a scapegoat.

What he has always had, however, is support from managers but getting his head down and trying to please both O'Neill and Koeman doesn't look like it's going to work this time.

Irish Independent

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