McCarthy underdog again for Van Gaal 'reunion'
Ipswich visit to Old Trafford revives memories of Ireland's famous victory over Holland
Published 23/09/2015 | 02:30
On a famous September afternoon in Lansdowne Road, Louis van Gaal's difficulty was Mick McCarthy's opportunity.
Tonight, 14 years after a glorious Irish result which remains fresh in the memory because no game in the intervening period has come close to matching it, the managers will re-unite at Old Trafford.
Essentially, they remain in the same roles. McCarthy, as the boss of Ipswich, will travel to Manchester United's home as the underdog looking to take a down a Van Gaal side laden with superior resources.
The League Cup will not make or break the season for the distinctive personalities in the respective dug-outs - and their team selections are likely to reflect that - but their past adds an intriguing sub-plot to this encounter.
In Van Gaal's case, it will bring him face to face with the man who presided over one of the worst afternoons of his football life, a shock reverse that ensured a premature end to Holland's 2002 World Cup campaign.
"I am not even sure I really remember it," said McCarthy this week, before going into detail which suggested otherwise.
The former Republic of Ireland manager found it impossible to tell the tale of that triumph without referencing the needle that existed between the benches.
Or, to be more precise, his desperation to take down Van Gaal on account of his typically self-assured proclamations in the preliminaries.
McCarthy was wound up to the extent that he mentioned in his team talk that he wanted the chance to walk up to his opposite number after the final whistle and say 'unlucky' before toasting a victory.
"At the time I was probably an angrier young man," he reflected. "They were all booking the hotels and were all getting ready to be in the play-offs and it was us that was going out, so the whole saga started.
"Unfortunately for Louis one of you (media) will have asked him 'do you think Mick McCarthy's job will be under pressure if they lose?'
"And he will have said 'well if we win, it probably will because they will be out of the World Cup', so he will have just answered it honestly.
"Then of course I go and get the hump about it, but that is just the way it is. Now I am a bit more pragmatic and understanding of the way it all works.
"But I was annoyed because of the suggestion we had no chance of beating them and were just going to get turned over by this great Dutch side, but that didn't happen."
It meant that he got the chance for the post-match handshake he craved - an embrace that was about as comfortable as his moment with Roy Keane.
'Unlucky' was appropriate too as fortune did play a part, even if Holland's wastefulness tends to figure behind Jason McAteer's jubilant swipe of his right foot and Keane's introductory tackle on Marc Overmars in the showreel of highlights.
But another significant factor in Ireland's success was a second-half meltdown from Van Gaal that manifested itself in disastrous substitutions that succeeded in delivering a morale boost to a home side weakened by the sending-off of Gary Kelly.
In the immediate aftermath, the Irish camp were happy to share their thoughts on the baffling calls from the Dutch supremo that ultimately cost him his job.
His decision to sacrifice wingers Bolo Zenden and Overmars and introduce Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Pierre van Hooijdonk to bring his strikeforce to four - the squabbling Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistelrooy stayed on - came as a relief to green shirts running low on batteries.
On the Irish bench, they thought it was a mistake when Overmars' number flashed up. His pace and energy was the last thing they wanted to encounter with 10 men.
It was Steve Staunton, the grizzled veteran in a makeshift back four, that put it best in an interview with the Sunday Independent two months later.
"When we went down to ten men they really didn't know what to do," he said.
"They took Overmars off; I thought, 'That's good'. They took Zenden off. I thought, 'That's great'.
"He put Hasselbaink on; I thought, 'Please don't have him playing through the middle'. He went over on the right. He played Van Hooijdonk down the middle. I thought. 'Yeah, we can handle this'.
Irish back-up keeper Alan Kelly was stunned that Hasselbaink, 'who couldn't cross a ball to save his life' was sent out wide. "This technically brilliant team went long," he said.
McCarthy, who earned praise for a reshuffle to 4-4-1 which involved sacrificing Robbie Keane and using the relentless Damien Duff as a lone raider, said afterwards that the Dutch had lost their shape as a consequence of throwing strikers on, thinking it would yield a goal without considering how the opportunities would be created.
Last weekend, The Observer recounted the tale of McCarthy bumping into Van Gaal at Amsterdam airport the following summer.
Ireland were preparing for the World Cup; Van Gaal was heading for a second stint at Barcelona.
With his trademark combination of wit and self-deprecation, the Barnsley man quipped to the media that, "If the tables were turned, there's no way I'd have got Barcelona, is there?"
In football, first impressions can linger and McCarthy has spent his managerial career pigeon-holed as a figure capable of galvanising a team to become greater than the sum of their parts. His Premier League CV is basically one long relegation battle.
Van Gaal moved to the top table when he led Ajax to the Champions League trophy in 1995. He had enough credit in the bank to recover from the Dublin humiliation and stay in the elite bracket of powerful personalities that are viewed as a natural fit for the major gigs.
Dutch analysts say that his biggest regret in that period was allowing senior players to become complacent about their position, a lesson he carried forward with him.
A decade later, his country asked if he would return to take the reins again and that second chance culminated with an efficient operation reaching the semi-finals in Brazil.
It's known that McCarthy is keen on another stint in the Irish hot-seat, yet it's likely that prospect would be met with scepticism by a section of supporters.
"In his career he might not even remember me," said McCarthy, modestly, ahead of a tie where the hosts are expected to give run-outs to Andreas Pereira, James Wilson and Jesse Lingard.
"I will be shaking hands with him like I do every single manager before and after."
The legacy of 2001 will live on but the reality is that the seismic one-off result did little to alter the career path of the central characters.
Still, if McCarthy's game-plan for tonight puts Van Gaal in a position where an aerial punt to Marouane Fellaini is his Plan B, a tactic which is not unfamiliar to United regulars, the Ipswich supremo could be forgiven for allowing himself a smile.