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Aidan Fitzmaurice: 'Mick did steady the ship but reign was mixed bag and exit came at high price for FAI'


Mixed bag: Mick McCarthy's second stint as Ireland boss was a stew of minor successes and some forgettable moments

Mixed bag: Mick McCarthy's second stint as Ireland boss was a stew of minor successes and some forgettable moments

Mixed bag: Mick McCarthy's second stint as Ireland boss was a stew of minor successes and some forgettable moments

The senior Ireland team is in a worse place today, compared to when Mick McCarthy took over.

That's not a snide assault on the record of the man who vacated his post, albeit with a €1.3million payoff to sooth that exit, over the weekend, but a statement of fact.

According to the FIFA world rankings, for all they are worth, the Irish side were ranked 33rd in the world (20th in Europe) at the time McCarthy was named manager at the end of 2018, that most brutal and dull of calendar years of international football.

McCarthy's side did rise up to 28th in the world in the later stages of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, dropped to 36th, before a minor rise up to the current standing, 34th in the world.

So the Republic of Ireland, heading into the post-McCarthy era, are one place worse off compared to when he took over.

With the €1.9m deal to pay off Martin O'Neill and his backroom team and the heavy investment into McCarthy's squad and staff over the last 16 months, a lot has been spent on getting a senior international side on the field.

And value for money has not been delivered, a place in the Euro 2020 playoffs a reward which would have come Ireland's way even if the side had finished bottom of their qualifying group.

And McCarthy's legacy will be seen as a mixed bag, a stew of minor success and some forgettable moments.

He will be remembered, and thanked, for steadying the ship somewhat in the immediate aftermath of the O'Neill/Keane era.

And, unlike the issues which arose under his predecessor, such as O'Neill being forced to apologise for using the word "queers" at a live event and the toxic fallout from Keane's role in the Stephen Ward/WhatsApp affair, McCarthy's reign was scandal-free.

Aside from the debate over how to accommodate Matt Doherty and Séamus Coleman into the same team, there was nothing approaching Liveline fodder from angry fans.

One defeat and four clean sheets in 10 games could be painted as a decent return from a limited group of players.

And McCarthy did, thankfully, end the practice, so common under Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill, where the players were frequently reminded by the Ireland manager of how bad they were as as footballers, harsh words which caused fragile confidence to shatter even more.

McCarthy turned David McGoldrick into a player of international quality, after five years of treading water and doing little, and players like Alan Browne, Conor Hourihane and John Egan found their feet at international level after struggling before then.

He recalled Glenn Whelan, a fact appreciated by the player who did not actually retire but "was retired" by someone else.

Bringing back Whelan was never going to win over the fans or pundits who derided Whelan but McCarthy knew the midfielder was would add value, and he was rewarded as Whelan delivered.

The defence, so leaky in 2018, tightened up, three clean sheets in the first four games, and a first international goal was, at last, coaxed out of McGoldrick, Hourihane and Seán Maguire.

Players who had shown less than total commitment to the cause (Harry Arter and James McCarthy) found themselves on the outside.

But it's only because the bar had been set so low in the final months of the O'Neill regime that the McCarthy era has been given an extra coat of gloss, where anything other than a 4-1 loss to Wales is seen as improvement.

There are a few items on the rap sheet for Stephen Kenny's predecessor.

Trying to fit Doherty and Coleman into the same XI was such a poser that McCarthy simply gave up, instead of trying to find a way. The experiment of playing both in Gibraltar did not work but Plan B meant keeping Doherty on the bench.

Shane Long was unable to even make the squad which strikers who were younger, but not in Long's class (James Collins), were given starts.

Narrow wins over Gibraltar were hailed as important results, the poverty of the Irish play in both ties ignored.

And while the win at home to Georgia was a rare case of Ireland outplaying the Georgians, the dull 0-0 draw in Tbilisi brought back memories, unwanted ones, of O'Neill's blunt-edged side.

And in four games against the Swiss and the Danes, Ireland never really laid a glove on their opponents, only two retaliatory equalising goals, Irish wins never in sight.

McCarthy steadied the ship and left the stage with grace and for that he is owed a debt. But that came at a very high cost.