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McCarthy has to get balance right

Long must get recall as lack of goals still a problem for Ireland

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Southampton’s Shane Long in action against Aston Villa. Photo: Matthew Childs

Southampton’s Shane Long in action against Aston Villa. Photo: Matthew Childs

Southampton’s Shane Long in action against Aston Villa. Photo: Matthew Childs

It's the balancing act which Mick McCarthy has to try and get right for as long as he is in the dugout as Republic of Ireland manager.

Just 28 days out from a game in Slovakia which could be a mere staging post for his team on the way to qualification for Euro 2020, or the grim end to his second spell as Irish manager, McCarthy has much to occupy his mind.

If he's a glass-half-full man he will be greatly encouraged by the form of his strikers, as recent weeks have seen Shane Long, Scott Hogan and Callum Robinson score goals with the kind of regularity which eluded them for long spells, their upsurge in form a welcome antidote to the downgrading of Troy Parrott at Tottenham by Jose Mourinho.

Hogan has scored almost as many league goals in the last few weeks as he did in the previous 18 months. Long had gone for 18 games without a goal for Southampton but has claimed three goals in his last six matches, earning the praise of his club manager and, almost certainly, a new contract and McCarthy now has no choice but to end the exile which Long has suffered for a year.

Blossomed

Meanwhile, Sheffield United's unlikely rise in the Premier League standings, to within sight of European qualification, had taken place without much of a contribution from Robinson, their summer signing, but he has blossomed on loan to WBA, scoring two goals in the last two games.

All good news for McCarthy... until he glances at the other end of the field. His goalkeeper (Darren Randolph) hasn't played in a month and may not play again this season, for a club who are steamrolling their way to relegation. His first-choice left-backs are either injured (Enda Stevens) or out of favour (Séamus Coleman).

And should anything happen to the central defensive axis of Shane Duffy and John Egan, those next in line are injured short-term (Ciarán Clark) or long-term (Richard Keogh) or worryingly under-used (Kevin Long's two minutes of Premier League action all season).

Raiding the U21 squad to fill out his senior squad for the likes of Conor Masterson is not likely - expect Alex Pearce to get a recall before Masterson is blooded at senior level - and QPR's Ryan Manning will probably have to wait for Stephen Kenny's arrival to get a senior cap.

But there are enough ingredients at the back to force McCarthy into planning against a Slovakia squad which has been given a shot in the arm by some recent good form.

Forward Robert Bozenik is taking to life in Holland with Feyenoord (two goals in two games) and even the continued good form of Matt Doherty at Wolves is not enough to compensate.

Scoring goals was a problem in the group stage. McCarthy used six strikers in the campaign but just one of them (David McGoldrick) scored and he found the net just once, McCarthy was starved of options.

That's why this revival with the Irish Strikers' Club is timely for McCarthy. His view of Long, now Ireland's third-highest scorer in the history of the Premier League, was made clear when the Southampton man could not even make it into squads, a plodder like Luton's James Collins picked ahead of Long.

For McCarthy to ignore Long now and omit him from his squad would be a disgrace, so Long is due back in the panel as he enjoys the fruits of patience and hard work at Southampton. "I feel like I've been playing well lately and it's nice to get a few goals to back that up," says Long.

Hogan's current run of form is clearly pleasing to the player and supporters of his current club but baffling to fans and staff at his previous club, while those at his parent club (Aston Villa) had long stopped caring or asking about Hogan who has done nothing in a Villa shirt since a big-money transfer from Brentford.

He scored just three times in 15 games for Stoke City, on paper not the worst ratio but in reality it was a grim time: after scoring twice on his home debut for Stoke, in August, he managed one goal in the following four months.

It was such a bad move for all parties involved that Stoke cancelled what was supposed to be a season-long deal and arranged the footballing equivalent of a sub-let, moving Hogan on to Birmingham City.

Where he was an instant success, scoring on his debut. He's managed four goals in five games and Birmingham have not lost any time he's played. Fans of Villa, Birmingham City's bitter rivals who are still paying a chunk of his wages, look on with confusion.

Plots

Hogan remarked this week that he previously had a good relationship with compatriot David McGoldrick at club level, at Sheffield United and that will be in McCarthy's mind as he plots a course for Bratislava.

McGoldrick starts in Bratislava, if fit, even ahead of Long, so could that past partnership with Hogan, as well as Hogan's youth , see him shunted into the side and asked to prove himself after an unflattering career in green to date?

"I'll always back myself. With regular games, I will always score regular goals at this level and I'm getting regular games," Hogan said this week.

With one international goal between them, a McGoldrick/Hogan collaboration would not strike fear into a Slovakian defence marshalled by Inter Milan stalwart Milan Skriniar, and a seat on the bench would be hard to take for Long.

But with so many issues at the back, McCarthy can only hope that something goes his way up front.


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