Juggling McCarthy played straight into Belgian hands
THERE were echoes of Liam Brady's international farewell against West Germany in 1989 when Mark Kennedy was dragged off the pitch after 32 minutes at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night.
While Brady's illustrious career was drawing to an end; at 21, Kennedy's is only beginning but the parallel is there nonetheless.
In both cases, their respective managers, Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy, felt the need for a radical change. To this day, Irish fans will argue that Brady was made a scapegoat. In time, they may feel Kennedy was another.
In hauling Kennedy off, McCarthy made the glaring admission that he selected the wrong player. More than that, his decision to introduce Jeff Kenna and play a flat back four meant his midfield had to start from scratch - after half an hour of play.
GOING into the game, Steve Staunton was detailed for the anchor role, with Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend on his flanks, and Kennedy as the midfield spearhead. Gary Kelly was at right-back.
But Kennedy's withdrawal forced the other three midfielders to change their positions, and Kelly too, as McCarthy shredded his gameplan.
Did he have to? If McCarthy felt his tactical shape was right but Kennedy was wrong, why didn't he make a straight swop and put Alan McLoughlin on for the Liverpool man?
If, on the other hand, he felt the diamond formation wasn't working, why didn't he switch Kennedy to the left flank, where he is at his most effective, and leave Kelly at right-back?
To make a substitution was one thing, to completely re-shape his tactical approach was another. In making those changes, McCarthy played into the Belgian hands.
Just think how the Belgians felt at that point. Nilis has just equalised, they are riding high, and, suddenly, the Irish manager drags off Kennedy and re-structures his entire team.
Did Kennedy deserve to go? Certainly, he wasn't having the best of games, giving away possession twice, and unsure of his role on the pitch.
Yet, as one of the few players with the ability to dribble past opponents, Kennedy could have proved an asset, in my book, on the left flank where he could have inflicted most damage.
IT remains to be seen how long Kennedy will take to recover from the trauma of his substitution. But his priority is he get his club future settled and build from there.
Before the game, the Belgian press privately expressed their preference for McCarthy to play a diamond midfield formation. They felt it would play into their hands. So it proved.
For the first half hour the Irish were a man down in the engine room as Van Der Elst, Wilmots and Boffin, supported by wing backs Van Kerckhoven and Geneau, dictated play.
The signs were ominous prior to the Irwin goal and the Belgians were calling the shots at will before Nilis struck a richly deserved equaliser.
Had McCarthy run with wide players, either in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, as Belgium feared, the trend of play might have been different. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.
In fairness, when McCarthy bit the bullet and made the tactical switch, there was more pattern and passion, about the Irish play, even if scoring chances were scarce.
Physically imposing, the visitors won all the 50-50 challenges and their central defensive trio of Vidovic, Van Meir and Verstraeten excelled. How Roy Keane was missed for his ball-winning qualities.
Looking ahead, what can we expect from the Irish in Brussels? Despite the gloom and doom merchants, the tie is very much alive. As McCarthy says, it's only half-time and the scores are level.
It will take a massive effort from manager, and his players, who now realise just how formidable the Belgians are. But there are grounds for hope, if not quite optimism.
A feature of McCarthy's reign has been how well the Irish have performed away from home. In friendly games, the Irish ran the Czech Republic off the park for the first half in Prague and had the temerity to take the lead against Holland in Rotterdam.
For the serious business of World Cup qualifiers, the Irish beat Iceland and Lithuania on their own patch, and were worth at least a draw against Romania in Bucharest.
It's not beyond them to pinch a goal in Brussels on November 15 but on Wednesday's evidence, it's a tall order indeed.
MUCH debate will centre on McCarthy's selection, and strategy, in the return. He can't afford to chop and change after half an hour again.
An argument can be made for playing five across midfield and one up front. Such a lineup, which caused Romania all sorts of problems, would restrict the freedom of the Belgian wing-backs.
It might not lead to a glut of scoring chances but as Ireland managed a mere three efforts on goal, two from free-kicks and one from open play, on Wednesday night, that doesn't mean the end of the world.
All it takes is one free within striking range, or one corner, for the Irish to make the breakthrough.
Those clamouring for McCarthy's head and for new players, should hold fire. The reality is that you can only do the best with the resources you have.
Late on Wednesday night, Jack Charlton pointed out that the squad he inherited in 1986 had so much more quality than the one McCarthy found himself with.
A combination of ageing pro's, and emerging youngsters, too many of whom are stuck in the reserves (Harte and Kennedy), means the class of '97 is not in the same League as the class of '88 or '90.
Not in the same class but still 90 minutes away from a possible tilt at the World Cup finals. The last time Ireland played in Brussels, they drew 2-2. What McCarthy would give for a similar result on November 15.
My play-off XI (4-5-1) would be: Given; Kenna, Cunningham, Harte, Irwin; Kelly, Houghton, Staunton, Townsend, Kennedy; Connolly.