Departing Mick the victim of McCarthyism - Irish style
THE instant gratification tendency won't remember this, but there was a warm June night when the Republic of Ireland's footballers came home from Korea to be greeted by more than 100,000 Dubliners.
They assembled in Phoenix Park to pay homage to a team from a nation of 3.6 million souls who had reached the last 16 at a World Cup only to lose on penalties to Spain.
The lynching of Mick McCarthy as Ireland's manager sent me back to the World Cup reports. Monday, June 17: the Daily Telegraph leads its sports supplement with a slab of photographic pathos - McCarthy with his big Barnsley hand clenched on the shoulder of Matt Holland, one of the four Irishmen to miss from the penalty spot. Next day: the manager consoles Holland, Ian Harte, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane.
"Their abiding memory of the World Cup will be of missing a penalty and it shouldn't be that," McCarthy says. "It should be how well they've played, how well they've conducted themselves and how much they've achieved."
As England rolled on towards their own denouement, against Brazil, those of us still left in Japan and Korea filed a single thought about McCarthy's Ireland and their adventures against Germany, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia and Spain. It was that Dublin would be welcoming a group of men who had lost their captain and best player and been dragged through hell's own media inquest only to emerge as a ferocious fighting force: a band of brothers, pre-eminent, for long phases, against the superior armouries of Germany and Spain.
When the plane touched down, of course, it was without Roy Keane, the great Irish patriot and reformed hellraiser who continues to see no self-contradiction in his lectures about "professionalism" (even though, Keane, in his drinking days, was hardly a model of monkish dedication). And as McCarthy took the garlands, he was within his rights to proclaim Ireland one of the world's most successful 16 teams. The 14th best, in fact, for that was where the Republic stood in the FIFA rankings when the pro-Roy and anti-Mick factions finally sunk their fangs into the legs of Europe's longest-serving international manager. Not so long ago, Ireland were in 57th place.
The McCarthy-ite witch-hunts of the 1950s were directed at supposed Communist sympathisers in American society - and here we have a neat inversion of that frenzy. This time a McCarthy is the victim. Keane's obvious triumph in seeing off a manager who had the temerity to ask him to subsume his raging egocentricity for the good of the team is only part of the story. The Republic's problem, it seems to me, is not too little success but too much. Few countries (England, maybe, being one) are carting round such delusions of grandeur.
The hallucinations started when Jack Charlton's long-ball batterers brought Ireland crashing out of international obscurity. The 1994 World Cup in the United States permanently warped expectations in an upwardly mobile country with a rampantly expanding economy.
Never mind that not a single member of this last Irish World Cup squad drew wages in the weak domestic leagues. Never mind that football has to compete with rugby and the Gaelic sports for the attentions of the young. And while they were hauling McCarthy in front of the un-Irish activities committee, they ignored the fact that the Republic's population is about one third of London's. They draw a veil, too, over the head-count that shows there to be only 180,000 footballers in Ireland - schoolboys included.
Nobody is saying that Irish football should go through life like Uriah Heep, ever so 'umble and expecting nothing beyond a good drink and a song. Any coach that can lay claim to Shay Given, Stephen Carr, Steve Finnan, Damien Duff and the Keanes, Robbie and Roy (when willing), is disqualified from claiming parity with San Marino, or even Scotland. But if anyone can persuade me that McCarthy's record since 1996 justified the constant hounding which ended with him losing the will to fight on then I will cut every blade of grass in Tipperary with a pair of nail clippers.
As an assortment of masochists line-up to replace him, it's worth reciting that McCarthy won 18 and drew 13 of his 40 competitive matches. He won or drew 48 of his 68 games overall. When Big Jack's barnstormers started to stiffen up with age, McCarthy oversaw the transition to a fresher, more sophisticated playing style and made men of a handful of gifted boys.
The gloating on Keane's behalf yesterday could not conceal rebellious yelps from McCarthy's many admirers inside the squad. Jason McAteer, who had the guts and the wit to stand up to Keane at Sunderland earlier this season, was their chief spokesman. "Two words spring to mind in all this - loyalty and weakness," McAteer remarked. "And the FAI are weak. Mick hasn't quit, he's been sacked, and it's desperately sad."
Footballers are pragmatic, and the chances are that if the Irish FA appoint someone the players like then the cones will come out as normal, and they will get on with the job of salvaging Ireland's Euro 2004 campaign.
But it's hard to suppress the suspicion that Irish football has stepped out of this with a badly bruised soul. McCarthy's downfall will live on in the Irish sub-conscious. At work, all of us have to be exposed just once to betrayal for our faith in our leaders to be disfigured beyond repair. Today we welcome Ireland's football community to the ranks of those who need to look over their shoulders.
Irish football has fired itself out of a cannon into the machiavellian world inhabited by most national associations. McCarthy is not the first leading figure in recent days to lose his job unjustifiably. Adam Crozier, of the English FA, beat him to it. The difference, naturally, is that our FA never had any innocence to lose. "We were strong in our backing of Mick (during the Keane saga) and we were fully behind the manager despite the last two defeats (against Russia and Switzerland)," Brendan Menton, the FAI's general secretary said on Tuesday night. Now the FAI will doubtless be fully behind the rolling out of a red carpet for Keane. Whether McCarthy suffered death by superstar or media campaign, there were at least plenty of true Irishmen willing to speak the truth. "Some people weren't happy with his appointment - and they've been after him ever since," said Ray Houghton, holder of 73 caps. "If you ring the players and ask them how they feel, they won't be happy at all."
Former Ireland boss Eoin Hand blamed post-tournament "deflation" for the team's two recent defeats, while another former Irish boss, Mick Megan also defended McCarthy and lashed out at Ireland's "carnival supporters".
Mark this down as the week when the Republic chose to behave like everyone else.
Daily Telegraph, London.