Comparing the squad Mick McCarthy had in 1996 to today's shows the enormity of the task he faces
There was a grimace on the face and a groan in the voice of the 60-year-old.
Mick McCarthy had just been asked about one of the lowest moments of his first reign as Ireland manager, the 3-2 loss to Macedonia in the World Cup qualifiers in 1997.
McCarthy was keen to remind his questioner earlier this week that he had won a lot of games in the intervening 21 years and was not so keen on being reminded of ancient history.
“Since then I’ve had a few good results as well. It would be remiss of you to remind me of a night like that, when I’ve had more nights since then that have been positive ones,” McCarthy said.
“I’ve won the Championship twice and nobody ever mentions that, been in the Premier League, had a pretty good time since. Oh, we qualified for the World Cup as well. Thanks for reminding me of one of my worst nights.”
Yet nostalgia has a place at times and there is one aspect of his past which he can only look back on with fondness as he looks at the challenge ahead. When he named his first Ireland squad, McCarthy had what now seems like an embarrassment of riches.
Two thirds of his first squad came from Premier League clubs: as a sign of the players available to the new manager, four were from Manchester United and City, two from Liverpool, one each from Chelsea and Arsenal.
Eight players from the top Premier League clubs in ‘96, and now McCarthy’s squad has only eight top-flight players, including one (Bournemouth’s Mark Travers) who has yet to play at that level and another (Burnley man Kevin Long) who is a squad player.
Turning around the ship that ran aground in a dismal 2018 is a challenge for McCarthy now, but at least he had elite players to call on in 1996.
Even the crew from ‘96 who were drawn from outside England’s top tier were big names, veterans like Alan Kelly, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. Packie Bonner and Tommy Coyne came from Scotland, while the day before the squad was announced, Tony Cascarino had just scored his 26th goal of the season for Marseille.
Aldridge, Coyne, Cascarino and Niall Quinn were top-drawer strikers: of the squad heading to Gibraltar tomorrow for Saturday’s qualifier, they have scored just one international goal between them, that strike in a friendly (Poland away) from a player who didn’t even make the initial squad (Aiden O’Brien).
The pool of talent available to McCarthy for his first game in ‘96 was evident not just in the senior squad he selected but also the ones in the U21 panel named that same day by Ian Evans, including 10 players who would go on to win senior caps: Shay Given, Stephen Carr, Ian Harte, Alan Maybury, Gareth Farrelly, Mark Kennedy, Keith O’Neill, Kevin Kilbane, Rory Delap and Dominic Foley (Given would go on to make his senior debut in ‘96).
It’s also a case of plus ça change for McCarthy: in ‘96 he was chasing potential recruits Chris Armstrong (“I think he has an open mind about it”) and Sean Dundee (“I don’t know how good or bad he is”), the Ireland boss now on the trail of an indifferent striker in the form of Patrick Bamford.
But the 2019-era McCarthy can only envy his 36-year-old self who had Shay Given and Stephen Carr to come.
MARCH 2019: McCarthy’s first squad (v Gibraltar & Georgia)
GOALKEEPERS: Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough), Keiren Westwood (SheffieldW), Mark Travers (Bournemouth)
DEFENDERS: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Wolves),Richard Keogh (Derby County), John Egan, Enda Stevens (Sheffield United),Shane Duffy (Brighton), Kevin Long (Burnley).
MIDFIELDERS: Alan Judge (Ipswich Town), Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady (Burnley), Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Harry Arter(Cardiff), Josh Cullen (Charlton Athletic), Jack Byrne (Shamrock Rovers), James McClean (Stoke City)
FORWARDS: Aiden O’Brien (Millwall), Sean Maguire (Preston), David McGoldrick (Sheffield United), James Collins (Luton Town).
33pc of the players in the Premier League
MARCH 1996: McCarthy’s first squad (v Russia)
GOALKEEPERS: Alan Kelly (Sheffield United), Packie Bonner(Celtic).
DEFENDERS: Denis Irwin (Manchester United), Gary Kelly (Leeds), Jeff Kenna (Blackburn), Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton (Aston Villa), Phil Babb (Liverpool), Terry Phelan (Chelsea), Alan Kernaghan (Manchester City), Chris Morris (Middlesbrough), Liam Daish (Coventry).
MIDFIELDERS: Eddie McGoldrick (Arsenal), Ray Houghton (Crystal Palace), Jason McAteer (Liverpool), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Andy Townsend (Aston Villa), John Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Alan McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Mike Milligan (Norwich)
FORWARDS: Niall Quinn (ManchesterC), John Aldridge (Tranmere), Tommy Coyne (Motherwell), Tony Cascarino (Marseille)
66pc of players in the Premier League