Monday 23 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'FAI's safe bet on McCarthy may prove to be a major gamble'

Just 55 hours passed between O'Neill's departure and news of his successor but if the new man starts slowly the speed of decision will come under scrutiny

Mick McCarthy and his long time assistant Terry Connor will hope to have plenty to smile about when they take on their roles within the Ireland set-up. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Mick McCarthy and his long time assistant Terry Connor will hope to have plenty to smile about when they take on their roles within the Ireland set-up. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Daniel McDonnell

In the hour after Ireland's drubbing at the hands of Wales in Cardiff, Virgin Media Sport presenter Tommy Martin introduced the post-match analysis by turning to studio guest Mick McCarthy and asking him when he would be available to start.

McCarthy was visibly uncomfortable and batted the question away but the swiftness of developments this week has given us the answer.

As soon as the FAI ask him.

Last Sunday, Martin O'Neill sat in a press conference room in Denmark fielding questions about the Irish rugby team's win over the All Blacks. The underlying message was obvious, even if any comparisons are flawed. Why weren't his side capable of inspiring in the same way?

Tomorrow, McCarthy will be unveiled as O'Neill's successor at a press conference, with Terry Connor and Robbie Keane due to be confirmed as part of his management team.

Fast-forward another seven days and the eyes of European football will be on Dublin, with the FAI now relieved they will have McCarthy in situ for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw. It's the only plausible reason for the haste with which they have moved to fill the vacancy.

O'Neill knew his time was up before he went to meet with John Delaney in the aftermath of the Denmark encounter. The quick turnaround confirms that.

Travelling fans in Aarhus were told by well-connected people that the management situation would be "sorted" in due course.

On Wednesday morning, the exit of the Derryman was formally announced. Just 55 hours later, Virgin Media announced that McCarthy had agreed a contract offer.

He was due to spend next week working on Champions League coverage for the station, but he's got a few other things on his mind now as he adjusts to a brief that is familiar to him.

That knowledge has convinced the FAI board to go with the tried and trusted. Stephen Kenny - who had turned down the U-21 job - was given the impression that he was a contender and that is why he broke his silence to make a strong statement on what he felt he could bring to the role.

Indeed, there was a belief within his camp that the Dundalk manager would hold further talks with the FAI about the top job, perhaps with a view to convincing them that he really was the man.

But McCarthy was always the clear front-runner and while there was a theory that the FAI hierarchy were potentially malleable if public opinion was especially unfavourable, the timeline would suggest that view was optimistic.

Five years ago, McCarthy was left in limbo after the prevaricating O'Neill decided that he was going to accept the FAI's offer. It would have been particularly harsh on the Barnsley man if he went through a version of the same rejection again.

The rushed nature of the appointment will not take the scrutiny off Delaney and the FAI board, with a pay-off for the old management team following on from a wasted year that could have allowed a new boss to oversee a transitional process.

They paid €3m in wages to a lame-duck regime, with another handshake to part ways adding another €1m or so the bill.

Kenny's campaign pitch had called for a more progressive approach and a longer-term vision, yet the obvious complication was that the new manager's first task will be a pair of competitive qualifying matches.

With the finals coming to Dublin in 2020, that is the competition which the FAI simply cannot afford to miss out on.

There is around €15m at stake although bonuses will eat into the reward - and that incentive will be a major part of McCarthy's contract.

Kenny might have been viewed as a cheaper option, but he was also the braver one; the FAI have gone for their perception of a safer pair of hands with a view to delivering results.

O'Neill was hired with the brief of bringing Ireland to the next Euros, and that is essentially McCarthy's task.

The argument that they would have been better off waiting until the New Year to see what candidates emerged in the meantime can be chipped away at.

Declan Rice is the main retort, as O'Neill had not given up hope on persuading the West Ham youngster to stay with Ireland. Indeed, he had become more optimistic on that front in the period just before his departure.

McCarthy will have to move quickly to try and strike up a rapport with the 19-year-old and his family. It may help that he's an English-born player who enjoyed magical times wearing green. Robbie Keane could bring something to that situation too.

Beyond that, the association have to get their act together once the draw is over in terms of putting together packages for selling matches in 2019 and addressing the issue of falling crowds which had raised concerns.

Complimentary tickets were used to inflate the turnouts for the October double-header with Denmark and Wales. It was a good opportunity for schoolboy clubs to give kids a day out, although the fare on offer was hardly awe inspiring.

Damien Duff's quip earlier this week about stretching out a Shamrock Rovers U-15 training session so they wouldn't have to go home and watch the Aarhus return was particularly cutting.

But the simple fact is that the biggest revenue generator for the FAI are the affairs of the senior team. Handing out thousands of free tickets to entice people to come and watch them play is a fairly dire state of affairs.

McCarthy's name alone will not be enough to fill the stadium, unlike the clamour for tickets that the novelty of the O'Neill and Roy Keane brought for a meaningless friendly with Latvia.

However, his comeback will be for a game of substance so that should bring a natural edge to proceedings. And given that McCarthy has spent a good portion of his career in the dug-out battling an unfashionable tag, he will doubtless relish the opportunity to silence any doubters.

There will be a backlash if he gets off on the wrong foot. Kenny's vision was a popular one, and Premier Division clubs St Patrick's Athletic and Derry City made the extraordinary decision to issue statements endorsing the Dundalk boss for the job.

That did not go down well in Louth, and it was unlikely to be of much help to Kenny either given that the clubs in question have riled the FAI hierarchy in the past - especially the Saints.

Calls to involve the likes of Lee Carsley and Steven Reid in the set-up appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Ironically enough, the two experienced coaches - who are on the way up the ladder - will be part of a coaching seminar in Wolverhampton tomorrow.

The FAI have offered the U-21 job to Kenny, who turned it down to push his senior claims.

Dundalk would be astonished if he changed his mind and the Dubliner spent part of yesterday working on discussing pre-season preparations.

McCarthy will have to cope with the national expectations for his next campaign, and the stifling pressure to push Ireland towards a unique major tournament summer. In his time out of work, he's likely had time to ponder what he might do with the players at his disposal. The burning question is how much thought the FAI have really put into giving him that responsibility.

They need a quick return from their rapid decision.

Irish Independent

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