Sunday 24 March 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Loss of Declan Rice has made James McCarthy's fitness an instant priority for manager Mick'


James McCarthy: Needs to remind people of his top-flight credentials
James McCarthy: Needs to remind people of his top-flight credentials
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's a danger in letting Rice simmer for too long. He's gone, and Ireland need to get over it, much as a sour taste may linger.

Granted, there will always be reminders of what we could have won. It's worth pointing out that if England do qualify for Euro 2020, and then top their group in the first phase of the continent-wide competition, they will play their round-of-16 match in Dublin. That would be quite the occasion for the Rice clan.

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The best way to avoid that becoming a big deal is for Ireland to be distracted by their own progression in the competition.

It will be harder to get there without Rice, with Mick McCarthy speaking openly about the desire to build a team around the West Ham man. But he really doesn't have time to dwell on it with his first squad announcement looming.

Ironically enough, it's a player that Ireland controversially snared through the eligibility rules that may stand to benefit from Rice's defection. James McCarthy hasn't played for Everton in over a year and he's approaching forgotten man territory at this stage.

Back in 2011, there was a collective sigh of relief when he trotted onto the pitch in the dying stages of a Euro qualifier with Macedonia.

He was hot property at that time, and would quickly become one of the highest-rated young midfielders in the Premier League.

Now, he's battling to preserve his top-flight status under Marco Silva with the broken leg he suffered last January particularly unfortunate as he was just shaking off a persistent hamstring problem.

It shows there is no guarantee of long-term success, no matter how much potential there seems to be. Indeed, there's a theory that the bruising schedule from McCarthy's teens - where he played a lot of football - eventually caught up with him. In saying that, it could be argued that he didn't develop into the all-round force he had promised to become in his formative days.

His athleticism and ability to cover ground was an asset, yet he scored goals as a teenager with Hamilton and was regarded as a box-to-box player.

Almost four years ago, Jamie Carragher said that McCarthy was the Everton employee that he would most like to see in Liverpool colours.

"He's a complete midfield player, he works hard, he can tackle, he can pass and I think eventually he'll be the captain there," Carragher declared. "I think to be classed as one of the best in the league, he probably needs to add a few more goals and assists to his game."

McCarthy hasn't really addressed that and is now very much regarded as a defensive midfielder. His better performances for Ireland have actually come as the 'number six' in front of the back four.

He was deployed there for the shock win over Germany when Glenn Whelan was unavailable and was dropped back into that role midway through the Euros when O'Neill opted to take Whelan out of the firing line in his mid-competition reshuffle.

The Glaswegian did the simple and unspectacular things while Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick pressed on.

Rice did look like he had the ability to do everything during his Irish cameos, but Mick McCarthy may have to call upon his namesake as the safest option for a key role - once he gets himself fit.

There are question marks about the suitability of the alternatives. Martin O'Neill struggled to find the best role for Jeff Hendrick and, similar to Robbie Brady, he's worn a few hats at Burnley too. Neither player stands out as a natural sitter.

Alan Browne has been outstanding for Preston, yet that's in an attacking brief behind the striker in a team that plays a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. He was tentative for Ireland in a three-man midfield, yet looks to be improving.

Conor Hourihane is probably also better known for his effectiveness in the opposition half, and is struggling through a difficult patch at Aston Villa. Harry Arter lacks the discipline, while David Meyler's drop to League One level on a loan from Reading to Coventry is likely to harm his prospects.

Millwall's Shaun Williams is actually well capable of controlling the tempo, and has done little wrong in his Irish cameos, yet McCarthy's Premier pedigree is always likely to put him further up the queue.

He needs to remind people of that, however, or else the manager might again waste time thinking about a player who might not be available.

Irish Independent

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