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David Kelly: 'McCarthy, the manager in a no-win scenario, must now negotiate must-win territory'

 

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‘He has two games to change that opinion’. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

‘He has two games to change that opinion’. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

‘He has two games to change that opinion’. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Maybe we could call this one the neutral derby.

The Swiss soccer side, though, are at peace with everybody but themselves; having pinpointed Saturday night in Copenhagen as an opportunity to seize the firmest grasp on qualification, they returned home alarmed by the prospect that their Euro 2020 prospects may be 90 minutes away from ending.

And what of Ireland? Unlike her political neutrality, so often a trumped-up myth, the national soccer side seemingly concedes little to the concept of feigning any interest in the business of conquering its enemies.

Ireland's tactic of plotting a bore-draw route to what is supposed to be a summer festival of football plods on remorselessly and morosely; yet tomorrow evening they are presented with an improbable stab at automatic qualification.

And yet as close as it might feel that Ireland are on the verge of achieving something quite special, there is also the nagging sense tugging at one's sleeve that their claims are as distant as ever.

Ireland's stratagem tomorrow will not deviate from that which plunged a nation into somnolence on Saturday.

In the parlance of the footballer, they will take the draw now; preferable, some might say, to witnessing another 90 minutes of turgid tedium.

Samuel Beckett was more of a cricket man but he might have grudgingly admired an Irish team whose preferred method of progress is doing as little as humanly possible.

It was interesting that Aaron Connolly berated himself after producing the only two good moments on Saturday night.

Mick McCarthy left us with the impression that James Collins had been chosen purely on his ability as a defender at set-pieces; truly a reductio ad absurdum of selection, that a striker be lauded for preventing, rather than scoring, goals.

Even Connolly's two late chances were developed by the anarchic chaos of a match that, when placed alongside Denmark's win against the Swiss, appeared to be a different sport altogether.

Jack Byrne remained aloof from events, presumably because a footballer with vision and imagination had no business being associated with the important business of securing the 0-0.

No courage, no bravery. Nowhere.

Well, that will not do any more; Ireland must fashion a win against a wounded Swiss or a resurgent Danish side.

Merely existing will not suffice; boldness must seize the team but, first, their manager.

Far from being addled by the dilemma of what to do should Ireland prosper at the Euros, there is also the realistic possibility that McCarthy may not even get that far.

He has two games to change that opinion; should he seek to be courageous this week, perhaps even one will suffice.

The muscle memory of nearly a thousand nights such as these will infuse his every bone in the hours to come before kick-off.

But it is hard to tell whether he is treating it like a desperate struggle for survival at the bottom of a league table, rather than a heady assault at the top.

His caution reveals the former is foremost in his mind.

Saturday brought to memory the anniversary of another night in a distant Eastern European city and a ghost that still, as he often freely admits, occasionally haunts McCarthy's sleep.

Goran Stavrevski will forever be remembered as a Macedonian minister of misery; condemning an Irish side whose gradual retreat into conservatism ultimately consumed them with self-destruction.

McCarthy had signed a new contract before that infamous deciding group game; perhaps his needless caution in Skopje derived from the comfort blanket.

Twenty years on, his own future has again been decided before his team's; he is already speaking about how he hopes he won't have to go looking for a job when - or if - he finishes next summer; rather that the jobs will look for him.

But he must demonstrate that he still retains a relevance that amounts to something more substantial than his team trying desperately not to lose because they know they are incapable of winning.

He wallows in defensive resilience - "I love it about them" - acknowledging that it only happens because his side give the ball away so much. Wouldn't it be much easier to fashion a plan that requires his side to hold on to the ball and pass it to each other instead?

Off the field, McCarthy could never control his job security in his second coming. It is simply a no-win situation.

But now he is in a must-win situation on the field. And he must take full advantage. This is no time for neutrality.

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