Wednesday 26 June 2019

David Kelly: 'Qualification still the only game in town for McCarthy as points preferred to style'

Halfway Line

Mick McCarthy finds his team at the top of the group. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick McCarthy finds his team at the top of the group. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As the bould Oscar once said, there are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.

One year from today, the 2020 European Championships will kick off, shabbily scattered across a host of countries, a final legacy of yet another of football's discredited personal legacies; Michel Platini's in this instance.

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For some Irish football supporters, and emphatically so in the case of the team and management, qualification for next summer's party is all that matters.

The destination, not the journey, is the most important thing.

Dewy-eyed idealists who may aspire for their flagship team to effect a modicum more in the way of expression and entertainment can look elsewhere to acquire the scent of roses.

To put Oscar Wilde's words another way, the one who doesn't get what he wants might be a wise failure, but the one who does get what he wants will be a bored success.

And so, once the bandwagon can roll up next summer, even if spluttering and, akin to the team bus somewhere near Ashtown on Monday night, occasionally breaking down, should anyone really care for anything more?

It is not just the recent history of the senior side that informs this debate, one splintered between hard-nosed realism and heady idealism.

From the days of Jack Charlton, ruthlessly swatting aside a method that was attractive to the eye but always unsuccessful, the mould was broken. Few have desired to recast it.

Even Mick McCarthy himself will know that for all the pleasant watching his previous sides evoked, only one of three qualifying attempts - admittedly in more difficult circumstances, yet with better players - were ultimately successful.

More recently, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill qualified for European finals in vaguely similar circumstances. Both were significant characters who didn't mind bemoaning the quality of materials at their disposal but few cared when both men reached what seems an almost mythical figure of ten points in their respective campaigns; Trapattoni's side shared the lead, O'Neill's topped the group, just as McCarthy's men do now.

Inevitable obstacles tripped both men up, precisely because of their dismissal of their squad's abilities and then, as now, the performances in Dublin were so often largely forgettable affairs.

Once qualification was secured, however, few grumbled about the state of underage football or the lack of passing patterns of play.

A quite more widespread argument was that the nation should actually be thankful to be paying a quite exorbitant sum, running well beyond €10m for successive handsomely-paid management teams, merely to gain entry to what is now a hardly exclusive, unwieldy tournament.

Even the financial arguments for qualification - wasn't it all worth it? - have been rendered redundant now that the FAI's chronic condition has been belatedly exposed. The names may change - from Andy Reid to Wes Hoolahan, Paul Green to Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick to, eh, Jeff Hendrick - but the conversations remain the same.

Watching the Irish international team is like Groundhog Day.

Gibraltar, a thoroughly worthless exercise in competitive sporting terms, perhaps illustrated that Trapattoni and O'Neill, through the narrow prism of their job descriptions, may have been right about the players at their disposal.

Hendrick, to take just one example, has hardly flourished once released from the purported tyranny of the O'Neill era.True, there may be more smiles and spirit now but the footballing limitations remains the same, as the arid fare of his first four matches, a marginal improvement on what went before, have demonstrated.

But, as with Trapattoni and O'Neill, the fear is that what seems adequate until now will become suspect when the more severe challenges of the autumn loom large.

Some will argue that Stephen Kenny might have unveiled a more enterprising approach but how many supporters would, to quote McCarthy, countenance pleasing football and the inclusion of fringe players if it were at the expense of results?

McCarthy's handsome salary comes with a bottom line - qualification at all costs. Stylistic concerns are secondary. Obvious playing alternatives will be limited by the urgent need to stockpile short-term gains.

And history also informs, as it did briefly in France in 2016, that this team can play with relaxed freedom once they have arrived. Getting there is the hard part.

The Rocky Road to Dublin next summer will be a bumpy ride. The message, as it always has been, is to grin and bear it.

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