Thursday 5 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'McCarthy's appointment was literally a waste of time - the Kenny era should start with Euro playoff'

‘Stephen Kenny offers something different. And after the morale-sapping dourness of O’Neill and McCarthy, something different is exactly what’s needed.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy
‘Stephen Kenny offers something different. And after the morale-sapping dourness of O’Neill and McCarthy, something different is exactly what’s needed.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Mick McCarthy's appointment as Irish manager was a waste of time.

Literally. Before a ball was kicked Ireland were virtually guaranteed a place in the play-offs. The team could have lost both games to Gibraltar and still made it. So the only justification for McCarthy's appointment would have been outright qualification for the European Championship.

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His failure to do so means the team would have been much better off with Stephen Kenny in charge, gaining vital experience before facing into the even bigger challenge of the next World Cup qualifying campaign.

Even if he'd taken time to find his feet, which I doubt, we'd be no worse off than we are now. That's why the sensible move is to put Kenny in charge for the play-offs. If the FAI really do regard him as the heir apparent, now is the time for the new man to assume power. We've been drifting long enough.

Before Monday's match a colleague asked me how I thought it would go. I predicted a 1-1 draw with Denmark taking the lead in the 62nd minute, Ireland equalizing in the 80th minute and a frantic finale with desperate high balls being lashed into the box. In the event the Danes took the lead in the 73rd and we levelled in the 85th before those high balls were launched at the death.

This required no great clairvoyance on my part. Ireland have been nothing if not predictable. The manager attempted to portray Monday's game as some kind of glorious moral victory. Never mind the result, look at the performance.

But he took a different tack when his team scraped draws against Denmark and Switzerland and failed to beat Georgia in Tbilisi. Back then the result was apparently all that mattered. He'd take your arm off if you offered him a winner-take-all finale against Denmark. We can beat them in Dublin.

We didn't.

Now McCarthy claims Ireland can beat anyone in the play-offs. Why? We couldn't beat anyone in the group stages. Believing Ireland can make it through means believing that a team that couldn't win in Tbilisi will be able to win two away games in-a-row against much better opposition than Georgia.

On Monday night the manager was keen to stress Ireland's achievement in losing just one group game out of eight. That's one way of looking at it. Another is that we won just three out of eight and two of those were against world football's equivalent of Inishbofin.

Ireland took just three points from a possible 12 against the two good teams in the group. That's the same return they'd have got from one win and three losses. That the three draws were all achieved by late equalisers meant that psychologically, in the immediate aftermath, they felt more like one point gained than two points lost. But the latter interpretation was what mattered in terms of qualification.

The team needed those late goals because they were playing catch-up all the time. In six hours of football against Denmark and Switzerland, Ireland didn't lead for a single minute. Claims that Denmark got a fright on Monday ignore the fact that the visitors just needed a point to qualify and came within five minutes of getting three.

Denmark made it through comfortably, three points ahead of Ireland. Switzerland were five clear of us. Yet at the time, the group draw was greeted as giving Ireland a glorious opportunity. Denmark and Switzerland were no great shakes said people, apparently unaware that Ireland aren't even good shakes. So excuse me for being skeptical about suggestions that Slovakia are there for the taking, or the winners of Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

Chances are any of those three will be good enough to dispose of Ireland. This would represent a disaster of colossal proportions because no Irish team in living memory would have failed to make it into a 24-team European Championship. Even Steve Staunton's much derided side were just one place outside the qualifying spots for a 16-team championship in 2010. A new historical low awaits.

Desperate times require desperate measures. But the obvious step, making Stephen Kenny manager a few months ahead of schedule, isn't even all that desperate. Because 24 hours after the senior team's impotent flailings at the Aviva came a performance to restore your faith in Irish football.

Sweden actually entered the under-21 game in Tallaght as bookies' favourites, the odds men perhaps reasoning that our win over there had been a glorious one-off, that Aaron Connolly was hors de combat and that their recent 5-0 win over the Iceland team which had beaten Ireland showed what a formidable side Sweden were.

The Swedes are really good at this level, they won the European Championship just four years ago, and when they led 1-0 at half-time things looked bleak for Ireland. I found myself muttering, "Et tu, Stephen?"

Cue as good a 45 minutes as any Irish soccer team has produced for a long time. It was exciting, it was exhilarating and it was made possible by the attitude Kenny has always adopted towards the game.

Ireland were rewarded for playing the kind of fluent attacking football, with a strong emphasis on creativity and self-expression, which a succession of dour managers have judged our senior team incapable of. It was the kind of display designed to bring out the best in not just players, but supporters and pundits too.

Because, let's face it, an atmosphere of terrible sourness tends to surround senior games these days. Hence our willingness to be mortally offended by Danish comments suggesting Ireland may not be among the game's foremost stylists. You can be sure that in the run-up to the Slovakian game, the Bratislava Champion, or whatever, will be combed for home comments of the same ilk.

Like some boxing promoter desperately trying to hype a boring contest between two washed up fighters, Ireland like to make it a grudge match. The booing of the opposition is pursued with more passion than the cheering on of our own side.

But when you watch the under-21s you don't think about the opposition at all. There's just too much good Irish stuff to concentrate on. Imagine what it would be like to have a full Aviva looking at football like that.

Even Stephen Kenny's most fervent fans doubted he'd have much opportunity to enhance his reputation in the U21 job. It seemed a marking time kind of appointment. Instead, he has proved his right to take charge of the senior team.

There will always be those who refuse to believe that the League of Ireland could produce a manager of international calibre. Personally, I fail to see how two years at Plymouth Argyle or Crewe Alexandra would make Kenny's case any more compelling.

His lack of such experience may actually be one of the main points in Kenny's favour. He offers something different. And after the morale-sapping dourness of O'Neill and McCarthy, something different is exactly what's needed.

Stephen Kenny can finally free us from the tyranny of the old-fashioned English Football Man (O'Neill qualifies by right of residence). It's past time that we shook off this way of playing the game. Even England have jettisoned it, probably because of the influx of European managers there.

Wales have already qualified for the Euros, rewarded for their bold decision in appointing the inexperienced Ryan Giggs. Meanwhile, Ireland are managed by the same man who was in charge 20 years ago and back then was seen as lineal heir to Jack Charlton, the English Football Man par excellence in all his unimaginative, utilitarian, uninspiring glory.

The game has moved on to the extent that Mick McCarthy is not yesterday's man, he's the day before yesterday's man. He comes from a tradition where the first reaction to someone like Cristiano Ronaldo is to point out that he doesn't need to be doing those poncy step overs and should be tracking back more.

That attitude doesn't cut it anymore. Watching a manager approach international football the way McCarthy does is like watching a man shouting into a mobile phone the size of a brick with a big aerial sticking out the top of it.

Stephen Kenny's style is entirely different and has a lot to do, I suspect, with the lessons he learned from years of taking on European opposition. Most Irish fans can't wait for him to take over as senior boss. So why wait?

I'm no fan of Mick McCarthy, but the man has done Irish football some service over the years. Now he should do it the greatest service of all by stepping down and letting the Kenny era begin.

McCarthy had his second chance. Nothing will be gained by prolonging the misery for a few more months. Stephen Kenny doesn't take refuge in excuses about Ireland "not having the players". He believes in the ability of Irish footballers to be as creative as those from anywhere else. He'd believe we could go for a win in Slovakia rather than try to hang on for a draw. And he deserves the chance to try. It's our only hope.

Going back to the past hasn't worked. Let's get the future started now. We've wasted enough time already.

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