McCarthy bullish over selections for qualifiers
Now it gets serious. When Mick McCarthy named his provisional squad of 40 players in Galway last Friday, he began the countdown to the four matches that will decide Ireland's Euro 2020 fate.
The first of them, against Switzerland in Dublin on September 5, is a gateway to the finals, in which Ireland would have two games at the Aviva Stadium.
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If Ireland win the next game, we will have one foot in the summer showpiece, with a clear lead in Group D over both the Swiss and Denmark, our real rivals for the two automatic qualification slots.
As Denmark have still to play the Swiss in Copenhagen in October, Ireland beating Switzerland would mean McCarthy's side would have to collapse in their final three games not to qualify. So can we split the teams who were ranked above Ireland when the draw was made?
"That is our intention," says a bullish McCarthy. "I always believe we can win games, have you ever heard me say we can't? We did in the past with Yugoslavia and Croatia (for Euro 2000) and we did it with Portugal and Holland two years later. Let's hope we can do it again."
McCarthy is old school when it comes to international football. He accepts that for some players the riches and glamour of being a Premier League player or a Champions League player are huge now, but he believes in his current Irish squad and that, as it was in his time, pulling on that green shirt is a huge thing in their lives and in their professional careers."
"All the players all wanted to play for Ireland . . . all the ones I was with did anyway, and we did think it was the pinnacle of our careers, above everything else. Sure, it doesn't if it's a two-bit friendly - but it does if you go to the Euros in '88 and the World Cup in 1990 and 1994. Then it is the biggest."
McCarthy is standing firm on wanting his players to be in action in the run-up to the showdown on Thursday fortnight, naming players who are all seeing club action, and will not only make the cut when the squad of 40 is trimmed to 23 or 24 in a fortnight's time, but will actually make the starting XI against the Swiss.
"The goalie's playing, the full-backs are playing, the three centre-backs are playing, Glenn (Whelan) has not been playing but I think he will, Hearts won't have signed him if they're not going to play him. Conor (Hourihane) has played and will hopefully continue to play. Josh (Cullen) has played. James McClean played but it was his grandma's funeral so didn't play at the weekend. Robbo (Callum Robinson) played, Didzy (David McGoldrick) played, Scott Hogan played, Seán Maguire played. If they're playing they've all got a chance of being there."
There are comforting words for the Burnley duo of Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, the latter recovering from injury and the former not starting at Arsenal yesterday.
"Well, we've still got more league games to go before the international," warns the Irish manager. "Jeff Hendrick might not play but he's one of the fitter ones I trust to be able to play.
"He's not one who's under real scrutiny if he doesn't play but Robbie Brady would be because he hasn't played, similar to the end of last season when he had an injury. He gets his goal against Gibraltar and he'd be feeling good about himself."
But there's no mention of such leniency for Shane Long, Troy Parrott or Michael Obafemi, with McCarthy adamant that they have to play for their clubs between now and when the squad is culled.
Sunday Indo Sport