McCarthy nous key for patched-up back four to shine
Man-management skills can instil timely belief for tricky Tbilisi test
A patched-up back four heading into what has always been rough terrain for the Irish team: what could possibly go wrong for Mick McCarthy's squad once they leave Dublin for Tbilisi this afternoon?
McCarthy had one piece of good news before today's flight to Georgia as Shane Duffy, an ever-present in the campaign to date, has made enough progress in his recovery from a calf injury to make the flight, despite being initially ruled out for a matter of weeks.
Still, events (suspension, Duffy's injury and Richard Keogh's car crash) have conspired to leave McCarthy without at least two (probably three, depending on Duffy's fitness) of his usual back four while his goalkeeper and right-back are with clubs who are, worryingly, showing relegation form.
Throw in the fact that the Republic of Ireland have yet to keep a clean sheet in four games played away to Georgia and it's enough to add to the worry lines on McCarthy's 60-year-old face.
Yet the Ireland manager was calm this week and will be on Saturday at 2pm (Irish time) when the anthems ring out. McCarthy has been here before.
As a player with Ireland he faced up to some of the best strikers in the world.
As Ireland manager he'd often look at his defence and wonder how he could plug the gaps. Yet the job always got done.
Every single decision McCarthy makes to select his back four for Saturday carries a risk.
Chance Duffy's fitness - a big gamble. Matt Doherty likely to play at left-back - out of position. John Egan to play in central defence - he's never played a minute of competitive international football at senior level. Kevin Long to partner Egan at centre-back if Duffy's not fit - Long has played in just one of his club's nine games this season; a League Cup tie where Burnley lost at home to a side from the third tier.
Seamus Coleman and Darren Randolph will be stress-free, despite club form which could still cost Jonathan Woodgate and Marco Silva their jobs.
But it's how he prepares the others for this tie that will test McCarthy's knowledge and his skills.
Preparing for a test like this - and Tbilisi is always a test - is as much about man-management as it is about tactics. McCarthy has been in situations which were slightly similar, though never as drastic, as rarely did he have to build a back four almost from scratch.
For the first game of the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign he had some calls to make at the back as Phil Babb was missing (sent home for some night-time escapades with Mark Kennedy).
Steve Staunton was available but McCarthy chose inexperience, as Richard Dunne made his competitive debut in Amsterdam. That was Dunne's first game at any level that season as he was serving a Premier League suspension carried over from a red card the previous term.
Dunne has since spoken in detail about the lead-in to that game.
"He rang me before the game to say, 'I know you've missed games but I have faith in you so make sure you are sharp and don't let me down', and we got a very good draw in Holland. That phone call from Mick gave me the belief I could play," Dunne said in his 'Herald' column earlier this year.
Georgia have always scored in their home games against Ireland and an early goal for them on Saturday would put Ireland, and their Euro 2020 plans, in jeopardy.
It's McCarthy's call on Duffy and his chats with Doherty and Egan which can set the tone for what's to come and to give them the tools - mental and physical - to build a foundation and allow Ireland escape from Tbilisi with a clean sheet and a win.