Roy Curtis: 'Ireland have been the sick man of European football for a year - this draw is a miracle drug'
HAD he accepted the prevailing downbeat consensus that deems Ireland the sick man of Europe, Mick McCarthy might legitimately have arrived at Dublin’s Convention Centre wearing medical scrubs and a surgical mask.
For more than a year, Irish football has been breathing through collapsed lungs, gasping for any gust of oxygen.
McCarthy’s task is to rehabilitate a bronchial, wheezing, debilitated invalid, to find some metaphorical miracle drug, one that will somehow restore his team to health, enable them to arrive, vibrantly, at their own Euro 2020 bash.
If Lady Luck is as accommodating when the qualifiers commence in March as she was as this draw unspooled, then perhaps the newly-appointed manager’s vision for a radical Operation Transformation might just be realised.
Ireland enjoyed an enormously charmed existence on Anna Livia’s banks.
A fierce desire to write his own ending, to finally escape Saipan’s suffocating shadow, persuaded McCarthy that John Delaney’s offer was one he could not refuse.
For a moment, here, it seemed the UEFA gods had chosen to mock the 59-year-old, that the lavish Liffeyside arena would be forever remembered as a cold house for his ambitions.
McCarthy’s granite Yorkshire features creased into a forced, hollow smile as the old Portuguese soldier, Nuno Gomes, deposited Ireland into the most forbidding territory; paired, it seemed, alongside the Netherlands and Germany. He shook his head dolefully.
Here was a group of death that even the Grim Reaper might deem excessive.
But, then, UEFA handed McCarthy the shiniest get out of jail card: under a rule limiting each group to a maximum of two of the 12 host nations, Ireland were hauled out of those piranha-infested waters.
And Northern Ireland were tossed in in their stead.
Switzerland might be ahead of Germany and Holland in FIFA’s world rankings, Denmark might have authored fear and loathing at the Aviva, but being relocated from Pool C to Pool D still felt like some kind of divine intervention.
The chaos that has enveloped Irish football over the past year would make it absurd to suggest that McCarthy had landed a soft path to the promised land of qualification.
But Mick had only to note the end-of-the-world grimace on Michael O’Neill’s face when his Northern Ireland were placed along Germany and Holland to confirm that he had dodged a heavy-duty bullet.
McCarthy could not disguise his glee, the sense that the draw had provided some valuable early momentum.
If Martin O’Neill’s interactions with Tony O’Donoghue had become toxic, Mick looked like he might wrap the RTE man in a bear-hug as he offered an immediate reaction.
"Whoever had their magic fingers on the laptop of the computer...," he beamed, as he reflected on Ireland’s great escape from German and Dutch claws.
"I saw Nuno when he drew us out, he had a look at Ronnie (Whelan) and Robbie (Keane) on the stage.
"I’m not saying our group’s easy, but the Netherlands and Germany would have been a really tough ask."
McCarthy spoke in the upbeat manner of a man who had just seen sunlight pierce the fog of gloom which had enveloped Ireland since that 5-1 humiliation at the hands of Denmark 13 months ago.
Ireland’s new manager was an open book, buoyant and eager, sprinkling positivity all about him. The contrast with the tetchy, defensive mood music as O’Neill’s reign unravelled was startling.
"I’m feeling great, I’m feeling pretty positive about it. It is a change and I hope to get a response," said McCarthy.
His first coming as Irish manager ended in 2002 against Switzerland, on a poisonous and malicious night at the old Landsowne Road as the raw Saipan wound re-opened and festered.
"I have a chance for revenge, haven’t I," grinned McCarthy, who also saw opportunity in the prospect of turning recent traumas against Denmark on their head.
"I guess it is about time we took points off Denmark. It is a different era, a different time, whatever has gone on with Denmark in the past and nothing I can do about it."
All the while, he kept smiling, the thirst for the impending battles tattooed indelibly onto his face.
He looked for all the world like a doctor who had been handed a miracle drug, who had been armed with the pill that could nurse the invalid back to health.
For the first time in over a year, it feels like Irish football might be ready to breathe without the assistance of a respirator.