Tuesday 22 October 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Matt Doherty snub sums up lack of imagination in Mick McCarthy's Ireland return'

Matt Doherty of Republic of Ireland following the UEFA EURO2020 Qualifier Group D match between Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar at Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Matt Doherty of Republic of Ireland following the UEFA EURO2020 Qualifier Group D match between Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar at Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

WE have celebrated the gift Mick McCarthy brought back to Ireland – an urgently required lifting of spirits, a sparking of batteries fallen flat under Martin O’Neill.

This past week, as some uncomfortable truths began to surface, came the understanding that so much more is required if the Euro 2020 landing zone is not to be lost in a fog of mediocrity and a mist of ill-conceived, headstrong managerial assumptions.

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As a priority, that includes a loosening of McCarthy’s most rigidly held convictions. At the heart of it all might be his stubborn, misguided insistence that Matt Doherty’s international role begins and ends as a defensive understudy to Seamus Coleman.

If it was O’Neill, or, indeed, dear old Trap declining to decommission such an absurdly narrow world view, they would have found themselves floundering beneath a tidal wave of public outrage.

McCarthy, in the wake of that underwhelming limp past Gibraltar, cannot walk away from the fact that his team require infusions of certain qualities as a matter of urgency. Ireland are a wasteland of midfield creativity. Beyond set pieces, they struggle painfully for any kind of scoring thrust. Not one of the strikers tasked with providing a cutting edge in the recent fixtures against Denmark and Gibraltar has ever managed even a single international goal. Behind them, the impressive certainties of will and technique that allowed Jeff Hendrick make such an impact on the French summer of 2016 have almost entirely ebbed.

In such circumstances, the refusal to release Doherty from dry dock becomes ever more perplexing. Here is a player who scored eight times for Wolves in the season just ended, who contributed five Premier League assists, who was shortlisted for the team of the season. On current club form, he is clearly Ireland’s best footballer. Yet he appears to be paying the heaviest individual price for a collectively underwhelming afternoon in March on an artificial pitch in a gusting wind at the foot of the Iberian Peninsula.

To pigeon-hole the 27-year-old Dubliner as a right-back/right wingback reveals only a remarkable lack of imagination. In this month of anniversaries, immortal sun-splashed June afternoons in Stuttgart and Genoa and New Jersey offer a timely, if stark, reminder of when Ireland resided somewhere close to the centre of the football universe. And of the long, painful slide from the game’s higher terrain.

They also present a valuable lesson in how to squeeze the very bestfrom available resources. Jack Charlton, ever the pragmatist, deployed Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath (one among the English game’s standout midfielders, the other a towering central defender) as his full-backs at a vital Euro ’88 qualifier in Scotland. At his ascendancy as perhaps the finest centre-back in English football, McGrath was frequently deployed, with huge dividend, as the colossus of Charlton’s midfield. Beneath that flat cap, the old Geordie understood the untouchable value of going to war with all your strongest soldiers on the battlefield.

That argument about the imperative of getting your best players on to the field trumping tactical rigidity is one that an individual as authoritative as John Giles makes at every opportunity. It is a truth that McCarthy wilfully ignores in his sidelining of Doherty. Liam Brady suggested this week that Doherty had the required technique and energy to play in a midfield crying out for dynamism, perhaps in the Glenn Whelan role.

McCarthy reserved last week’s most withering scorn for questions about Doherty, but no amount of Barnsley disdain can alter the fact that, in this case, he is entirely wrong. If the performance against Georgia and the unquenchable spirit of Copenhagen offered authentic hope, the obligation for the manager now is to build on that positive early impact.

If McCarthy can be pleased with a harvest of 10 points from a possible 12, it is equally a fact that four games in, Ireland have already played their three easiest group games. Six points from two games against the planet’s 195th-ranked team together with a home victory over Georgia – however pleasing – can hardly be presented as a serious measurement of progress.

The gradient ofthe climb is about to get so much steeper. Shane Long’s return to fitness, particularly after the Tipp blur of movement finally located his long lost goal touch late in the season, would offer McCarthy a welcome boost of know-how. Long as an out-and-out striker, with the impressive David McGoldrick in the No. 10 role offers one potential solution to Ireland’s ongoing attacking impotence. Unleashing Doherty is another.

Against Denmark, it was another towering set-piece intervention from Shane Duffy that rescued Ireland. A wicked deflection was all that stood between McCarthy’s side entering injury time against Gibraltar at 0-0. If the glory without foreseeable limits of those summers in Germany, Italy and America long ago faded, still McCarthy has a real chance to regain some lost horizons. But with two games against Switzerland along with Denmark’s return to the Aviva they so recently transformed into a killing field, an autumn of truth beckons. There will likely be significant turbulence as McCarthy looks to pilot a flight path to a cherished home date at Euro 2020.

What better time to pull the Doherty ripcord and parachute into the starting XI a player who, given the paucity of quality options, is simply too good to ignore.

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