Thursday 5 December 2019

Roy Curtis: 'No injustice has been served. Ireland did not remotely deserve to qualify'

Ireland players after the draw with Denmark
Ireland players after the draw with Denmark

Roy Curtis

UNIFORMED in all black, a 60-year-old bundle of uncontainable nervous energy, Mick McCarthy gyrated and jerked like a man who had been commissioned to deliver a particularly chaotic Barnsley tribute to the haka.

McCarthy's involuntary technical area theatrics, his manic, wild-eyed 90-minute passion play – gesticulating with the exaggerated flourishes of a hyperactive traffic cop, invoking the gods, thwacking the touchline air as if a drum-kit resided there, wheeling, exhorting, remonstrating, cursing, applauding – was that of a restive coach immersed in every unspooling, high-stakes nanosecond.

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A blood-pressure monitor strapped to the Irish manager's arm might have registered the kind of numbers last catalogued when Vesuvius discharged the deadly payload of magma and molten lava that did for Pompeii.

It spoke of a natural-born competitor who understood implicitly what was on the line: Legacy, destiny, Euro 2020 qualification, the national mood. Everything.

Evidently, McCarthy cares deeply; he has invested all of himself in seeking to liberate the national team from the cold house of low achievement; he brings a likeability and empathy to the role not always evident under the previous regime.

The natural human inclination is to wish him well.

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Yet, when the curtain fell on Monday night, Mick found himself on the wrong side of a savage dividing line.

If Ireland, at last, at the end of a hollow, dispiriting campaign, summoned a little thunder, still the most brutal audit must deem the evening a failure.

How can it be framed otherwise when McCarthy and his admittedly gallant band fell short of the ultimate requirement?

Ireland could not fashion their own fate. They were unable to compel a Danish side, even one which lost two key men in the opening stanzas and whose one world-class exponent, Christian Eriksen, finds himself impotent against sharp decline, to bend the knee.

No amount of charitable reviews succeed in masking some deeply unpalatable truths.

The first and most emphatic is that no injustice has been served. Any Supreme Court would unanimously uphold the verdict that announced Ireland did not remotely deserve to qualify.

Gifted the Group of Mediocrity, one laden down with C-list, off-Broadway, half-powers, it took until the final fixture of eight to illustrate even a shred of evidence that here was a team equipped to stake out some new terrain.

Even then, in what is a recurring theme, Ireland's most impressive surge arrived after they fell behind.

An examination of the last eight months offers a sobering jolt of perspective, one that douses the flames of optimism that came rushing from this fevered, flag-waving last night at the Group D proms.

Despite the inviting presence of Gibraltar's human sieves, Ireland laboured to seven goals in eight games. Denmark and Switzerland, carnivores next to their strictly vegan Celtic rivals, combined for 42.

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Armenia, a distant fifth in Group J, scored twice as many goals as the blunt green instrument, one that laboured even to fire the killshot into the cerebral cortex of the planet's defenceless, 196th-ranked nation.

It was for this reason, rather than to merely stir the pot of controversy, that astute observers led by Kenny Cunningham wondered if it amounted to an act of self-harm not to liberate the creative powers of Jack Byrne when Ireland's need for a safe-cracker was self-evident.

Ireland simply don't generate enough chances. That is why they could seize only crumbs, three points from a possible 12, from the Danish and Swiss tables.

In Georgia, against moderate opposition, they delivered a mind-numbing study in toothlessness.

The soundtrack for the greater part of the campaign was that of fabric tearing in the mainsail, a dislocated team yearning for a guiding North Star to steer them to a better place.

McCarthy can argue that his is a strictly artisan bacon and cabbage squad, one lacking a Michelin starred infusion. If that is largely true, then it is also the case that Finland and Austria rose above their lower caste ingredients to qualify for next summer's finals.

A quartet of the Irish players on duty on Monday have gone supernova with Sheffield United, firing them into the top six ahead of Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal.

And the powerful evidence of the Danish game emphasises the folly of leaving the in-form Matt Doherty sitting idly by for so much of the last year in the increasingly redundant hope that the Seamus Coleman of three years ago might re-emerge.

Ireland ought to be commended for bringing a surging pulse to the Aviva on Monday.

But, even as he surrendered to his manic sideline war dance, McCarthy must have understood that one stirring cameo cannot be traded for a get out of jail free pass.

His tread of blunt Yorkshire honesty runs too deep to deny that Ireland have been authors of their own difficulties.

It will require a sustained March recompense for the violations against good taste that formed the earlier body of painful-to-watch Group D fare before any full amnesty can be legitimately issued.

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