Monday 9 December 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Apathy of worn-down fans means McCarthy's bacon won't need saving'


Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Given that it's Denmark, a country renowned for its pork products, we are tempted to resurrect Big Mick's hoary old line about his backside and the bacon-slicer.

But if there's one thing worse than having his posterior in perilous proximity to the rasher-maker, it is not having it near the blade at all. Tomorrow night's fixture in Lansdowne Road is close enough to a do-or-die job but the only danger to McCarthy's rump is a damp seat in the dug-out.

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This quasi cup final between Ireland and the Danes will send the winners to Euro 2020, if there is a winner on the night. This should be enough for the manager's head to be on a chopping block, never mind his derrière being measured for a few wafer-thin slices of prosciutto.

But should Ireland lose, Mick could prance through Dublin afterwards with his trousers under his arm and still his buns would not be in any danger. There won't be a mob of furious fans pointing him towards the Denny factory at the sharp end of their pikes. They know we have a team that is not very good. Everyone knows that the national football team is not very good at playing football. Most of us have moved through the anger and grief stages and on to a state of stoical resignation, with a serving of gallows humour on the side to keep the show on the road.

The hardcore fans are still motivated and deeply invested, which is just as well because if they weren't it would be truly alarming for the FAI. But large swathes of the sporting public in general have reached an accommodation with their emotions that might best be described as indifference. The mediocrity has gone on too long; it has worn people down; there are only so many passes back to the 'keeper that they can take.

This Ireland team is actually on the brink of qualifying for a major tournament but it has been on the brink of irrelevance for much of the time since Euro 2016.

The return of Mick McCarthy to the hot seat didn't exactly galvanise the nation. The seat wasn't hot in the first place, it was merely tepid, and it has remained that way. Mick's Yorkshire drawl hadn't changed much either since the last time he'd been about the place; he wasn't a vision of the future but the past; he was a backwater manager for a backwater team.

And from the first day we knew he was a stopgap measure, a temporary little arrangement, an interregnum gaffer between Martin O'Neill's era and the incoming Stephen Kenny. So apart from anything else, there wouldn't be much point in even taking the hood off the bacon-slicer for someone who was only holding the fort.

Mind you, some of the spin he'd been putting on a variety of wretched performances meant there wouldn't have been much sympathy if the fans did decide to administer a thorough kicking. When he tried to put lipstick on the 0-0 with Georgia last month, for example, he wasn't so much spinning as gaslighting us with a ream of lines that amounted to denying us the evidence of our own eyes. And then he had the cheek to take the hump over the moderate amount of blowback that did come his way. He should have been grateful that he hadn't got more.

Anyway, he was spared because everyone is well aware of the paltry talent he has at his disposal, and because he won't be around for much longer, and because the Irish public has always been fond of him. Big Mick is part of the furniture at this stage. Given all these factors, he is facing into the most high-pressured game of his second coming with feck all pressure on him either way.

What's more, they still have a chance of qualifying even if they're beaten tomorrow, via a convoluted 'Nations League' fit-up next March. With 24 slots available for Euro 2020, it is getting to the point where it is almost harder to be eliminated than to qualify. This in itself has reduced the prestige of the tournament and diminished the achievement of reaching it.

When Ireland first qualified, at Euro 88, only eight teams made the grade. It was the real deal back then. Ireland were a seriously good team - and they had to be. Ireland are a seriously dour team now, and qualifying for Euro 2020 won't change that.

According to Peter Schmeichel we are a lot worse than dour. "I have seen Ireland play," declared the Danish goalkeeping legend last month, "and they are so bad." In October 2018 a current Danish player, the midfielder Thomas Delaney, described Ireland's style as "primitive".

Neither of them were wrong, but it doesn't mean that McCarthy and his players shouldn't take offence when it is opportune to do so. And it is opportune now. And they need all the help they can get. If Delaney says they're primitive, then let them be primitive enough to stick these comments up in big letters on the dressing room wall, the better to get their dander up even further. God knows, it won't be finesse that will defeat the Danes. If it has to be blood and thunder, then so be it.

Obviously, it might help too if the Irish lads can surprise everyone by actually passing the ball to each other. Yes, that might be a useful addition to the proceedings. But I don't suppose we can ask for miracles in this department either.

So, in those dreary words that have become part of the landscape here, it is what it is and we are where we are. We will take our fate, whatever it may be. Instead of the slicer, Mick can treat himself to a few bacon sandwiches tomorrow night and we can all go home.

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