Friday 18 October 2019

Whelan back the years for McCarthy's mission to build a team for the present

Ireland's Glenn Whelan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Glenn Whelan. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

If he could bring back the old gang, Mick McCarthy would be on the phone to Robbie, Duffer, Shay, Killa, Dunney, maybe even Roy (the player). The nearest he could get to a realistic recall was Glenn Whelan and he was back in the beating heart of McCarthy's new Ireland last night.

If there is one obvious difference between the squad he left to Brian Kerr and the one inherited from Martin O'Neill, it is the lack of experienced, quality, top-flight regulars.

Why then, in his long-awaited return to Lansdowne Road, would McCarthy drop Matt Doherty, the only Irishman vying for a place in the Premier League's PFA team of this season?

His exclusion seemed harsh and unexpected, especially in an era when Ireland internationals are no longer packed into the English league's top teams. But then it would have been harsh on Enda Stevens and there is no way McCarthy would consider dropping his captain Seamus Coleman, even if the perception of the Everton defender is that he has lost some pace and edge.

It was McCarthy, on the recommendation of trusty networker David Bowman, who took Doherty from Bohemians to England and gave him his debut at Molineux. He played him at right-back, left-back, even in midfield, all positions he could have used the 27-year-old in last night to accommodate his obvious talents.

The prospect of Doherty pinging the ball from right to left, or foraging in advanced areas, as he does every week for Nuno Espirito Santo, is one that will excite the returning Ireland boss.

But McCarthy has no time for that. He has less than two years in the job and will not be employed long enough to build a team for the future, experiment with players or line-ups or gamble with inexperience. Ireland need to win matches if they are to be part of the Euro 2020 finals.

The team selection for his first game in charge in the Aviva should have felt like a breath of fresh air for a Dublin crowd eager to lift the fog of doom which had descended in the last few games of O'Neill's reign.

But with Doherty named among the 12 substitutes, Whelan recalled from retirement and Coleman retaining the armband, questions were being asked before the game started.

McCarthy admitted that Doherty's partnership with Coleman in Gibraltar had not worked. Stevens and James McClean on the left did however and at Sheffield United, Stevens has been one of Ireland's outstanding and most consistent players this season.

The selection of Whelan in particular would have been a divisive one, had Ireland lost. That they didn't was largely down to the inclusion of a player who had not started a competitive match for Ireland since they were outplayed in the lousy 1-1 draw in Tbilisi 18 months ago.

Whelan apparently waved farewell to international football last year but has been playing regularly, and with typical efficiency for Aston Villa since. Most notably, he has been playing alongside, or tucked behind Conor Hourihane in Dean Smith's team, and helping to bring out the best in a midfielder, who has now won 11 caps.

And so it was last night. When the tennis balls had been cleared and Hourihane stepped forward to clip his delicious free-kick out of Giorgi Loria's reach to give Ireland a 36th minute lead and his first international goal, Whelan was the decoy.

Preserving the legs has become the priority for Whelan, who was winning his 86th cap and rarely completes 90 minutes these days.

"I thought Glenn was remarkable.," said McCarthy afterwards. "What is he 35? That is testimony to how he has kept himself in good shape and I thought he had a very good game, started us playing and broke things up."

In a pulsating opening 20 minutes, when Ireland created more chances than they could manage for the entirety of O'Neill's dying days, Whelan played the solid anchor. He was still at it as Vladimir Weiss' team probed for an equaliser for the last 20. His presence allowed Coleman and Stevens to bomb down the wings, with just Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh behind to counter the counter attacks, and for Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady to time runs into the penalty area - a classic McCarthy tactic they have been working on since the squad gathered in Abbotstown.

I counted one misplaced pass, a wobbly back-pass to pressurise Darren Randolph and the shot which went for a throw-in in added time. Overall, his touches were simple and effective.

After McGoldrick's deserved ovation, Doherty did get nine minutes to work on that partnership with Coleman and his days for Ireland will come, although perhaps not under McCarthy. Whelan's are clearly far from over.

Irish Independent

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