McCarthy gives us a glimpse into future
It was as if the past was embracing the future. When Robbie Keane departed the stage, it was difficult to know whether the thunderous acclaim was delivered in appreciation of the tireless, record-breaking captain or the most convoluted claim of Irish citizenship since Barack Obama's Offaly roots were discovered.
Keane is not yet the past, of course, albeit he once more has hinted that another qualification failure may usher him into international retirement; but James McCarthy most vividly represents the future of this Irish team.
This owner's roots should never have been in doubt: McCarthy's grandfather had always wanted the youngster to eventually display his proud Donegal lineage. Belatedly, a combination of bureaucracy from officialdom and intransigence from a manager could delay the moment no longer.
Giovanni Trapattoni's startling revelation during the week that he would definitely play him at some stage was a stunning departure from the proverbial pragmatism that so characterises him.
Mercifully, Trapattoni has been uncharacteristically bold in declaring that he may deign to reconstruct his team around McCarthy after many months of indifferent enthusiasm about his latent talent.
The change in mentality has become urgent, as once more the paucity of Ireland's central midfield options, in tandem with a flawed tactical approach, were exposed by a better-skilled midfield that also outnumbered the Irish.
It seems that Trapattoni has finally admitted as much, his earlier hints at a subtle change in tactical formation franked by his explanation of the role offered to the extraordinarily gifted and durable Wigan player on Saturday evening.
"Tonight, I wanted to put McCarthy in a situation where he could choose his own role on the pitch," said the Italian.
"If you want to allow young players to grow, you have to put them in positions where they're comfortable."
Having taken so long to bother his considerably well-paid behind to finally meet the player and iron out the unnecessary and unseemly squabble about McCarthy's international status, Trapattoni's haste in asserting his position in this Irish squad must now be backed by action.
When McCarthy arrived into the fray on Saturday, he became the first player all evening to place his hands in supplication in front of his pride-filled chest.
"Give me the ball now!" was the unstated instruction.
Sent on to shut up shop and stay close to Shane Long, McCarthy instead demanded the opportunity to demonstrate authority and physical presence; sadly, it was all too late, offering a stark contrast to the risible Glenn Whelan and disintegrating performance of the all-too-fleeting Darron Gibson.
At Wigan, McCarthy operates with the comfort blanket of two holding midfielders.
To mimic the player's preferred canvas, Trapattoni must now deign to finally ditch his beloved 4-4-2, which has already been repeatedly exposed as a creaking anachronism when presented against wilier teams who pass and move with their greater numbers and cohesion in midfield.
Much of the impetuous praise being currently heaped upon McCarthy must be leavened; some well-oiled supporters on Saturday evening were muttering excited comparisons to another Keane.
That is arrant nonsense and such hyperbole seems to be a mere reflection of the dearth of quality that already exists in the middle of the pitch (here, Paul Green's absence from the substitutes' list was a damning indictment of the manager's previous loyalty to him.)
However, it is also nonsensical to automatically support the concept that Ireland must remain straitjacketed by a system of forced rigidity, especially by dismissing proponents for change as fantasists.
Instead, it is realism that informs the debate and it seems that even now Trapattoni has realised this, his glowing praise for McCarthy at yesterday's briefing clearly delineating a pivotal role for the player in the crucial months ahead.
"That's what I like to do, play in the hole and try to get on the ball," McCarthy told us of an introduction to competitive international football that produced more voluble acclamation from a diffident crowd than either of Ireland's goals.
"I thought I got on the ball a few times when I got on and I'm delighted."
His body strength has dramatically changed since we last saw him in the Emirates, as one forceful shoulder and dispossession proved.
"I've been in the gym since I was injured, I've been working on my upper body, filled out a little. I was just delighted to get on the pitch. I have a taste of it now and I want to become even more involved. It's about working hard at the club and maybe I could be called into the next squad."
Keane alluded to the tawdry saga that was finally put to bed on Saturday evening -- pointedly criticising Roberto Martinez -- and McCarthy's relief was palpable as he wallowed in the moment with his family after the final whistle.
"I was speaking to him before the game," reported Ireland's record goalscorer. "And I said 'I bet you can't wait just to get this over with' and stop people from talking about it -- and maybe his manager. I think it was a bit frustrating for him.
"He was desperate to play and there was never any question -- I spoke to people in the last couple of months that James knows very well -- that he was going to turn his back. His family is all Irish and he is desperate to play for us."
McCarthy was bemused at the abnormal standing ovation.
"I didn't think I would get that reception," he said. "I couldn't appreciate it any more. They were fantastic all through the game, different class."
A bit like himself and with the promise of more ovations to come. His international future is now.