Saturday 24 February 2018

Roy Keane's recall of glory days brings plight of McCarthy into focus

Absence of stability at crucial stage of career a worry - but he must stay to fight at Everton

Roy Keane will be hoping that James McCarthy can re-establish himself in the Everton team in order to help Ireland’s cause. Photo: GETTY
Roy Keane will be hoping that James McCarthy can re-establish himself in the Everton team in order to help Ireland’s cause. Photo: GETTY
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Roy Keane has returned to the spotlight this week, with his appearance on a Sky Sports discussion programme with Thierry Henry and Kenny Dalglish bringing the Corkman down memory lane.

The prospect of Keane and Dalglish sitting in a studio exchanging pleasantries would have been unthinkable back in his playing pomp when the in-demand Irish midfielder famously snubbed Blackburn at the last minute to make a career-defining move to Manchester United. Dalglish was less than impressed.

They went over old ground in the course of the hour-long TV debate, with Keane making the reasonable point that his judgment was vindicated even if he didn't exactly go about it the right way. He picked the right club at the right time.

Ireland would love to have another Keane. He would too, given he's now assistant manager, and there has been another Glaswegian on his mind throughout his tenure.

James McCarthy seems to be at a career crossroads now - in truth he's spent the past 18 months stood still there - and he is facing into an important fortnight of decision making.

The news that Gareth Barry has left Everton to join West Brom could be construed as a positive.

When Everton splashed out to bring in the Ireland international from Wigan in this window four years ago, the pair had struck up a reasonable partnership and the assumption was that McCarthy would naturally become the senior figure in a new midfield when Barry eventually moved on.

That was if a bigger club didn't come in for McCarthy before that happened. There was genuine transfer speculation which suggested he was on the radar of the leading powers.

He was only temporarily held in that esteem, and it reads like fanciful talk now given how injuries and a loss of form have chipped away at his status.

The fact that a portion of Everton fans would have preferred to see McCarthy leave the club instead of 36-year-old Barry is indicative of a worrying slump at a key phase of his career.

McCarthy was mentioned by Martin O'Neill at his squad announcement for Georgia and Serbia on Monday, but we are now at the point where it's presumed there will always be a fitness issue and the build-up to his new season has been interrupted by little niggles.

It is easy to leave him out of calculations when mulling over a possible team, even though the Ireland boss has always leaned towards picking him when available.

Given he turns 27 later this year, the absence of real stability at this point of his development is alarming.

His club are improving, though.

Everton have embarked on a healthy recruitment drive this summer and news of Barry's exit was overshadowed by a £45 million (€49m) splurge on Gylfi Sigurdsson.

The Icelandic international is a different type of player, of course, an attacking midfielder that can operate behind a striker. Ronald Koeman might have to tweak his side's style of play with Romelu Lukaku's exit and the return of Wayne Rooney.

But he will still need a defensively-minded midfielder in his side, if not two. Morgan Schneiderlin is his go-to-guy and was brought in from Manchester United for a reason. Idrissa Gueye jumped ahead of McCarthy in the queue with his energy and athleticism complementing Barry well before Schneiderlin was recruited.

The other option in that position is Bosnian Mo Besic, who has been in and out of the side throughout his tenure and generally behind McCarthy in the pecking order. Tom Davies was also mentioned as an alternative to Barry yesterday in Koeman's press conference ahead of the Europa League tie with Hadjuk Split.

In reality, Sigurdsson's arrival could make it easier for Ross Barkley to depart if Koeman is viewing things from a like-for-like perspective.

However, some reports have indicated that the spend on the Swansea star will encourage the sale of McCarthy who has been priced at £25m (€27m) despite his difficulties.

McCarthy was not raised by Koeman when he discussed the Barry alternatives, an omission that could be interpreted as ominous.

Newcastle and West Brom are the two clubs that have been linked with a switch throughout the summer and the latter have now gone for Barry to fill a void.

That would appear to put Newcastle in pole position and Rafa Benitez is a long-term admirer of the player.

He was cool enough on his interest last month. "He is a good player but we now have a lot of them at this club," he said, "He's not our first target at this moment."

Benitez is fighting his own battles in Newcastle right now and that should make any player wary of going there, with persistent murmurs that the Spaniard could walk unless he gets what he wants.

By contrast, Everton appear to be ambitious and on the up.

Keane said he joined United in 1993 because he sensed there was a hunger there to improve and that attitude seems to be prevalent at Everton.

There is no doubt that McCarthy is down the queue but if they can qualify for the Europa League group stages then there will be game-time.

The selfish football move, if not the most lucrative financial one, might well be to dig in, reject any opportunities to leave and back himself to turn things around this time of Christmas.

If he wants to spend his best years at the top table, it's a gamble that is worth taking.

Irish Independent

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