It’s the second coming of Mick McCarthy and upon this Rock he will build his church. Laying the foundations for the manager’s one-shot bid to reach Euro 2020 should not prove too taxing, even on an artificial pitch and in the teeth of a howling wind.
And even against a Gibraltar side boosted by being able to stay at home in the European Championships after they enjoyed the giddy sensation of a narrow 2-1 win over Liechtenstein in the Victoria Ground in last year’s Nations League. More remarkably, that result came just after they’d claimed their first three points of the campaign with an unlikely 1-0 away win against Armenia, matching Ireland’s record in Yerevan, incidentally, where it will be remembered that a Keith Fahey goal secured victory under Giovanni Trapattoni.
Mind, that Gibraltar double act was in September last year. Something more like normal service was resumed just the following month, as they went down 2-6 to Armenia here on the Rock, followed by a 4-0 loss to Macedonia. In other words, improvement is relative at their level. Going into today’s test against Ireland, lest we forget, they are still ranked 194 out of 211 in the Fifa listings, sandwiched between Brunei and Guam.
All of which is by way of saying that if there is a shock on the Rock this evening, it will make Scotland’s collapse in Kazakhstan look like a heroic defeat. Still, McCarthy yesterday described that 3-0 blow for the Scots as “a stark warning to us about what can happen.”
Not, of course, that Ireland are majoring on defensive considerations going into this one, even if McCarthy does believe that Gibraltar can pose a threat from frees, corner and long throws. In training, McCarthy and his coach Terry Connor, with input from Robbie Keane naturally enough, have been putting a special emphasis on giving the boys in green a more attacking posture than they were able to muster for most of the final year of Martin O’Neill’s reign.
“The first training session, I wasn’t happy with the amount of chances that we were creating, or players getting in the box,” the manager revealed. “TC put a great session on exactly for that, on the third day, and we gave them the feedback on the night, and just showed the difference between how you can do it. Doing it in training is one thing, of course; we’ve got to do it in a game. We have worked on it, and that’s pretty much all you can do: Give players information in terms of wanting people to get in the box, putting crosses in the box, however you get in there, and just try and create more chances and have more bodies there, on the move, and trying to score if we create we chances. So we have worked on it.”
Sean Maguire and David McGoldrick are expected to be asked to do the heavy lifting in that regard up top, with support on the flanks from James McClean and Matt Doherty and, through the middle, Jeff Hendrick and, possibly, Conor Hourihane. That’s assuming, of course, that Robbie Brady, so lacking in game time since his injury, is held in reserve for this one, something which the manager appeared to hint at during his pre-match press conference when he remarked, “he’s fit enough to contribute but he’s not started many games.” McCarthy may also have a call to make in the centre of defence where John Egan could get the nod to partner Shane Duffy, especially with Richard Keogh nursing a delicate hand.
Asked if, in seeking to generate some of that fabled early campaign momentum, the bigger goal over the coming days is six points from the first two games, McCarthy replied: “If we’re going to gain any momentum, it’s going to have to start here. But I really do think we should give them the respect they deserve, Julio’s team. Because they will be right bang at it. I know it’s cliched stuff with those old FA cup ties but we’ve also seen it in the league in England all the time and we’ve seen what’s happened with Scotland Thursday night.
“We’ve got to play as well as we can. You talk about style of football: It’s brilliant if you can win, and if you can play well and win it’s better still. But we can only gain momentum if we start well and get a victory, I’ll concern myself with Georgia after that.”
Tonight’s captain Séamus Coleman echoed that sense of focusing totally on the here and now.
“To qualify for a major tournament is massive and that starts now,” he declared. “And whether it’s winning with 10% possession or 70%, I just want to win the football game.”
Finally, Gibraltar government has issued a ‘Warning of Significant Weather’ — including a forecast for some “very strong gusts” — which is valid until 9am tomorrow morning. Mick McCarthy offered a typically deadpan response.
“You are aware where we play our football? We don’t play in ideal conditions all the time in terms of weather, bearing in mind that I started at Barnsley and I’ve been to Sunderland and Glasgow. It’s nothing that concerns me. I can’t do anything about it, it is what it is and we’ll just get on with it.”