LIAM MACKEY: Just as well Big Mick always relished a tough challenge

That great sporting institution of the turf, the Irish Managerial Succession Stakes, invariably throws up a few dark horses, and with a couple of exotic tips to match.

Exhibit A: A text message yesterday from someone with a lot of experience in the game here, the gist of which was that Jurgen Klinsmann had been spotted in a Dublin hotel and that — bear with me here — my source’s son’s mate’s brother, who works in a bookies across the road, was behind the counter when the hotel manager came in and stuck €50 on the German to be the next Ireland manager.

“Sounds absolutely bonkers,” the text, which admittedly was liberally strewn with smiley faces, went on, “but his odds have gone from 66/1 to 14/1.”

Sensing that the hotel manager’s flutter might have made the difference, I resisted the temptation to pile on myself, which is just as well, since we now know that the race belongs to Mick McCarthy and, notwithstanding the widespread support for Stephen Kenny, probably did from the moment Martin O’Neill was declared a non-runner.

On his second time around this track, McCarthy certainly has the attributes required to give us a fighting chance of avoiding the ignominy of missing out on our own party when the Euro finals roll into town in the summer of 2020.

As Ireland’s skipper, he was regarded as the embodiment on the pitch of Jack Charlton’s no-frills approach to football but, as manager, he confounded predictions he would be ‘Son Of Jack’. At their best under McCarthy’s leadership, the Irish team hit on a productive blend of style and steel which delivered such thrilling performances as the 2-2 draw away to the Netherlands and a level of sustained quality in the games at the World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea that, for all the joy generated by those landmark results under Charlton in ‘88, ‘90 and ‘94, remains unmatched in the country’s football history.

Or, to put it another way, while one game might have ended in penalty shoot-out glory and the other in penalty shoot-out despair, I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the football played by Ireland against Romania in Genoa wasn’t anything but utterly eclipsed by the quality of the Irish display in their epic game against Spain in Suwon.

That, of course, is 16 long years ago and it’s not unreasonable for sceptics to wonder if, after all that time, McCarthy can still be expected to deliver similar, or even better, results. But, for me, the bigger short-term concern is about what the current crop of players can realistically hope to achieve, irrespective of who is in charge.

While there’s no doubt that they should be capable of delivering more than we have seen from them under Martin O’Neill during this miserable 2018 — and not least because a good chunk of the same personnel did just that under the same manager only a couple of years earlier — there is no comparison between the pool of talent currently available, especially in the absence of the blessed Wes, and the players McCarthy had at his disposal at the turn of the century.

Back then, the bright young things, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given, were coming into their effervescent prime while old warriors like Steve Staunton and Niall Quinn were still on hand to lend experience and leadership to the team.

In addition, there were players of the calibre and character of Kevin Kilbane, Matt Holland, Kenny Cunningham, Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer, Ian Harte and Gary Breen and, towering above all the rest, of course, at least until the eve of the 2002 finals, there was the inspirational influence of Roy Keane.

Of the 2018 panel, a fit Robbie Brady would be knocking on the door but possibly only Seamus Coleman would have commanded a place in the first choice 11 of those days and, even then, Stephen Carr would have given him a run for his money as an attacking full-back.

The point is that McCarthy faces a daunting challenge in not just extracting the best from a comparatively ordinary panel but doing so with sufficient purpose and alacrity that he can deliver the desired results within the heavy time constraints imposed by the 2020 deadline.

Watching Northern Ireland playing the Republic off the park at the Aviva, albeit in a scoreless draw, might have been a sobering experience for southern eyes but let’s not forget that Michael O’Neill’s side, even if dogged by bad luck, lost all four of their Nations League qualifiers.

That might be acceptable in something that could pass for a transition year but, if there was to be a repeat performance in Euro qualifying, I’m not sure the Windsor Park faithful would continue to be so patient and understanding.

Similarly for the Republic, improved performances in the coming 12 months are unlikely to offer sufficient compensation if the team ends up missing out on a second tournament in succession.

On which point, we should not forget to thank Martin O’Neill for the memories. While they say you should never speak ill of the dead, such sensitivity is rarely applied to a recently departed gaffer, hence the open goal context for Matt Doherty’s claims about lack of preparation on the training ground under the former manager. Of course, the observant might have noticed that such complaints were rarely to be heard when O’Neill was leading Ireland to a memorable summer in France in 2016.

And, in the long run, those unforgettable days and nights in Dublin, Gelsenkirchen, Zenica, Paris, Lille, Lyon, Vienna and Cardiff, will long outlive the forgettable final year of O’Neill’s reign.

In the end, it was the right time for him to go.

But it’s a tough time for his successor to be stepping back in.

But then, when did Mick McCarthy ever shirk a challenge?


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