In a spirit of, as he put it,“nothing ventured, nothing gained”, Mick McCarthy has made the left-field decision to play Conor Hourihane atleft-back against Bulgaria at the Aviva Stadium tonight.
Enda Stevens’ yellow card against Switzerland means Ireland’s first choice left-full will miss next month’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Georgia and, in the absence of designated cover in the squad he has available for this evening’s friendly, the manager has decided to give the Corkman – who is currently out of favour as a starter at Aston Villa - a novel posting.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if he played really well and everybody was ‘wow’?” McCarty mused. “If he doesn’t, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And he’s one of those who has not been playing (for his club) and I’d like him to have more minutes.”
Expanding on his reasons for the re-positioning of one of his go-to midfielders, McCarthy said: “He is a very intelligent player, that’s for sure.
“He has a wonderful left foot and if we can get him further up the pitch so he can deliver crosses, we should get some joy out of that. Are there any points at stake tonight, except trying to find things out? Do you agree? Well, why would I not try? What happens if he looks amazing?
“He has all the tools to play there, that’s for sure. What is he, 6ft? He can defend the far post, he’s competitive enough and he has a great left foot. If you’re trying to play out from the back like we do he can certainly play from there. He is a central midfield player who has to track runners and he has to defend from that position.
For next month’s game in Tbilisi, McCarthy indicated that, if all are fit and available, Matt Doherty, Greg Cunningham and even a recalled Stephen Ward would be the main contenders to replace Stevens.
As, indeed, would James McClean, currently playing at left-back for Stoke, though the Derryman’s performance against the Swiss – and, in particular, his crucial role in setting up David McGoldrick’s goal - has left the manager in no doubt that his most vital contribution to the Irish cause comes when playing further up the pitch.
“If I had to play him there (at left back), I wonder what I’d do if I lost his energy and his drive and that ability to close down from the front and chase back and nick it off him and put in a cross and we score the equaliser – I really appreciate what he does.
“The left-back slot isn’t concerning me. If Stephen Ward is playing, I’m sure he’d come back and play. If Greg Cunningham is playing, he’ll come back and play. They’ve been playing it all their lives. (Matt Doherty) has been a full-back all his life so just the fact he hasn’t played there (at left-back) in a while doesn’t mean to say he loses that ability to play that position. I wouldn’t be concerned about him at all. He’s a full-back and he can play either side.”
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Hourihane apart, McCarthy wasn’t giving anything else away about his team selection for tonight’s game but fringe players likely to see some action include Josh Cullen, Alan Browne, Jack Byrne, Ronan Curtis, Callum O’Dowda, John Egan, Kevin Long and Cyrus Christie, while Bournemouth ‘keeper Mark Travers looks set to make his international debut and, at the other end of the pitch, Luton Town striker James Collins should also get a first chance to stake a claim at senior level.
Meanwhile, though McCarthy declined the proffered bait of lumbering Aaron Connolly with ‘the new Damien Duff’ tag, he happily admitted that Brighton’s 19-year-old Galwegian – a forward deployed as a left winger by Stephen Kenny - had him on the edge of his seat in Tallaght Stadium on Friday as he watched the U21s beat Armenia.
“I thought he was exceptional on the night,” he said. “There’s not many like him because they all tend to play on the opposite side and come in on the inside.”
Using the example of Ireland’s captain as a representative right-back, McCarthy went on: “No-one has the balls to stand Seamus up (and say) ‘I’m going to run you on the outside, I’m going to keep taking you on and get past you and get crosses in’. I thought him and (Jayson) Molumby were outstanding on the night.”
Nonetheless, McCarthy agreed that it’s a big ask for any of the young guns to break into his side as the Euro 2020 qualification campaign enters the final straight.
“Of course it is. It’s about tried and trusted players, experience. You’ve seen Denmark in Georgia, you’ve seen us against Switzerland.
“I’ve got to have our most seasoned pros out playing. Stephen has his best 21s, he’s grooming them for future things in the first team, and when he gets it (the senior manager’s job), he can put them all in, it’ll be wonderful.”