A 2-0 defeat, a missed Steve Staunton penalty and a red card for Roy Keane: Mick McCarthy’’s rocky first game as Ireland manager, on this day 24 years ago, revisited by Liam Mackey.
THERE was a time when everyone used to say that the ideal managerial position in Irish football would be the one which opened up for the man who followed the man who followed Jack Charlton.
But stepping straight into Big Jack’s shoes? How could anyone folly dat?
True, the Charlton era had ended in a bruising 2-0 play-off defeat at the hands of a vibrant young Dutch team in a Euro ’96 play-off at Anfield in December 1995, the then 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert scoring both goals in a command performance that left the Irish side looking distinctly creaky and second-rate.
Niall Quinn, who was in Anfield but suspended for the game, later observed: “Really, by then, we were an old team and Holland had a new young side and we just didn’t have what it took to beat them on the night. A bad memory for all of us who were there.”
But it was memories of the glory days which made for a poignant end to the night, with the Irish fans in the Kop paying an emotional tribute to Jack Charlton as he, in turn, saluted them from down on the pitch.
Eight days later he would officially be the ex-Ireland manager, but the warmth of the Green Army’s response in Liverpool, even in bitter defeat, spoke volumes for the respect and affection in which Charlton was held.
His time at the helm might have ended on a depressingly low note — failure to qualify for the Euro ’96 tournament being hosted in England hurt particularly hard — but he was and would forever remain the man who had first led Irish football to the promised land of European Championship and World Cup finals and who, at the most special of those heady times, took virtually the whole country with him.
So, again, who’d want to folly all dat?
The answer was someone who never shirked a challenge on the pitch: Mick McCarthy.
The ‘Captain Fantastic’ of Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, McCarthy had cut his managerial teeth at Millwall before he was appointed as successor to Charlton in February of 1996.
A centre-half who embodied Charlton’s direct, no-frills approach on the field of play, McCarthy as manager was immediately caricatured as ‘Son Of Jack’ in some disaffected quarters but, by the time he emulated his predecessor by taking Ireland to the 2002 World Cup, he had clearly imprinted his own vision on the Irish style of play.
The seeds were sown on this day 24 years ago when a friendly between Ireland and Russia at Lansdowne Road marked Mick McCarthy’s first game in what would prove to be his first coming as Ireland manager.
Fully aware of the shadow into which he was stepping, the new manager had been at pains to emphasise during his pre-match briefings that he was determined to do things his way, not Jack’s way.
“We’ve got to retain things that have been there before in terms of passion and desire,” he said.
“The Irish spirit has got to stay. But I want us to play a more subtle game. The ball won’t just be knocked up to the forwards. We’ll get the ball down and try to play football. And straight away.
For the visitors, it was a warm-up game for Euro ’96, the Russians having topped their group and qualified, along with second-placed Scotland, for the finals in the summer.
For Ireland, it was “a time for reappraisal”, in McCarthy’s words, as he sought to manage the transition between the old guard and the new.
But, with injury absentees limiting his options, there was no shortage of familiar faces in his selection, with the likes of Paul McGrath, Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton, John Aldridge, Andy Townsend, Terry Phelan, and Roy Keane all starting, later to be joined off the bench by Tony Cascarino.
One notable new addition was between the sticks, 19-year-old Shay Given making his senior debut as the latest nationalised product of what Packie Bonner liked to call “Donegal’s cottage industry of goalkeepers”.
And there was also a start for Mark Kennedy, then looking to make a breakthrough at Liverpool, who’d only made his senior debut the previous September in a 3-1 Euros qualifying defeat to Austria.
With Ireland deploying a 3-5-2 formation in front of a crowd of 41,600, winger Kennedy was a lively presence on the left flank, his cross allowing Andy Townsend an early opportunity to work the Russian goalkeeper.
But it wasn’t too long before the visitors’ superior class told, a fluent move culminating in a delicious Andrei Kanchelskis backheel which entirely wrong-footed the Irish defence and set up Aleksander Mostovoi to skip past a green shirt and bury a low shot past the diving Given.
That was just three minutes before the break, and soon after the re-start the Russians went two up, the gifted Mostovoi this time bamboozling Jeff Kenna on the endline before laying the ball off for striker Igor Kolyvanov to bend one inside the far post.
The Irish certainly had their moments as they chased the game.
A Steve Staunton near-post corner was headed against the bar by Niall Quinn, but as the ball fell to Tony Cascarino, he couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to force it over the line.
“That was damn bad luck,” bemoaned Ray Treacy, sitting alongside George Hamilton in the RTÉ commentary box.
But there was no such sympathy from the commentator when Ireland blew their best chance of getting a goal back.
In an aerial challenge, Viktor Onopko threw out an arm and made contact with the ball, the referee having no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Up stepped Steve Staunton to do the needful, only to see his too-straight effort deflected away by the legs of Cherchesov.
“Dear, oh dear,” said Hamilton. “Steve Staunton misses the penalty. That about sums up the evening.”
Well, not quite, actually. First, from the resultant corner, Quinn had a goal ruled out for a foul on the ‘keeper and then, with the final whistle in sight, came Roy Keane’s red mist moment which would overshadow all else.
Tangling with Omar Tedradze, Keane suddenly swiped the legs from under the player, leaving the referee with no option, as they say, but to dole out a red card to the Man United man, who had taken over the captain’s armband at half time from the injured Townsend.
“Roy spoiled an excellent performance, and I told him so,” said McCarthy after the game.
“He’s a top-class player and he had an excellent game, but one moment of silliness means he’s got headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Now, 24 years on, it’s best just to leave that one hanging there, I think.
Republic of Ireland v Russia, March 27, 1996: