By Bill George
FOOTBALL managers stand or fall on results. It is the sole criterion. Everybody loves a winner is an old cliche but its survival in our lexicon confirms its accuracy and its relevance. And Mick McCarthy is a winner.
The contradiction in his case, however, is that he is not universally loved; not by all members of the public, not by all of the media people he deals with on a constant basis .... By the players? Ask Roy Keane.
Whether it is right that he should be viewed with a degree of scepticism or a level of estrangement by others is not for me to decide.
It would be wrong to be judgemental. I can only speak of on a personal basis from my own experiences.
A respected American writer once described sports reporters as “games’ touts”. That may sound demeaning to some but it is accurate. By and large the people in this business are sports fans at heart, doing the job because they enjoy sport.
The games are where it’s at, the ancillary work can be tedious. “Sportswriters” the same gentleman pronounced, “must get used to small salutes.”
That is probably as it should be; it is essential to a reporter’s credibility that he retain an element of distance from those he writes about, otherwise he is in danger of becoming a sycophant. McCarthy, to my knowledge, has succeeded in retaining a margin of withdrawal from all but a very few amongst the Irish press pack.
That is good because it is as much a protection of them and their credibility as it is a buffer between him and his critics. In consequence he is not an easy man to get close to, but there are one or two who have succeeded in bridging the divide; a select one or two who qualify as sycophants.
There are also a number who do not support McCarthy, who are equally subjective, indeed biased, in their treat-ment of the manager.
While it is not possible to offer a personal evaluation of any performance without a degree of subjectivity, there are some who would not be unhappy if he left the job.
McCarthy knows this and consequently he can be defensive and truculent when he meets the regular press corps. He is aware there are some in his audience who would welcome an opportunity to be negative.
The result is that any query that could be interpreted as critical or being geared to open up an issue that might in some way be analytical is liable to be rebuffed in decisive terms. McCarthy does not like to have his judgement on football matters questioned.
He is the professional, after all and he is not prepared to suffer the examination of ‘amateurs’. Thus McCarthy occasionally came across as gruff or grouchy in this World Cup and some reporters took delight in this.
But the truth is McCarthy is not a public relations officer and if he chose not to encourage debate on his football decisions as they affected the members of his squad, that was his right. McCarthy is a good manager, in my opinion, much better now that when he took the job six years ago.
He is more calculating when it matters most, in the course of a match. His substitutions are more reasoned, less impetuous, and linked to a level of tactical sophistication that was not there in the early years.
It is impossible now, for example, to imagine McCarthy giving an international debut to a player in the closing stages of a championship play-off with the team under pressure as he did when he introduced Matt Holland against Macedonia in 1999.
Or asking a player like Keith O’Neill to come in late in the same match and play a defensive role that was foreign to his nature and game. McCarthy has made substantial strides as a coach and it is hugely significant that he now stands as the longest-serving international manager in Europe.
Ireland have lost just two of their last 23 championship matches - how many managers can match that? McCarthy is facilitated in being able to adjust the team and adapt their approach to the demands of the moment by the quality and versatility of his players.
He said he had deliberately adopted a policy of seeking players of versatility over the years and in that he has succeeded admirably, as, indeed, he has succeeded in most other things. But the subject of his tactical flexibility was taboo prior to Ireland’s matches at this World Cup.
He was not prepared to allow any discussion develop on the subject probably because to reveal plans was to invite a critical examination, maybe even a critical confrontation, at the following day’s conference.
Thus his contention that “we always play the same way” became something of a mantra at this World Cup.
He repulsed all enquiries as to the likely tactical arrangement of his team against Ireland’s successive opponents; Cameroon, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Spain with the same stock answer. Yet he changed the formation and the personnel in the course of all four games.
Invariably the changes he made in all games were similar. Niall Quinn played a major role in effecting a change of emphasis in the tactical approach and his introduction released the marvellous Damien Duff to wreak havoc where he is best; out wide.
Duff was unquestionably worthy of inclusion in a ‘team of the tournament’. However one issue will continue to impede progress unless it is addressed: creativity. Ireland have not had a genuinely creative force in the middle of the pitch since Liam Brady retired.
Without one the strikers are having to take the ball in front of the defenders and to turn and attempt to dribble through them. In the absence of such a force Ireland went close to fulfilling their potential in this tournament.
Duff ’s employment on the right after Quinn’s predictable introduction was a surprise to Spain and worked perfectly but Ireland did not concentrate enough on trying to isolate the winger against Juanfran who was on a yellow card the 61st minute.
Which brings up the question of whether Ireland were aware that Spain had only ten men for the extra half-hour.
The players admitted they did not know and McCarthy said it was ‘some time’ before he noticed it. It is easy to understand how the people sitting on the bench, living every agonised kick of the ball, might be so caught up in the action that it could have escaped their notice.
Surely a message to the players that Spain were down to ten would have been a boost to tired men struggling for inspiration.
“We could not have changed anything” said Mc-Carthy when asked about the ten men, “we could not have tried any harder.” It was the only detail over which I would quibble. Against ten men you must try and extend the pitch and if a team defends as deeply as Spain you can only do that by spreading the play wide.