As Irish football seeks new heroes, both on and off the pitch, a veteran one has been tipped by Mick McCarthy to spearhead his Euro 2020 qualification crusade.
Shane Long hasn’t scored for his country since October 2016, but right now he’s McCarthy’s only striker burying Premier League goals, three so far in April.
The Southampton forward’s purple patch is all the more welcome, given he bagged just one goal between January 2018 and January 2019.
For all the talk of McCarthy blooding young talent during his second stint at the helm, the prime remit is qualification. On a one-campaign contract, he’ll gladly accept a 32-year-old leading the line when they face second seeds Denmark in Copenhagen on June 7.
It was the nature of Long’s technique after seven seconds against Watford on Tuesday, rather than him breaking the record for the quickest-ever goal, that heartened his international manager.
“Shane will be remembered for the record, but he should be remembered for the deft finish,” noted McCarthy.
“His finish was brilliant. Making blocks and holding the ball up, he’ll do that all day long and that’s what he’s known for, but his finish was excellent.
Not scoring was bound to affect Shane’s confidence. Players might not admit that, but the acid test is when you’re through one-on-one, having not scored goals.
“People just have to read what Tony Cascarino’s said in his book; it’s in his head, thinking, ‘you’ve no chance, you’re going to miss or the keeper will save it’.
“Shane can make a huge difference for us because of the physical presence and work-rate be brings. We saw it in the last game against Georgia, when he stopped them playing, but you want more than that.”
Irish football certainly needs a lift. McCarthy could easily bat away questions on the crisis engulfing Irish football by citing his residency abroad, but that doesn’t dim his empathy for the staff left picking up the pieces.
He was the one in the firing line when the last controversy of this scale erupted, back in 2002 in Saipan.
“I’ve always maintained in football that you’re better off being on the back pages than the front,” was his view on the barrage of criticism shipped by the FAI in recent weeks.
“I feel for the people working in the office. Living in England, I’m immune to it, but I was acutely aware going in yesterday that it must be pretty tough working in an environment where the association is battered.
“My contact with the former chief executive John Delaney was minimal. I was in talking to our president Donal Conway yesterday and he assured me to carry on doing what I’m doing.
“The FAI employees are trying to work it out while everybody else is trying to tear it apart. I’ll leave people who are better at that than I to do that.
“There is a lot they can be proud of and that’s what I tried telling the staff. Like me, they can’t affect what’s gone on.
“Everything that I’ve seen since I left 17 years ago is now better. Be it the Lansdowne Road stadium, the headquarters in Abbotstown and the underage teams doing well, there’s a lot of good things in Irish football. I’ve got six points from my first two Euro qualifiers.
“I have to say that the media are pretty good when they get a piece of wallpaper and it starts peeling off.”
It might only apply a cosmetic lather to the FAI’s structural problems, but some focus on McCarthy’s team in the coming months would help. Their next assignment is a week-long training camp in Portugal from May 21, allowing McCarthy to afford opportunities to many of his supporting cast.
Potentially, up to 11 players could be unavailable, because of involvement in the various play-offs, restricting the level of squad planning he can make.
At least Callum Robinson will be fit to work under McCarthy for the first time since his return to the hotseat last November, as will Callum O’Dowda.
Although James McCarthy has finally ended his wait for first-team minutes at Everton by appearing against Manchester United, he was getting no guarantee of a call-up by his namesake.
“We’ll see,” was the height of his commitment.
I can only pick 11 players for the qualifiers against Denmark, and Gibraltar a few days later,” he noted.
“However, I’m not going to bring a load of players to Portugal, saying ‘just come in and on the 28th you can go home’.
“I’m still in the process of dealing with that. We’ll have a training match against Stephen Kenny’s U21s when we come back from Portugal. Those games from my first spell were fairly competitive.”
A ding-dong between Irish players will at least provide some respite from the boardroom battles.