With the decisive battle to come next Monday at the Aviva, there’s no getting away from the phoney war status of Ireland’s friendly against New Zealand at the same venue on Thursday night.
Of course, it will be a significant occasion for debutants and those fringe players who don’t regularly get to don the green shirt but, in terms of its bearing on the decisive Euro 2020 qualifier against Denmark, the impact of Thursday’s game is sure to be strictly limited.
Not negligible, though. Were, Troy Parrott for example, to mark his senior debut with a net-busting display against the All-Whites then, clearly, Mick McCarthy would have some fresh food for thought to digest ahead of Monday although, even then, the manager would still be mindful of the fact there is a lot more than a matter of a few days separating a friendly against the Kiwis from the most high-stakes football occasion Dublin has seen since that painful World Cup play-off against the Danes in 2017.
But if there is one player who stands to benefit in a major way from playing against New Zealand, it’s Robbie Brady, someone you sense Mick McCarthy would dearly love to have the option of being able to reintroduce to his team for the following Monday. But only if the Burnley man can prove that, after spending so much time on the sidelines, the competitive challenge would not prove a case of too much too soon for him.
“It is an important game for him,” McCarthy says of Thursday’s friendly. “He’s not been playing for us or for Burnley. I think he’s had 75 minutes and two or three minutes here and there, 20 minutes… But he has been and is tried and tested, tried and trusted, as a senior international player, so from that point of view, then quite clearly (playing on Thursday) gives him more of an opportunity to be playing in the Denmark game than a youngster that comes in and is making his debut. Because we know how huge that game is on Monday.”
How far off being properly match fit does he think Brady is?
“I don’t know. I mean, he played in one game and then he had 20 minutes and two or three minutes. Quite clearly, he was fit enough to play in the game that he did.
“But having five to ten games on the bounce, that’s when you’re really at it. And then, of course, there’s a balancing act. If I do start him and he plays really well, how long do I play him? Denmark is going to be different to the New Zealand game.”
While McCarthy will largely keep his first-choice players under wraps on Thursday — for example, he confirmed that, with Darren Randolph being rested for the big one, Kieran O’Hara and Mark Travers will get a half each in goal — he insists he still sees the New Zealand match as an opportunity rather than a distraction. That said, he admits that having a friendly game and a competitive match of such magnitude back to back is a novel situation even for such an experienced manager as him.
“I’ve never had this situation before,” he points out. “Can I just clear this up? You’re asking me questions about how I do it and what happens — I don’t really know. I’ve never had this as a player or as a manager with a friendly and then a big game coming up. It’s kind of strange for me and it has been in terms of picking the squad and that’s why I’ve got more players in the squad, because Monday is the important game.
“I cannot be thinking about Denmark but I am thinking about Denmark. That’s my sole focus. But, nevertheless, we still have got this game to be played and to be dealt with. And it’s great, as some of them are going to get caps in it. It’s great for them. The fact they are in, they will be buzzing . The older pros are delighted for them and when they see them performing in training, they will also get a buzz. They can bring a bit of energy and excitement and a bit of anticipation to it, and for their families too, as they are getting caps on Thursday.
“But once the game is out of the way and it’s done, then on Friday it might just hit home that Monday is D-Day which is appropriate given it’s Denmark. Once the game is finished on Thursday, and Friday comes, that’s when the excitement and anticipation and the build-up to Denmark is going to come. But not until then.”
And don’t even bother mentioning the almost certain fall-back of play-offs in the spring to McCarthy.
“As I don’t know if that’s absolutely clear or certain, there’s no point in giving it any thought,” he says.
“We need to concentrate on this game. The thought of, ‘oh well, we have something else in reserve if we don’t’ — we shouldn’t even be thinking about that.”
Nor is he giving any thought whatsoever to how he might go about following his Northern Ireland counterpart Michael O’Neill back into club football when his own national service is up.
“No, no, not at all. The job market is that fluid that thinking what might be available to me now might be bonkers as it will all change. I haven’t given it any thought. I’ve got these games to play and I’m hoping I’ll be in the job until July. I will think about if after that.”