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James Collins pictured in training during the week.
James Collins pictured in training during the week.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One debutant confirmed out of a possible 5 as McCarthy set to give Ireland's fringe players a chance

James Collins will make his international bow against Bulgaria tonight.
Sep 10th 2019, 6:16 AM 22,388 16

1. Fringe players set to get a chance

IRELAND BOSS MICK McCarthy confirmed in his pre-match press conference that several fringe players are set to get a chance to impress in tonight’s friendly with Bulgaria at the Aviva Stadium.

Unsurprisingly, given that they are the only out-and-out forwards left in the 22-man squad, McCarthy said both Scott Hogan and James Collins would feature, but did elaborate whether it would be from the outset in either case.

One more regular performer who will definitely figure from the start, though, is Conor Hourihane, with the Aston Villa man deployed in the unfamiliar position of left-back.

Collins is unlikely to be the only debutant to play, with four more potentially making their international bow — Jack Byrne, Mark Travers,  Kieran O’Hara and Josh Cullen.

On loan from West Ham, Cullen has enjoyed a particularly good start to the season, playing regularly for a Charlton side currently second in the Championship.

With 35-year-old Glenn Whelan unlikely to play a second match in such a short space of time having completed 90 minutes against the Swiss, the 23-year-old seems an obvious alternative pick in midfield.

In addition, despite appearing at yesterday’s pre-match press conference, captain Seamus Coleman was non-committal when asked if he would start. With little to be learned about the Everton star at this stage, McCarthy may opt to give Fulham’s Cyrus Christie a run out on this occasion.

Similarly, in the first friendly match of McCarthy’s tenure, the previously overlooked centre-backs John Egan and Kevin Long will likely be rewarded for their patience and feature.

Alan Judge and Alan Browne, both of whom came on in the second half against the Swiss, will hope to get the nod in midfield. That said, McCarthy may feel the need to play Jeff Hendrick at the start, given how rarely he has played at club level this season.

League of Ireland aficionados will be hoping Jack Byrne gets a chance, though given that he did not even make the matchday squad on Friday, he seems well down the pecking order and a substitute appearance might be the more likely outcome as far as the 23-year-old Dubliner is concerned.

Callum O’Dowda and Ronan Curtis will similarly be hoping to feature, with both players having yet to play a single minute of action since McCarthy took over.

And finally, expect to see at least one goalkeeping debut. Bournemouth youngster Mark Travers would appear to be in the driving seat in this regard, given that Kieran O’Hara was only a late addition to the squad after Keiren Westwood’s withdrawal, though both deputies could play a part if McCarthy opts to rest Randolph entirely.

2. An audition for Hourihane at left-back?

conor-hourihane-callum-odowda-and-robbie-keane Conor Hourihane, Callum O'Dowda and assistant manager Robbie Keane. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The big talking point of the pre-match press conference was Mick McCarthy’s confirmation that Conor Hourihane would start tonight in the unfamiliar role of left-back.

The surprise call will inevitably prompt speculation that McCarthy is using the game to determine if Hourihane is a suitable candidate to replace the suspended Enda Stevens for next month’s crucial qualifier away to Georgia.

McCarthy admitted the experiment was far from guaranteed to succeed, but pointed to the player’s excellent crossing ability, his natural defensive instincts and the simple fact that he could do with game time having been a peripheral figure in Villa’s season so far.

Yet the Irish boss left open a number of possibilities for the Georgia trip. He seemed particularly adamant in insisting that Matt Doherty — who is currently injured — would be comfortable slotting into the left-back role in Georgia, having had an extended period in the position earlier on in his Wolves career.

Playing Stephen Ward or Greg Cunningham in a friendly, McCarthy suggested, would be virtually pointless, given that he knows the players well already.

Perhaps it is the manager’s way of taking the pressure off Hourihane, but barring an exceptional performance, the chances of him starting as part of the backline in Tbilisi — when he has played all five previous qualifiers in midfield — still appear doubtful at best.

3. Don’t dismiss the importance of a win

Ireland are unbeaten since Mick McCarthy took over. They have gone seven games without a loss in total.

It is their longest unbeaten stretch since a pre-Euro 2016 run between November 2014 to October 2015.

It should also be pointed out that their three victories during this period have come against Georgia at home and Gibraltar twice — matches you would normally expect the team to win regardless of the manager.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of positivity surrounding the side currently that had been conspicuous by its absence towards the end of the Martin O’Neill era, with this negativity significantly exacerbated by the series of recent off-field controversies pertaining to the FAI.

McCarthy has hardly fixed the many systematic flaws that continue to exist in Irish football, though he has done about as well in difficult circumstances as any realistic fan could expect in a short period of time.

Having been outplayed for large sections of the match, the manner of the stirring late fightback against Switzerland has provided scope for optimism, as did group rivals Denmark surprisingly dropping points away to fourth seeds Georgia the other night.

This feel-good factor was probably last apparent in October 2017 in Cardiff, when Ireland scraped a 1-0 win over Wales and secured a World Cup play-off spot in the process.

There is a similar feeling now, on account of the sense that qualification is within the team’s grasp, with positive results in their final three group games against Georgia, Switzerland and Denmark set to secure the Boys in Green’s passage into Euro 2020.

Such optimism can vanish quite quickly though. After that victory over Wales, Ireland would ultimately fail to win 10 of their next 11 matches — a run that ultimately cost Martin O’Neill his job as national team manager.

While defeat against Bulgaria tonight would be far from disastrous and it will seem irrelevant either way if they manage to qualify, a win would certainly be welcome.

In international football in particular, where managers invariably have little time to work on tactics and systems, the play tends to be less sophisticated and old-fashioned virtues such as confidence and momentum seem more relevant than at club level.

Keeping McCarthy’s unbeaten run intact would ensure the side retains the evidently strong sense of morale and self-belief that has helped them achieve positive results against superior teams on more than one occasion so far, ahead of three fixtures that will likely come to define the experienced coach’s second Ireland tenure.

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Paul Fennessy

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