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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

Old issues of style of play raised again ahead of must-win clash with Gibraltar

Mick McCarthy bristled slightly on Ireland’s need to play open, expansive football ahead of tonight’s game in Dublin.

TONIGHT SEES ONE of those odd, lopsided games thrown up by international football, as a side featuring a delivery driver and a midfielder without a club play Gibraltar. 

Mick McCarthy Mick McCarthy takes Irish training ahead of tonight's game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In fairness, Bohemians’ ‘keeper James Talbot won’t play unless injury befalls Darren Randolph while Glenn Whelan’s spell as a free agent shouldn’t even last until July, with a number of clubs interested in signing him following his release from Aston Villa. 

A win would be the third of the Mick II Era, and would leave Ireland top of the group with 10 points from 12 at the halfway point in the group.

Their Autumn fixtures are much more daunting, featuring trips to Georgia and Switzerland along with the visits of the Swiss and, you guessed it, Denmark. 

Still, 10 from 12 is a real, ‘would have taken it’ points total at this stage, and it would be the weight to reinforce the intangible sense of good feeling toward the squad and the manager at the moment. 

McCarthy changed the mood around this whole enterprise pretty quickly, doing so by refusing to lament his players’ supposed limitations in public and just seeing genuinely happy to be around the players.

Given what the previous reign bequeathed to us on WhatsApp – chalk that down as genuine progress. 

As time goes on, however, a few other things are naturally going to come under scrutiny. 

One of them is his selection.

Martin O’Neill was widely chastised for his principle of naming his starting team at the stadium, and McCarthy has changed this custom. There is also a little more continuity – the Irish line-up against Denmark was unchanged for the first time since Euro 2016, and McCarthy won’t be ripping up that selection for tonight’s game, either. 

“I don’t get the sense that there should be wholesale changes”, he said at his pre-game press conference.

“The lads who have won two games and drawn one and played ever so well, I’m not in the habit of saying, ‘All right, scattergun approach and we’ll give somebody a game.’”

So in spite of an enervating, 90-minute Shane Ross impersonation on Christian Eriksen just four days ago, Whelan may well play again tonight. If he doesn’t, former U21 captain Josh Cullen is in line for a senior debut.

Beyond that, Callum O’Dowda may come into contention if Robbie Brady doesn’t hang onto his place on the right of attack. 

Alan Judge down injured Alan Judge is injured against Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Brady might well have lost out to Alan Judge from the start of this game, had Judge not broken his wrist in the last moments of Friday’s draw.

Judge will have an operation today, and had considerable trouble getting into a groomsman’s suit for a wedding yesterday. 

Lacking match sharpness, Brady has also lost his set-piece niche to Conor Hourihane, so his position is under threat. 

A second element up for examination this week – style.

Without the ball, Ireland are staying slightly higher up the pitch than they did during the dog days of the O’Neill regime, and their pressing is more intense and done with more cohesion. 

Comments McCarthy made after Friday night’s draw, however, were eerily similar to a recurring feature of his predecessor’s press conferences. 

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“Can we be better with the ball?”, he asked himself before anyone else had a chance to.

“I think we could. I was disappointed at times. We won the ball back a lot in the first half and gave it away fairly quickly so we were profligate in that way.” 

McCarthy repeated that sentiment yesterday. 

“I don’t know whether it is a rush to score a goal, but you go from that crash, bang, wallop mentality to get the ball back, which you must have, then to calming down and passing the ball to each other.

“So I thought we did the first bit really well, and the second bit, not as well as I like.”

Irish football has a peculiar relationship with playing better football, the kind of proactive passing that RTÉ would compile at half-time under the heading ‘Good Irish Play’.

We treat taking it up like we do quitting the drink over a long weekend – it always seems like the best thing to do tomorrow morning, but embracing its opposite is generally seen as the best way of getting through the night. 

Gibraltar at home offers Ireland the chance to score a few goals – they’ve yet to score more than once under McCarthy, and haven’t done so at all since a team featuring D****n R**e beat the United States a year ago – and, more specifically, for the strikers in the squad to add to their collective international goals tally of zero. 

While McCarthy acknowledged that he hopes his side will be better on the ball tonight, he grew slightly exasperated when this topic was pressed home with sustained questioning. 

Jeff Hendrick celebrates scoring his sides first goal Jeff Hendrick celebrates the winning goal against Gibraltar back in March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

When asked what would be enjoyable tonight, in the context of McCarthy’s “I pretty much hated every minute of that” comment after the 1-0 win at the foot of Gibraltar’s rock, the Irish manager bristled slightly. 

“I want to win the game. I don’t get this about how we have to be expansive. We tried that, we were expansive against Georgia and we had lots of chances. We scored one, and we won the game. We weren’t allowed to be expansive in Gibraltar, and we scored one and won the game. 

“So long as we win, I’m not bothered. I’m not saying we are going out to try anything else, we try to play football, but I want to win.

“I want ten points. It’s borderline a silly question, sorry. I want to win.” 

The message- a comfortable and goal-laden win would be welcome tonight, but a scrappy, snooze-inducing 1-0 win would do just fine. 

It’s on the question of style, which has been stalking Irish press conferences for a decade, where the short-termism of Mick II serves everyone well. 

These grand questions are for someone else, because Mick is just here to get us through the night. 

Republic of Ireland probable XI: Randolph; Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Stevens; Cullen, Hourihane, Hendrick; Brady, McGoldrick, McClean

Gibraltar probable XI: Goldwin; Sergeant, R Chipolina, J Chipolina, Olivero; Annesley, Casciaro, Walker, Bardon, Hernandez; De Barr 

On TV: RTÉ, Sky Sports; KO 7.45pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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