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The Irishman who wasn't there

Lee Carsley on his bittersweet international career and his belief that his country never saw the best of him.

Lee Carsley is a former Ireland international.
Lee Carsley is a former Ireland international.
Image: INPHO

QUESTION: NAME THE accomplished Irish central midfielder who played with a top Premier League club and went into international exile at arguably the peak of his career in the early ’00s, only to later return when it became increasingly apparent that he was badly needed?

If you guessed Roy Keane, then you’d be correct, but we’d also accept Lee Carsley as an answer. He was the (other) Irishman who wasn’t there.

And in many respects, Carsley’s stop-start international career was defined more by absence than presence, while when he did take centre stage, a considerable portion of his best work tended to go unseen.

Looking back now, as diligent and reliable a player as he invariably was, it felt on occasion as if Carsley’s time with Ireland was cursed by bad luck. It started off promisingly though.

Born in Birmingham, he qualified to play for Ireland through his Cork-born grandmother. After impressing with Derby in the First Division as a youngster, he was called up by the U21 sides of both England and the Boys in Green, ultimately choosing the latter. He says it was an easy decision.

I never really considered it. I remember playing well at the time. I got in the first team quite young. I was playing in the same team as Paul McGrath [at Derby] and was obviously a big fan — all the games he played for Ireland, World Cups and all the rest of it. It inspired me to want to go on and replicate some of the experiences he had. I obviously never reached the heights he had with Ireland, but at the time, that was my goal.

“[Paul] was fantastic — up there with the best players I ever worked with, considering the point in his career he was as well [aged 36 when he signed]. He was an inspiring player, technically excellent and a good guy as well. Athletically, he wasn’t great, but he could still run, he could still turn. You could only imagine what he was like in his prime.”

soccer-carling-premiership-derby-county-v-newcastle-united Carsley played with Paul McGrath at Derby. Source: EMPICS Sport

Just under two years after making his U21 bow and by then a regular in Derby’s Premier League team, Carsley made his first appearance for the Irish team at senior level. It was their final 1998 World Cup group qualifier against Romania. It finished 1-1, though the result hardly mattered — the Romanians were already guaranteed to top the group, while the Boys in Green had all but secured second place.

“I was playing in the Premier League at the time with Derby around ’97, ’98 when a lot of foreign players were coming into the league and not just average foreign players, top-quality ones — Desailly, Zola, Vialli, Ravanelli, Juninho.

“At Derby County we had Aljoša Asanović from Croatia, Igor Stimac from Croatia, Jacob Laursen from Denmark, Francesco Baiano from Italy, Stefano Eranio from Italy — we had class players ourselves.

“I was playing really well in a good Derby team at the time. They just moved into Pride Park — so playing really good football on a really good pitch. And then coming to Lansdowne Road for the first time, seeing that it was a rugby pitch, a really old-fashioned ground, thinking: ‘Oh my God, how are we going to play football on that?’

[My debut] went okay. I’m not sure my style of football really suited international football. There were a lot of technical fouls, a lot of time-wasting. We were quite passive in the way that we played. The opposition had a lot of the ball and when we had it, we were quite direct, so as a midfielder, you didn’t spend a lot of time on the ball — that took a bit of getting used to.

“But I remember enjoying the game, the playing of the national anthem and my family coming over and watching. Being in a new group, playing with new players was exciting times.”

Carsley subsequently began to establish himself in the team. It was early in the Mick McCarthy regime, with the side in transition and the former Millwall boss still trying to figure out his best XI.

“I think Mick created a club atmosphere within the international set-up. I used to look forward to meet-ups, seeing the lads and being part of that group. I look back fondly on that part of my career. I don’t think I played my best football for Ireland and I don’t think I played my best football under Mick. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed playing.”

Source: sp1873/YouTube

Following the Romania draw, Carsley would experience international heartache for the first time. The Irish side were paired with Belgium in a play-off for a spot at the World Cup. The young midfielder was involved in both games. After drawing 1-1 at home on 29 October 1997, they were narrowly beaten 2-1 in the 15 November second leg thanks to Luc Nilis’ 68th-minute strike. Little went right for the Irish team on the night. David Connolly was brought on with 15 minutes remaining with the team desperately needing a goal, only to get sent off seven minutes later.

Not qualifying was a sensation that was relatively unfamiliar to younger Irish fans. Between 1988 and 1994, they reached three out of a possible four major tournaments. Now, they had failed to qualify for two on the bounce — the first time that had happened since before the Jack Charlton era. It also meant an end for a number of stalwarts – Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton and David Kelly were all veterans by that stage.

I’d come on in the first leg against Belgium as sub for only my second cap. Then I started the game in Belgium. So you’re sort of new to it. You don’t realise when some of the lads are crying at the end of the game… I’d never been involved in a two-year campaign. I didn’t get the magnitude of not qualifying.”

Two years later, Ireland were in the play-offs again, but this time, from Carsley’s perspective at least, it was “more hurtful”.

It initially had felt as if Ireland shouldn’t even be there in the first place. They were seconds away from qualifying for Euro 2000, before conceding an infamous last-gasp goal away to Macedonia in their final group game, which consigned them to a two-legged clash with Turkey.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

Carsley started the home first leg alongside Roy Keane in midfield. They were on course for a positive result when Robbie Keane gave the hosts a 79th-minute lead. Four minutes later though, the Turks scored a crucial away goal. Carsley was harshly penalised for handball in the box, with Tayfur Havutcu converting the ensuing spot kick. He was dropped for the return fixture, which saw Ireland miss out on away goals amid a tempestuous 0-0 draw.

“Giving away the penalty that led to us getting knocked out, ultimately I felt responsible for us not qualifying. I was very down on myself for quite a while after that.

“I think Mick probably lost a bit of confidence in me. I sensed that, and if you sense that, you’re never going to get the best out of that player. And that’s probably why I didn’t perform well enough under Mick.

“Funnily enough, I watched the game back the other day. It’s on YouTube. For some reason, I clicked on to it and ended up watching it.

“I actually played really well in that game. Me and Roy were in the middle. We had some great chances. The lad was just about to score when I actually blocked the shot. The ball rolls onto my chest. I try to get up to block it again, and as I get up, the ball rolls onto my arm and [the referee] gives a penalty. You take away that, which is obviously a crucial part [and it's a more positive outlook]. 

I didn’t start the second leg, which was a bit of a kick in the teeth, to be honest. It was almost like: ‘Well, it was your fault that we [had a bad result].’ Obviously, it was because I gave away the penalty, but we missed a lot of chances, not that it was anyone else’s fault. Sometimes you need that reassurance. We weren’t far off in that game, we’ve [come unstuck] by a penalty against a really good team.

“I think it’s one of them where you have to earn the manager’s confidence and I probably didn’t do enough. I probably wasn’t Mick’s kind of player. I still enjoyed playing for him. I still really liked him as a manager and a guy. I just didn’t perform as well as I could have under him, which was probably my fault.

“I played quite a lot of games early doors. Then, I found myself in and out of the team, which I didn’t deal well with at all. I was really frustrated with coming away for 10 days and not playing. So I found it quite difficult to hide my frustration.

“I like to think I behaved quite well [when out of the team]. The only slight negative was, if I knew I wasn’t going to play and I had a slight injury at Derby, I wouldn’t go. Even though I got 40 caps, I probably could have got 50-60. If I didn’t think I was going to play and I had a slight injury, I wouldn’t go. I’d pull out, which obviously isn’t ideal. If I had a priority, it was playing for my club, if I wasn’t going to be playing for Ireland.”

mick-mccarthy-191999 Carsley believes Irish boss Mick McCarthy lost confidence in him. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Carsley eventually recovered from the Turkey disappointment.

“I had good club managers at the time that showed a lot of confidence in me. I was playing regularly for my club and I was an important player, so it didn’t take me long to get my confidence back.”

Two years later, Ireland finally did finally prevail via the play-offs against Iran, and this time, Carsley was not involved. The period building up to this tie had coincided with a difficult spell at club level. A £4.5 million move to Blackburn had not worked out as planned. His signing, towards the end of the 1998-99 season, could not prevent the club’s relegation. After the sacking of Brian Kidd, Carsley fell out of favour under his replacement, Graeme Souness. He found himself out of Ireland squad around this time. However, after joining Gordon Strachan’s Coventry in December 2000, his fortune improved. He started getting international call-ups again and was on the bench for the Irish team’s famous 1-0 win over Holland, while coming off the bench amid the 4-0 victory over Cyprus that guaranteed their place in the play-offs.

At this point though, Roy Keane, Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella were all ahead of him in the midfield pecking order. Consequently, by the time the World Cup came around, Carsley was not even considered a certainty to make the squad, having been a peripheral figure for much of the previous two years. Ultimately though, he edged out Colin Healy for a place in the final 23.

Of course, the infamous Saipan controversy occurred thereafter, resulting in Roy Keane departing the squad. Suddenly, Carsley went from being a fringe player to someone with a realistic chance of featuring. Ultimately though, aside from an 88th-minute substitute appearance during the 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia, the Everton man was absent from proceedings and forced to watch on from the sidelines.

“I thought, with Roy going back, I could have started more games than I did,” he recalls.

Obviously, Mick picked Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella. I thought I was playing better than both of them at the time, so I was a bit gutted that I didn’t start any of the games.”

Consequently, while much of the nation was revelling in the team’s success at the tournament, for Carsley, the experience was tinged with disappointment.

“As much as you want the team to do well, you want to play. I wasn’t there to be a sightseer, I was there to play football. I didn’t want to watch it. I didn’t want to be a fan, just sit in the dugout and watch the game — I wanted to play. I wanted to help the team. But ultimately, Mick felt that other players were better. And that’s management.”

mark-kinsella Mark Kinsella, above, and Matt Holland were preferred to Carsley at the 2002 World Cup. Source: INPHO

However, with the team struggling amid a post-World Cup hangover, McCarthy stepped down as manager. Carsley started the first competitive game under his successor, Brian Kerr, as did Kinsella and Holland. He was playing on the right-hand side of midfield, the position he was similarly being deployed in for Everton at the time. It was also the first of many times in which Ireland would come up against Georgia, as an 84th-minute Gary Doherty goal secured a hard-fought 2-1 win in Tbilisi. The current Irish side are set to make the same journey and play the Georgians next Saturday for the 11th time in 16 years.

“I remember it being a really good atmosphere in the ground. We’re playing in the game. The ball goes out. It was Kev [Kilbane taking the corner] and the flick knife hits him in the back. Kev showed me the knife and I remember laughing. Towards the end, we told Kev go in the corner and we’ll put it in the corner for you. Every time we put the ball in the corner, he was getting bottles and all kinds of stuff thrown at him. I remember laughing seeing Kev getting pelted with bottles and stuff. It was a good atmosphere that was. 

“When you’re playing week in week out in a packed stadium, you get used to it. Especially nowadays, the players might find it a little bit more intimidating.

In the late ’90s, grounds like West Ham and the Baseball Ground and Southampton, the fans were on top of you, whereas now, they’re a little bit more corporate in the way that they watch the games. So it can be a bit of a surprise when the fans are on top of you again. But these lads will cope with that. I can’t see that being a problem for this [Irish] group.”

Carsley would see plenty of game time for the remainder of that qualifying campaign, before opting to make himself unavailable for the national team in April 2004.

“There was a point where I didn’t play for Ireland for 18 months. I felt like my career at Everton was suffering by going away with Ireland, spending 10 days on international breaks and then going back a little bit fatigued, and then finding myself out of the team. Something had to give and obviously, if you’re not performing well for your club, you’re not going to perform well for your country.

“I didn’t think about coming back and I didn’t think about not coming back. I just concentrated on getting fit. I had a big operation on my knee. I thought it was really important that I got my form back for Everton. We’d finished fourth in the Premier League. I knew I was going to play in Europe. I knew I was going to play in the Europa League or the Champions League, so I thought as soon as I get my body back where it should be, then potentially [I could come back]. Kev [Kilbane] was still at the club and he was still going away with Ireland. He was telling me about the lads and all the changes being made.”

manager-steve-staunton Carsley believes he played his best football at international level under Steve Staunton. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Of course, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it was the case with Carsley. Perhaps underappreciated when available, his self-imposed omission was keenly felt amid the disastrous start to the Steve Staunton regime. Following the team’s humiliating 5-2 defeat to Cyprus, the call was put in and the player showed no hesitation in agreeing to return. His comeback coincided with a much-improved display, as Ireland earned a creditable 1-1 draw at home to a strong Czech Republic side.

“Even then, if it wasn’t for the injuries, I don’t think Stan would have wanted me back in the squad. I think he was under a bit of pressure, just because of the amount of players that were pulling out.

“As soon as the call was put in, I arrived the day before the game, I did one training session on the pitch, I started the game and I was back into it.

“In my second spell, I probably played my best football for Ireland.

It’s probably because I knew I was rated by Stan. I felt confident in what I was doing at my club, I was playing well at Everton. Everton were doing really well — I was in a good team, so things just fell into place.

“I thought [the swift dismissal] was a little bit harsh on Stan. You’re almost starting again with a new group of players. It’s going to take time to develop your own style and identity. You’ve got to do that while you’re winning. And you can’t afford not to keep winning. And the Irish fans were used to qualifying, going to tournaments and getting to play-offs, used to really competing and ultimately, that’s what cost Stan his job.”

robinho-of-brazil-tackled-by-lee-carsley-of-ireland Carsley tackles Robinho during his final cap for Ireland against Brazil. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Along with that unfortunate Turkey handball and narrowly missing out on the 2002 World Cup side, the fact that Carsley had his best form in an Irish jersey amid arguably the team’s most problematic spell in recent memory is another sign of fate conspiring against him at international level.

That said, there are worse ways to end your career than a glamour friendly against Brazil at Croke Park. Don Givens was the interim manager at the time following Staunton’s departure, and Carsley did not get much of a look-in under his successor, Giovanni Trapattoni.

“I remember us playing really well against Brazil. And if you had said to me after that game [it would be my last]… I’d had the full season with Everton. We’d done really well in Europe. I just remember Trapattoni had a training squad. I was like: ‘I need a rest, I’m not going.’ And I never got picked again after that. That was it.”

Having retired from football in 2011, Carsley has since established himself as a well-regarded coach, working in various roles with Coventry, Brentford, Man City and England U21s. He was touted for the Ireland U21 job, shortly before Stephen Kenny’s appointment, but as he sometimes was as a player, Carsley has been overlooked by his country thus far in his coaching career. Has he been approached about a role at all recently?

Definitely not. Me and Kevin [Kilbane] spoke to one of the FAI representatives a while back about getting involved with some of the age groups. This would have been six or seven years ago. Nothing was said after that. Ultimately, it wasn’t something I was going to chase. I’m easy to find. If they wanted us, they could have spoke to us. But now the fact that former players are getting involved is a massive positive.”

While his international career contained plenty of lows as well as highs, Carsley will certainly be remembered for giving his all when selected. He is also a likeable, straight-talking character with a tendency towards wry self-deprecation, as evidenced when asked about the biggest challenge of transitioning into coaching.

“It was trying not to see traits of myself in players. You’re attracted to players that, like yourself, are hard-working, strong tackling, basic passing, good attitude.

“When you first start coaching, you coach how you played. But if you’ve got 11 players like me, it’s not a very good team to watch. You draw a lot of games, but you don’t win many.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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