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Dignified McCarthy leaves Ireland enriched but again without a proper goodbye

Mick is a former Irish manager again, and while it is tempered with a seven-figure bonus, he will regret another unfortunate exit.

On his way out: Mick McCarthy has left the Irish job a second time, again in unwanted circumstances.
On his way out: Mick McCarthy has left the Irish job a second time, again in unwanted circumstances.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THIS WASN’T how it was meant to end, socially distanced in his Bromley home. 

But the FAI’s succession plan is a plan no longer: it is a tangible, if slightly bracing, reality, and Mick McCarthy is a former Irish manager once more. 

The end was gradual until it was sudden.

The delaying of the Euro 2020 play-off with Slovakia a second time worsened the FAI’s managerial headache from its chronic dull throb, as it became clear that either the spirit or the text of the agreement would have to be broken. 

Once Uefa kicked the play-offs back indefinitely on Wednesday, it was no longer likely that McCarthy could remain in charge for the European Championship campaign and leave on the 31 July expiry date in his contract. 

So the FAI got busier. 

The board always knew they had inherited an unprecedented managerial arrangement from John Delaney and the old regime, and now they knew an unprecedented global crisis would force them to make a decision. 

Something would have to give, and a sub-committee of Chair Roy Barrett, interim CEO Gary Owens, and president Gerry McAnaney met over the phone and via video conference call throughout the week to arrive at a solution.

In the end, it was decided that Kenny would take the job four months ahead of schedule, and McCarthy had unknowingly coached Ireland for the final time. The board unanimously agreed to the decision on Friday, and the news was announced with an FAI statement yesterday afternoon after it had been broken by Off the Ball. 

McCarthy is understood to have been disappointed, but wore admirably brave face when speaking to FAI TV yesterday afternoon. “It’s only right and fair that Stephen gets his chance on 1 August. I said to Roy [Barrett] that the only thing I’d ask for when leaving is a couple of tickets for next Euros when we qualify.”

He leaves with more than the promise of a couple of tickets, however, as he takes with him his final three months’ salary and the €1.13million exit package agreed with John Delaney and the old board.

McCarthy said he wants another job in football and he will probably get one, and he retained a presence on English television during his second reign by making an appearance on Sky’s Goals on Sunday along with BT Sport’s FA Cup coverage. 

Not that this irons out all of the FAI’s inherited issues. 

There is still uncertainty about Robbie Keane’s position, as he was given a longer contract by the FAI than McCarthy and assistant Terry Connor. Clarity may arrive on his position at a scheduled media briefing tomorrow, but sources indicate that Keane is unlikely to be part of Kenny’s backroom team at senior level. 

There is speculation that Keane’s old pal Damien Duff may become involved. The duo have been doing their Uefa Pro Licence course together, and while Duff is currently coaching with Celtic’s first team, Keane has shown with his assistant role at Middlesbrough that it is possible to juggle the two jobs.

Kenny is known to rate Duff’s coaching credentials highly.

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny, pictured at his unveiling as Irish U21 manager in November 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This situation has worked out well for Kenny, as he is taking the job ahead of schedule and might yet coach Ireland at the European Championships, an unimaginable scenario before the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Kenny will be entirely unruffled by any claims he might be taking a risk by plunging into the job now: he is extremely headstrong and has always been adamant that he would be senior manager by 1 August 2020. He is also highly ambitious, with a vision not just to be successful with Ireland but to play with a style that is looked upon and mimicked by nations elsewhere. 

He has spent the last 18 months learning from others, too, travelling to meet fellow international coaches including Belgium’s Roberto Martinez. 

While there may be some caviling at the timing and the circumstances of Kenny’s ascension, few will argue he doesn’t deserve his chance, and his track record suggests he can bring the kind of proactive conviction to Irish football that has been lacking for years. 

So what of Mick, who has surely worn an Irish crest for the final time?

This is a deeply disappointing end. He again makes way with a sense of unfinished business, although this time esteemed by the majority of Irish supporters. 

This matters, as McCarthy often gave the impression of caring more about prevailing public opinion than he claimed. 

What was actually achieved? Well, McCarthy tightened the link between the fans and the team in the way his team snaffled a few results, although the qualification campaign was poor. 

Ireland scored just seven goals in eight games and won only one of those games by more than a goal. (That was at home to Gibraltar, who scored one of Ireland’s goals for them.)

They were dreadful away to Georgia and outclassed in Switzerland, toiled for 180 minutes against Gibraltar and flawed but flinty and effective at home to the Swiss and in both games with Denmark. 

While late comebacks in those latter three games were heartening, they were also leavened with the frustration that Ireland had waited to fall behind with nothing to lose before truly asserting themselves. 

Adjacent to all of this, Kenny’s U21s were asserting themselves on their games from the off, and the comparisons and the clamour to cap youth irked McCarthy on more than one occasion. 

McCarthy made some curious decisions too, not least his writing off everything that happened in the opening game in Gibraltar because of the conditions before then using the game as evidence that Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman couldn’t play down the same side. 

He ended that experiment after less than an hour of that game and never returned to it, preferring captain Coleman at right-back and picking Doherty only when suspensions forced his hand. Ultimately, Doherty’s outstanding Premier League form and attacking contribution in the closing stages at home to Denmark mocked McCarthy’s exclusion of him across the campaign. 

On the flip side, he brought the best out of David McGoldrick, his decision to bring Glenn Whelan back was justified, and Kenny may thank McCarthy for blooding Josh Cullen, Jack Byrne, and Aaron Connolly, albeit if his selection of the latter occasionally felt grudging.  

The manner of Ireland’s results – if not the results themselves – served a good purpose, as nothing stokes the Aviva crowd like a late equaliser and frantic onslaught.

He managed to inject life into the moribund operation he inherited from Martin O’Neill, and as the now-former Denmark manager Age Hareide told The42 on Friday, “Mick brought back the enthusiasm…the team that played us in the Nations League was different, there was no enthusiasm in that side.” 

Hareide is actually in the same situation as McCarthy and will miss the reslated Euros by stepping aside for his planned successor in the latest waltz of Ireland’s cosmic union with Denmark. 

While McCarthy didn’t come cheap for the FAI, there were times last year when he proved invaluable.

He was a very good face for the organisation as it stumbled from one crisis to another amid an off-field omnishambles that kickstarted during his very first game. The din of rumour howled harder than the wind at the foot of Gibraltar’s rock on that March evening, with intense speculation around John Delaney’s position clarified only minutes after McCarthy finished his post-match press duties. 

McCarthy joked that Executive Vice President was a pretty wide title for Delaney’s office door when he was first asked about it a couple of days later, and from there he breezily brushed away the latest pleat of an unfolding disaster. 

Kenny, by contrast, caused a minor stir behind the scenes in saying the Irish U21s wouldn’t be taking a chartered flight to a qualifier in Armenia owing to tightened finances at underage level.

It was an innocent comment on Kenny’s part as very few underage national teams across Europe are funded to the tune of chartered flights, but it was interpreted by many as the latest instance of boardroom mismanagement at the FAI hurting those who least deserve it. 

McCarthy could be relied upon to keep media matters focused solely on whatever he wanted to talk about, which was usually praising his players and telling the press there was no point trying to pry a few clues from him about his next team selection.  

He won’t be making any more of those team selections. Stephen Kenny gets that honour now, while McCarthy moves on to something new. This exit was at least more dignified than his first goodbye in 2002, as he was booed down the tunnel after defeat to Switzerland, leaving an acrid Lansdowne Road whose sense and reason was lost in the squabbling over Saipan. 

mick-mccarthy-16102002-digital McCarthy reacts during the final game of his first stint. Source: INPHO

Stephen Kenny was ironically among those filing out of the ground as the Irish team bus pulled away from the West Stand that night, and bore witness to a moron with a megaphone giving chase to harangue McCarthy. The bus pulled in a few miles down the road and McCarthy made a tearful goodbye to the players on board. 

The wolves were at the door, he said, and he later admitted he should have walked after the World Cup. 

Thus it ends once more, with McCarthy again a victim of lousy circumstance. 

He was lightly mocked last year for interviews in which he seemed to be forever negotiating results with some impalpable higher power, but as he reflects on a second lonely exit, Mick McCarthy may brusquely bargain that if he was offered this exit route at the beginning…well, there’s no chance he would have taken it. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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