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Dublin: 2°C Saturday 17 April 2021

'F**k off home' - How Mick McCarthy recovered from Lansdowne boos to become Ireland's go-to man

Almost 6,000 days after he was booed out of Lansdowne Road, McCarthy returns for a second stint in the job.

A dejected Mick McCarthy during what proved to be the final game of his first reign.
A dejected Mick McCarthy during what proved to be the final game of his first reign.
Image: INPHO

Gavin Cooney reports from Gibraltar

STEPHEN KENNY MAY, over the next 18 months, come to know how senior international football works, but 17 years ago Mick McCarthy showed him how it can end.

Kenny was standing with Pat Dolan and the Irish Independent’s Vincent Hogan outside Lansdowne Road on a fraught October night, looking on as the Irish team bus pulled away from the West Stand.

An Irish fan ran alongside the bus, spitting poison into a plastic megaphone.

When the bus came to a stop, he found himself looking straight at Mick McCarthy.

“Fuck off home you English c**t”.

A sour episode at the end of a night in which Mick McCarthy’s Irish reign had endured its rapid, final curdle.

Robbie Keane 16/10/2002 DIGITAL Robbie Keane reacts to a missed chance on that fateful night against Switzerland. Source: INPHO

Ireland had just been beaten 2-1 by Switzerland at Lansdowne Road; the manager’s gamble in replacing a defender (Ian Harte) with an attacker (Gary Doherty) backfiring when Fabio Celestini scored a late winner.

With Ireland suddenly winless from their opening two Euro 2004 qualifiers, McCarthy was whipped back into the dressing room by a roiling crowd; his ears lashed with boos, taunts, and jeers.

“No, never, ever”, says Clinton Morrison, when asked by The42 if he had ever heard an Irish crowd so.

“Everytime I played for Ireland the fans have been excellent, but that was the final straw, and they thought that was the time for him to go.”

McCarthy did eventually go, albeit it was a slightly drawn-out process with some unseemly public squabbling about a pay-off before he announced his resignation on 5 November.

While he insisted he wouldn’t walk away after the match, a television interview in which he admitted the negativity directed at him was affecting the team’s performances hinted that his exit was inevitable.

Dion Fanning of the Sunday Independent reported that McCarthy left the dressing room in tears, and as he stepped out to do that interview, was supported by a roar from the dressing room.

Mick McCarthy 5/11/2002 DIGITAL McCarthy arrives at a press conference to announce his resignation. Source: INPHO

“Don’t let the bastards get you, Mick.

That nobody knew exactly who the bastards were went to show how utterly warped discussion around McCarthy’s position had become.

“He was emotional”, says Morrison.

“Everyone looks at Big Mick and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, this big Yorkshire guy’, but he cared like everyone else.”

It all, of course, came back to Roy.

Keane remained in his post-Saipan exile, and after he granted an interview to say he would return to play for any manager other than Mick, the manager’s authority wouldn’t survive another bad result.

In the middle of the Saipan chaos, a Sunday Independent telephone poll found 51% were in favour of Mick; by the time the Swiss had won in Dublin, it had tipped to more than two-thirds in Roy’s favour.

Eventually, Mick fell on his sword, announcing his resignation by saying that “some of the negativity directed at me was affecting the players.

“Under normal circumstances, people leave because things are on the wane. The last two results [defeats by Russia and Switzerland] may suggest that but I don’t think it’s the case.

“I walk away with my head held high. It has been a privilege and an honour to do the job. My successor, whoever he or she is, has a great job and a great bunch of players.”

Johns Aldridge and Toshack were among the early favourites; Giles suggested Keane as a player-manager. One optimistic Irish Independent columnist recommended Johan Cruyff. In the end, the job was Brian Kerr’s.

Now, 5952 days and four permanent managers later, McCarthy is back.

“The butterflies are already starting”, McCarthy said at his pre-match press conference.

“I have that feeling. And I’m glad I have. Because if I lose that then there’d be something wrong, as it’s been there since the very first game I played.”

Back in 2002, the Telegraph reported Mick’s resignation by saying that he “may have won the battle with Roy Keane but he lost the war”, not realising that theirs was the kind of falling-out that should be told on a tapestry.

It is reductive to view McCarthy’s long management career through the prism of Keane, but given he was forced out of the job by critics looking and roaring through that distorted lens, it’s worth comparing them since.

Mick resigned, and Roy returned. Then Roy retired and moved into management, where he succeeded Mick at Sunderland. Then he was sacked and took over at Ipswich, where he was again sacked and within eighteen months had Mick among the list of his successors.

Roy then improbably ended up working with the FAI, only to be again succeeded by Mick, who has now been charged with sprucing up a gloomy camp.

So how has McCarthy, who left the job in one of the most febrile Lansdowne atmospheres ever, become the man to make it all happy again?

His essential dignity in the final days of the last reign has stood to him as he has been rehabilitated in exile.

Where once Keane’s anger and misanthropy could be cast as a condition of his greatness, it has in recent years exacerbated jobs at which he is mediocre.

McCarthy has continued to work in these environments, his greater success seemingly coming from the fact that he genuinely enjoys it.

Whereas Keane wrote in his book that he doesn’t particularly like footballers, McCarthy said this week that he enjoys “just being at close quarters with players…I enjoy being with them, I enjoy watching them, and interacting with them. It’s great.”

McCarthy is largely working with the same group of players as Keane and Martin O’Neill had – only Mark Travers, Josh Cullen, Jack Byrne and James Collins weren’t capped by the former manager – so he has thus far relied on affecting a change in spirit.

He has always refused to engage with questions inviting him to say that he is picking a lower quality of player to his previous reign, telling one journalist that he wouldn’t “insult” his players that way.

McCarthy has also refused to agree with O’Neill’s dreary “I worked with an older Robbie Keane than I would have liked” incantation in response to a lack of goals.

Instead he has talked up James Collins’ form, David McGoldrick’s record, and Sean Maguire’s potential.

Mick McCarthy McCarthy enjoys training at Victoria Stadium ahead of his first game back in charge. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Matt Doherty and Jack Byrne, whose unusual levels of self-confidence were not always a valuable currency in the previous set-up, were put front and centre for media duties.

Doherty was a critic of a previous camp he referred to as “tense”, but on Wednesday spoke glowingly of the atmosphere in McCarthy.

McCarthy will also end O’Neill’s custom of telling the players the team a couple of hours before the game, and thus there should be greater clarity of purpose in their approach.

That should stand to them against Gibraltar, where anything other than a win would be a catastrophe and would lead us all to revise the Sunday Tribune’s scathing summary of Jack Charlton’s failure against Lichtenstein, where Ireland “drew 0-0 with a mountaintop.”

Providing his side don’t end up mining ignominy from Gibraltar, McCarthy’s challenge then will be startling the Aviva from its disaffected slumber on Tuesday.

And whereas McCarthy left a fiery, furious ground 17 years ago, the one he returns to next week has been dulled beyond passion.

One last fling for Mick and Ireland then, for which he might earn a championship game in Dublin and a more fitting farewell.  

Republic of Ireland possible XI (4-4-1-1) – Darren Randolph; Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, Enda Stevens; Matt Doherty, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean; David McGoldrick; Sean Maguire

Gibraltar possible XI (4-5-1) – Kyle Goldwin; Jack Seargeant, Roy Chipolina, Jayce Oliveira, Joe Chipolina; Anthony Bardon, Liam Walker, Anthony Hernandez, Lee Casciaro, Alain Pons; Tjay De Barr

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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