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James McCarthy deserves a sustained run in his best position for Ireland

The Hamilton Academical youth product was magnificent in the Irish team’s 1-0 victory over Italy.

Italy's Stefano Sturaro, left, is challenged by Ireland's James Mccarthy.
Italy's Stefano Sturaro, left, is challenged by Ireland's James Mccarthy.

Paul Fennessy reports from Versailles

“I WAS GUTTED but my family was constantly on the phone making sure everything was fine.”

James McCarthy was brutally honest in the post-match mixed zone following Ireland’s defeat of Italy, when reminiscing about his first two Euro 2016 displays against Sweden and Belgium.

Many journalists were taken aback by his words, particularly given that the player, over the last few years, has gained a reputation as dull and evasive, even by footballers’ standards, when being interviewed.

Of course, plenty of people were disappointed with McCarthy’s opening two performances at Euro 2016. His critics, most notably Eamon Dunphy, have been vocal in their disapproval of those displays.

But his comments after the Italy game reminded everyone that, usually, no one suffers more than a player when he gives a bad performance.

Yet last night, despite being taken off for Wes Hoolahan on 77 minutes, McCarthy produced the type of game he always looks capable of but seldom produces.

The Ireland star simply looked a different player to the one who plodded along in the Sweden and Belgium games, showing misguided aggression one minute by picking up needless bookings and then not being strong enough the next, letting Kevin De Bruyne create the all-important opener in the process.

Overall thus far, the Scottish-born central midfielder’s Ireland career has been a little underwhelming. So much has been expected of McCarthy as a rare example of an Irish player who has been playing regular Premier League football since he was a teenager and who cost Everton a reported £12 million to sign from Wigan.

Yet all too often, the game seems to pass him by, as he is too often anonymous and seemingly intent on shirking responsibility in an Ireland shirt.

In contrast, last night, he gave an accomplished display, making a series of strong tackles and important interceptions, while showing fine agility and positional sense in the centre of midfield. There were still times where he needed to demand the ball more vehemently and show for it like he really wanted it, but the display was still a huge improvement on what had come before.

Yet there is one elephant in the room in all of this — the absence of Glenn Whelan.

The 32-year-old Stoke player is unfairly maligned at times. For someone who has made over 200 Premier League appearances and earned 73 caps for Ireland, he deserves more respect than the dismissive comments that regularly come his way. He may not have the ability of other stars, but you can be sure he has had to work much harder to get this far.

But that said, there is a growing sense that the presence of Whelan in the team inhibits McCarthy to a degree — an Irish equivalent of the Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard issue that the English side were plagued by for years (but not to suggest the players are comparable in terms of quality, of course).

It’s no coincidence that what many people agree the Everton star’s three standout games for Ireland — Sweden away (in the Trapattoni era), Germany home and Italy at the Euros — have all come with Whelan not on the field.

Moreover, two of those results happened to be Ireland’s most impressive achievements over the course of the past decade and beyond.

When Whelan is in the side, McCarthy invariably plays out of position, as the right-sided midfielder. He struggled in particular during the Sweden game in this role, failing to combat the growing threat down the Swedish left-hand side, with Norwich full-back Martin Olsson causing Ireland constant problems.

Yet against Italy, in his preferred role protecting the back four centrally, McCarthy suddenly looked confident and at home in an Ireland jersey.

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The 25-year-old broke up several Italy attacks, which gave Jeff Hendrick the freedom to play a more adventurous game ahead of him.

Furthermore, with two defensive midfielders such as Whelan and McCarthy, Ireland aren’t going to create a lot or add significantly to their one-goal-per-game ratio in competitive matches, excluding Gibraltar, since O’Neill took over.

The trend in international football of late, as Northern Ireland opposition analyst Lisa Fallon told The42 recently, has been for teams to play with one holding midfielder, and Ireland must follow suit.

As brilliant a servant as Whelan has been to his country over the years, he must now, as the ultimate team player, accept that it’s beneficial for the side for McCarthy to be given a sustained run in his favoured role protecting the back four.

Otherwise, with two holding players, a repeat of the kind of negativity on display in the dreadful defeat to Belgium seems inevitable.

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Paul Fennessy

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