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Dublin: 10°C Monday 8 March 2021

Assessing Mick McCarthy's options as his side is plunged into defensive crisis

Ireland’s first-choice defence has played every minute of the campaign so far, but only Seamus Coleman is available for next month’s game with Georgia.

Mick McCarthy (file photo).
Mick McCarthy (file photo).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

LOUSY FATE AND lousier decisions have left Mick McCarthy facing into a defensive crisis.

If Ireland can beat Georgia in Tbilisi on 12 October and Denmark don’t beat Switzerland on the same night, then McCarthy’s side can afford to lose to the Swiss in Geneva three days later and still need only draw with Denmark at home in the final game to qualify.

Games away to Georgia bring with them a vague sense of apprehension for Irish fans, however, and the last 24 hours have rooted that worry into something too tangible. 

We already knew Enda Stevens would be suspended for that game owing to his accrual of yellow cards, and now Shane Duffy (calf) and Richard Keogh (car crash) will be absent too. 

Duffy limped away from Brighton’s Cup defeat to Aston Villa last night, with a calf injury that will rule him out for “weeks rather than days.” 

Keogh, meanwhile, has been brutally punished for making a poor error of judgment. Last night, he suffered a long-term knee injury when the Range Rover in which he was a passenger crashed into a lamppost. 

Team-mates Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett have been charged with drink-driving, and all three have been reprimanded strongly by their club.

While Keogh now has too much time to dwell on his mistake, McCarthy has a few problems to solve as he prepares to name his finalised squad next Tuesday afternoon. 

brighton-and-hove-albion-v-aston-villa-carabao-cup-third-round-amex-stadium Shane Duffy is injured. Source: Andrew Matthews

The Irish manager said ahead of the Switzerland game at the start of the month he is “loyal” to those who have served him well, and nowhere has this been more evident than in his defensive selection. Stevens, Keogh, Duffy, and Seamus Coleman have played every minute of the qualifiers thus far, but as it stands only Coleman will play in Tbilisi. 

McCarthy has said he sees Matt Doherty as an option at left-back, despite the fact he has been playing at right wing-back for Wolves over the last couple of seasons. Doherty, however, was signed for Wolves by McCarthy having impressed at left-back for Bohemians, so muscle memory may make a compelling case for his replacing Stevens. 

Blackburn’s Greg Cunningham is another option for that role. 

McCarthy has said he sees James McClean as a possible option at left-back too, given the player has been pressed into that role with Stoke City this season. McCarthy has couched this in terms of it being an in-game resort, however, rather than a first-choice from the outset. 

The prospect of Stephen Ward being asked to reverse his retirement hasn’t been entirely ruled out, either. 

Although he played at left-back against Bulgaria, Conor Hourihane won’t appear there next month. 

At centre-back, John Egan is almost certain to step in to fill one half of the breach. Egan captained Ireland in the friendly win over Bulgaria, after which McCarthy hailed his quality and said the success of the Duffy/Keogh partnership was the only thing keeping him out of the team. 

Kevin Long of Burnley played alongside Egan in that friendly, but his lack of game time at club level may work against him. McCarthy has always insisted he will only pick players who are playing regularly at club level, although Jeff Hendrick bought himself some wriggle room with his performances under McCarthy in earlier games. 

Long, however, has no such credit in the bank, and has played just once all season – a Carabao Cup defeat to Sunderland a month ago. That’s only his third first-team appearance of 2019, with the other two a couple of FA Cup run-outs back in January. He hasn’t played a Premier League game since last Christmas. 

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Ciaran Clark and Darragh Lenihan are options, too, as both have drifted about the fringes of McCarthy’s provisional squads this year.

Clark, however, is as bereft of match sharpness as Long. He too has just one Carabao appearance to his name for the season, and hasn’t played in the Premier League since January. 

Lenihan, meanwhile, has yet to make an appearance under McCarthy but has the virtue of being a Championship regular for Blackburn thus far this season. 

john-egan John Egan playing for Ireland against Bulgaria earlier this month, Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Derrick Williams may also be in contention, having converted from left-back to join Lenihan at the heart of the Blackburn defence this season. 

There is one other option: Stoke’s teenager Nathan Collins. He was in McCarthy’s most recent provisional squad, but was then picked for U21s double-header instead, from which he had to withdraw through injury. Collins has started twice in the Championship for Stoke this season and has even captained them in the Carabao Cup. 

He is highly-rated and his name has been whispered in transfer murmurings coming out of Manchester United, but at 19 he has yet to even play for Ireland at U21 level.

McCarthy has relied on game time at club level and big-game experience at international level in picking his teams in this campaign so far.

Circumstances will force him to compromise on one, if not both, of those principles next month.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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