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Now is the time for McCarthy to show he can help Doherty and Stevens shine for Ireland

Mounting injuries and a lack of game-time for key players ahead of the Euro 2020 semi-final play-off with Slovakia means there is more responsibility to get the best from two of the best wing backs in the Premier League.

Matt Doherty (left) is in fine form while Enda Stevens (right) is expected back to full fitness this weekend.
Matt Doherty (left) is in fine form while Enda Stevens (right) is expected back to full fitness this weekend.

SOMETIMES THINGS JUST fall into place.

There isn’t always a grand plan or a perfectly plotted route to success.

A player gets injured, suspended or banned, and the one who replaces him takes their opportunity.

Football is about not letting those chances slip by, because they don’t tend to come around very often.

For managers, it can perhaps feel like having your hand forced by circumstance.

Mick McCarthy finds himself in such a scenario ahead of the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Slovakia later this month.

His problems are mounting.

James McClean suffered medial knee ligament damage on duty for Stoke City in the middle of last month and is in an uphill battle to be named in the squad in nine days’ time.

matt-doherty-and-mick-mccarthy Matt Doherty (left) and Mick McCarthy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Conor Hourihane is out of favour with Aston Villa, playing just 55 minutes of action over the course of three substitute appearances since 12 January.

Glenn Whelan was released by Hearts in January and now finds himself with Fleetwood Town in League One.

Shane Duffy has played in only three of Brighton’s eight Premier League games since the turn of the year, as the Seagulls find themselves one point above the relegation zone.

Goalkeeper Darren Randolph has been warming the bench for West Ham since 25 January after joining from Middlesbrough, while striker David McGoldrick only started his first game for Sheffield United since 10 January last night, but he did at least score on his return against Reading in the FA Cup following a foot injury.

All six were in the starting XI for Ireland’s final, must-win Euro 2020 group stage qualifier at home to Denmark last November.

everton-v-manchester-united-premier-league-goodison-park Seamus Coleman suffered a quad injury on Sunday. Source: Peter Byrne

And now Seamus Coleman’s name can be added to the list of woe.

McCarthy had been less than optimistic about the captain’s quad injury picked up for Everton on Sunday. As soon as the news filtered through that Coleman had pulled up at Goodison Park, FAI doctor Alan Byrne was in contact with Everton’s medical staff to get an assessment of the injury.

“Our thoughts are with Seamus now,” McCarthy told FAI.ie yesterday morning.

It’s not good news as of now but, like James McClean, Seamus is a fighter and he will do everything he can do to be on the plane to Slovakia. We will keep our fingers crossed for him.”

By 7pm yesterday evening McCarthy had confirmed that his skipper was, in fact, ruled out.

One of the first messages to flash up on Coleman’s phone to commiserate would have been from the man with most to benefit from his absence.

Matt Doherty and Coleman have struck up a tight bond since the former became a permanent fixture in the international squad. Along with Duffy, the trio are often in each other’s company around the team hotel.

sheffield-united-v-west-ham-united-premier-league-bramall-lane David McGoldrick started for Sheffield United in the FA Cup last night. Source: PA

There is no unhealthy rivalry, even when McCarthy declared after his first game in charge during Euro 2020 qualifying against Gibraltar that he would not continue with his experiment of a Coleman-Doherty right-back/wing axis.

That was this time last year.

In the 12 months since, the landscape has changed to such a degree that McCarthy now must show that he is capable of setting up a team in such a way to get the very best out of Doherty.

He is Ireland’s best player, performing exceptionally in a Wolverhampton Wanderers team that look capable of going the distance in the Europa League.

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They are also challenging for Champions League qualification domestically, where they are just three points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea and only one goal worse off.

On the opposite flank, Enda Stevens, who is set to return from a brief layoff with a calf injury by the end of the week, is performing at a level that now makes him the undoubted first choice for his country.

He was a regular during qualifying and the signs looked promising that he was beginning to feel at home in a green jersey when he combined with Doherty to set the latter up for an 85th-minute equaliser against the Danes.

It was everything that will be needed from Ireland’s two most threatening players; Stevens attacked the final third and delivered a floated cross to the back where Doherty had the licence to attack and meet it with a firm header.

It was one of eight goals he has scored for club and country this season – he is the highest Irish scorer in the Premier League with four goals, Stevens has two – and considering the problems McCarthy is facing elsewhere, it seems obvious that focusing on setting up a team that can best utilise his two wing backs is now paramount. 

The pair haven’t been able to find quite he same kind of form for their country, partly because they are playing in club teams that are not just exceptionally well-drilled in a formation to make the most of their abilities, but because, frankly, they play in better teams.

The role of the wing back in the modern game is in the midst of a transformation and McCarthy, ever the pragmatist, most show a willingness along with his coaching staff to come up with a game plan that now allows them to thrive.

With McClean absent from the left wing, bringing in someone to complement Stevens on the rather than impede him, is crucial. 

The same goes for Doherty, who should be a focal point for Ireland as they attempt to win away from home not just once, but twice, if they are to qualify for the Euros.

McCarthy’s race is almost run as Ireland manager, but he still has to show there is life in the old dog by delivering some new tricks for his wing backs.

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