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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Mick's last game.
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Show Mick McCarthy respect but not sympathy - this is the life he chose
Having already endured the Saipan fall-out, the last thing Mick McCarthy needed was another popularity contest, Mick versus Kenny coming 18 years after McCarthy versus Keane.

THE CHANT OF a thousand voices was rumbling down the West Stand before the referee blew his whistle a final time.

‘Keano, Keano’, they shouted, and as the sound grew louder, Mick McCarthy couldn’t have felt lonelier. Ireland 1-2 Switzerland, October, 2002 – five months after Saipan and the summer of hate. If he felt like running away, we’d all have understood. Instead, McCarthy walked onto the pitch to shake each of his players by the hand.

Silence followed, just for a few seconds – still an evident sign of respect. The Ireland manager knew the game was up – he’d formally resign a couple of weeks later – but he wasn’t going to walk down the tunnel until the last of his players had left the pitch.

You sense it scarred him, those venomous voices, especially as 10 years later, unprompted, he revisited his Ireland reign. “Apart from 1988, when we topped the group, our results mirrored Jack’s,” McCarthy told me in a 2012 interview. “We finished second, second, second. But a lot of my achievements were blighted because of my fallout with Roy (Keane) and everything that went on.

Of course, subsequently, in the (Genesis) report that happened, I came out of it relatively blameless. But because of the circumstances of what happened with myself and Roy, my record was tarnished. Wrongly, it has to be said. I always knew I did a good job.”

Can we say the same this time? A record of one defeat in 10 games, achieved with a mediocre squad, can be spun into an impressive top-line on anyone’s CV. “A safe pair of hands,” is the phrase McCarthy’s advocates often use to describe him, as uninspiring a marketing slogan as Shaw’s department stores boast about going ‘almost nationwide’.  

The report card from the last 16 months is mixed. He was popular with the players and a calm voice amid the boardroom chaos, working under five chief executives, one executive vice-president and even an interim deputy chief executive. The FAI may not win much silverware but they certainly know a thing or two about titles.

“He’s someone who makes few mistakes,” a person who worked with McCarthy said. “He can be touchy and defensive but he is good at managing up, good at instilling a team spirit, good at lots of things,” before our source also reverted to type. “Mick McCarthy is a safe pair of hands.”

That’s not what Ireland needs. Part of the reason for all the goodwill Stephen Kenny has received over the last couple of days has actually nothing to do with him and everything the soccer public has endured across the last 14 years.

First there was Steve Staunton and his muddled philosophy followed by Giovanni Trapattoni’s depressingly conservative one. Next came Martin O’Neill – ‘Trapattoni in a Derry accent’(copyright Eamon Dunphy). Under McCarthy the team was somewhat easier on the eye but even so, drawing away to Denmark and Georgia, beating Gibraltar and Georgia, there was nothing new about that.

And while it’s all well and good hearing that the team’s mood improved under McCarthy, it was better performances and results that the public wanted. Right now they yearn for a risk taker, an adventurer, someone who’ll go to Bratislava and attack the Slovaks rather than yet another manager who specialises in 1-1 draws.

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You wonder if McCarthy sensed all this when the phone call came from the FAI’s latest chief executive, Gary Owens, last Friday. Having already endured the Saipan fall-out, the last thing this blunt but sensitive man needed was another popularity contest, Mick versus Kenny coming 18 years after McCarthy versus Keane.

roy-keane-shakes-hands-with-mick-mccarthy Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO McCarthy and Keane - the last thing he needed was another popularity contest. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Legally, he hadn’t a chance of reversing the decision but morally he could justifiably have argued for another crack at it. Instead, there was a touch of class about how he has subsequently acted, wishing Kenny well both in public and private.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Nine years ago, on the day he was sacked by Wolves, he stayed at the training ground for eight hours, saying his goodbyes to the grounds-men, ticket-staff, cooks and the cleaners. “Listen, I lost my job,” he’d later say. “I’d no idea what the owner was thinking because you don’t ask. You just pack your bags and piss off. But I wanted to say thanks to the staff. It’s just the way I am. They work a damn sight harder than the rest of us do. They deserve our respect.”
He does, too. This wasn’t the country he was born in but the one he chose, captaining Ireland in its greatest hour in Italia 90, managing them twice.

There won’t be a third time. Instead, this ‘safe pair of hands’ will turn up in somewhere like Sunderland, Wolves or Ipswich, a club that has fallen on hard times and needs someone who can unearth a bargain like Matt Jarvis, Tyrone Mings or David McGoldrick, three internationals who McCarthy plucked from obscurity.

He’ll do what he’s good at and impose his personality on the place. “Management is about getting other people to do your business to the best possible level that they can,” he once said. “So how do you manage to do that? You need to create a winning environment, otherwise people won’t work.”

At 61, he is not yet old, not in managerial terms, although his chalk white hair fails to disguise his advancing years. No doubt those McCarthy disciples whose careers advanced under his stewardship will inevitably grumble if things go wrong under Kenny. “Why was Mick not kept on?” we’ll hear.

The answer will be because McCarthy knew what he signed up for, a multi-million euro deal that includes a farewell payment as well also a pro-rata qualification bonus if Ireland negotiate their way through the play-offs. He opted into this life, one where reputations are determined by results and where trivial little things like a global pandemic can see your contract run out and deny you one last shot at the Euros. So no, he doesn’t deserve any sympathy but yes, he does merit our respect.

This son of Barnsley has served Irish football well.

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