McCarthy op­ti­mistic about Ire­land’s hopes

Early games against Gi­bral­tar and Ge­or­gia a chance for new regime to bed in

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Em­met Mal­one Soc­cer Cor­re­spon­dent

Ire­land’s fate should ul­ti­mately come down to the team’s abil­ity to ac­tu­ally beat Switzer­land or Den­mark but Mick McCarthy may take some com­fort from the prospect of hav­ing put points on the board be­fore his side take on ei­ther of their main Euro2020 qual­i­fi­ca­tion ri­vals next year.

His team will play Gi­bral­tar and Ge­or­gia in their open­ing group games in March with both viewed as highly winnable games, the first away, the sec­ond back in Dublin. It pro­vides op­por­tu­ni­ties for the re­turn­ing man­ager to bed him­self back in be­fore the tougher tests be­gin.

The first of those will be the re­turn to Den­mark, al­most cer­tainly Copen­hagen, on June 7th im­me­di­ately af­ter which the Ir­ish be at home to Gi­bral­tar.

The sched­ule of­fers the prospect of hav­ing a healthy tally of points se­cured be­fore the sum­mer break al­though in­evitably it means a tough run-in with top seeds Switzer­land to be faced twice in six weeks be­fore a soli­tary, po­ten­tially an­other do-or-die en­counter against the Danes on Mon­day, Novem­ber 18th at the Aviva. Six points Speak­ing be­fore the fix­tures had been fi­nalised, McCarthy re­called how draws away to Hol­land and Por­tu­gal had helped put his side on the road to qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the 2002 World Cup. But asked whether hav­ing a cou­ple of dates avail­able for friendlies as a re­sult of Ire­land end­ing up in one of the five-team groups this time might help his cause, he con­sid­ered an al­ter­na­tive sce­nario.

“What hap­pens if we play the first game and we win and we play the sec­ond game and we win,” he won­dered.

The mes­sage was that mo­men­tum would be­come key and that seems bound to be the case if Ire­land do take six points from their open­ing two out­ings.

The team was not handed the most straight­for­ward of paths to the fi­nals at the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre in Dublin yes­ter­day but there was plenty of per­spec­tive pro­vided by hav­ing ini­tially been drawn in a group with the Nether­lands and Ger­many.

Uefa’s limit of two from 12 host na­tions for the fi­nals per qual­i­fi­ca­tion group, in­tended to pre­vent too many fail­ing to make it through, saved one Ire­land from that fate as McCarthy’s men were bumped from Group C to D.

How­ever North­ern Ire­land promptly found it­self on the re­ceiv­ing end as Michael O’Neill’s side were drawn next and filled the va­cancy that had just been cre­ated. O’Neill de­scribed it all as “cruel,” but in­sisted that he still be­lieves his side can chal­lenge for a top-two spot.

“We are go­ing against two real pow­er­houses of Eu­ro­pean foot­ball,” he said.

“Peo­ple say that this Ger­many aren’t that strong but fun­nily enough I don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve that my­self. It will take two of the big­gest re­sults in North­ern Ire­land his­tory, to be hon­est, but of course we have to as­pire to do­ing that and we be­lieve that we can do that.

“I think over the last four years we have proven our­selves to be able to play top-tier and sec­ond-tier Eu­ro­pean na­tions,” added the man­ager, whose side will play all four of their games against Be­larus and Es­to­nia in March and June be­fore fac­ing into a rather more daunt­ing au­tumn sched­ule.

“Now we have to go in against two top tier ones to be hon­est and that’s the chal­lenge. If you don’t be­lieve you can do it then there’s no point re­ally.”

Mo­ments later McCarthy ac­knowl­edged the stroke of good for­tune but cau­tioned too against any­one get­ting car­ried away.

“I think there was a col­lec­tive sigh of re­lief but I think it was a bit pre­ma­ture when you’re look­ing at Switzer­land and Den­mark in the group,” he said.

“It’s hardly made it easy. It’s still two good sides we’ve got in our group and I think Ge­or­gia was the hard­est one out of the fourth pot as well.”

He is, at least, re­lieved to be able to fo­cus on an iden­ti­fi­able task in hand. He and his as­sis­tant, Terry Con­nor, had hit the ground the run­ning this week, he said, in terms of games they had seen but now there will be the op­por­tu­nity too to start do­ing some home­work on Ire­land’s op­po­nents.

McCarthy spoke briefly about this first week he has had back in the job and said Jack O’Con­nell, the 24 year-old Sh­effield United de­fender, was amongst the play­ers he had gone to see in ac­tion.

A cur­rent in­ter­na­tional who had played with him at Brent­ford had pre­vi­ously dis­missed the sug­ges­tion that he might qual­ify for us but the FAI now be­lieves that he might and the mat­ter is be­ing pur­sued.

Im­me­di­ate con­cern

The FAI’s more im­me­di­ate con­cern will be ob­tain­ing con­fir­ma­tion from Gi­bral­tar where the fed­er­a­tion in­tends to play their game in March. Both their coach, Julio Ce­sar, and press of­fi­cer said the as­so­ci­a­tion’s pref­er­ence is to stage the game there, in the 2,300 ca­pac­ity Vic­to­ria sta­dium, rather than in the much larger Es­ta­dio Al­garve where Ire­land played in Septem­ber 2015.

But the size of the venue and re­sult­ing en­ti­tle­ment of the vis­it­ing fed­er­a­tion to just a cou­ple of hun­dred tick­ets would spark a ma­jor scram­ble and rekin­dle ten­sions over the FAI’s con­tro­ver­sial sys­tem of dis­tri­bu­tion.

That, though, was a long way from McCarthy’s mind as he de­clared him­self op­ti­mistic about his side’s prospects.

“I’m al­ways op­ti­mistic about get­ting into the top two,” he said, “and I go back to when we qual­i­fied with Hol­land and Por­tu­gal. We were writ­ten off, both games away, no chance and I’d be com­ing home and I’d be out of a job. But that didn’t hap­pen and we ended up in the World Cup in 2002. I’m look­ing to do ex­actly the same now.”

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