Mc­Carthy re­turns to fa­mil­iar role

For­mer Ire­land man­ager quickly agrees ba­sis of a deal with FAI

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Em­met Malone Soc­cer Cor­re­spon­dent

Six­teen years and one month af­ter he de­parted the role of Ire­land man­ager, talk­ing about the pride he had felt, the plea­sure and priv­i­lege it had been, Mick Mc­Carthy is back. First past the post in what never re­ally ul­ti­mately amounted to more than a one-horse race, it seems.

Long be­fore it had be­come com­pletely clear that Martin O’Neill’s time was up, the talk was that both John De­laney and Mc­Carthy him­self were both open to the prospect of a re­turn. And in the 48 hours af­ter the north­erner had ac­tu­ally left by “mu­tual agree­ment”, there was a grow­ing sense of in­evitably about all. When they even­tu­ally met yes­ter­day it took lit­tle more than a cou­ple of hours to knock out the ba­sis for a deal that has been agreed and will be signed when the lawyers have done their work.

Mc­Carthy takes the job on a con­tract that will ini­tially cover the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships and there is an op­tion to ex­tend for the cam­paign be­yond that. His salary will be more or less what O’Neill started in the job on, about ¤1.2 mil­lion per an­num, with sig­nif­i­cant bonuses built in if he suc­cess­fully gets the Ir­ish team to Euro2020.

An un­veil­ing is ex­pected to be within the next 48 hours, most likely to­day al­though the FAI has yet to con­firm any ac­tual de­tail.

The 59-year-old will bring with him Terry Con­nor, who has worked as his as­sis­tant at both Wolves and, more re­cently, Ip­swich over a com­bined pe­riod of nine years. Rob­bie Keane is all but cer­tain to have a coach­ing role in the new set-up.

Mc­Carthy will take up the role im­me­di­ately and will be at next week­end’s draw for the Euro 2020 qual­i­fy­ing groups at the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre in Dublin.

As re­cently as Thurs­day there has been talk around the FAI of “a process”, and “a short­list” but nei­ther ever re­ally ex­isted in a mean­ing­ful sense – it ap­pears that the for­mer was ef­fec­tively con­ducted be­fore O’Neill’s depar­ture and any­one else con­sid­ered dis­carded back then.

Chris Hughton was per­haps the one gen­uinely at­trac­tive can­di­date to get to the stage of rul­ing him­self out pub­licly but an­other po­ten­tial tar­get, Bren­dan Rodgers, was es­sen­tially also un­avail­able due to his con­trac­tual sit­u­a­tion with the Celtic man­ager, like the Brighton one, tied into what might well be con­sid­ered a bet­ter job un­til the sum­mer of 2021.

Pub­lic sup­port

Dun­dalk man­ager Stephen Kenny made it clear that for him no job could com­pare to the Ire­land one and the 47-year-old made it clear that he wanted to be con­sid­ered and there was sub­stan­tial pub­lic sup­port ex­pressed for him over the course of this week.

In the end, though, the Dubliner seems to have been spo­ken to rather than with about the job and not by De­laney him­self, which scarcely sug­gests his can­di­dacy was taken as se­ri­ously in Ab­bot­stown as it was among much of the rest of the foot­ball com­mu­nity.

Con­tin­ued suc­cess in Ire­land, abroad or in an­other role with the FAI, may make the com­ing of his day in­evitable but if the as­so­ci­a­tion gen­uinely saw him as the next un­der-21 man­ager and planned to sell him the role as po­ten­tially be­ing a step­ping stone then none of this will have done much to help.

In the end, though, there only ever had looked to be one likely win­ner. Mc­Carthy en­joyed a good re­la­tion­ship with De­laney and felt he might get the job when it be­came avail­able five years ago. Long be­fore then, he felt he had some un­fin­ished busi­ness with it.

The first time around, he had over­seen three cam­paigns and, rel­a­tively new to man­age­ment, learned as he went. A first cam­paign that in­cluded some tac­ti­cal un­cer­tainty, a cou­ple of dis­ap­point­ing home draws and one in­fa­mous away de­feat was im­proved upon.

Six-year stint

The high point of the six-year stint came on a Satur­day af­ter­noon in Lans­downe Road where Ja­son McA­teer scored the goal that se­cured an un­likely vic­tory over the Nether­lands. Af­ter two play-off de­feats, Ire­land beat Iran to qual­ify for the 2002 World Cup fi­nals in ad­vance of which, of course, things did go en­tirely well.

Roy Keane went home but Ire­land got to the se­cond round be­fore los­ing on penal­ties to Spain. Mc­Carthy stuck around for the first cou­ple of qual­i­fy­ing games in the next cam­paign when he might have been bet­ter to al­low a new man take over. Both were lost, in any case, and he did de­part.

There will be many now who are happy to see him re­turn but even af­ter all this time, his role in Saipan will en­sure that the ap­point­ment di­vides opin­ion. There will be some too who will sim­ply feel that the FAI should have been braver and more imag­i­na­tive as it sought to shape a brighter fu­ture.

The word was, though, that they wanted a safe pair of hands and Mc­Carthy looks to fit that bill. He has a track record of do­ing well with lim­ited re­sources at clubs, in the Cham­pi­onship for the most part, thanks to good or­gan­i­sa­tion, a strong tac­ti­cal sense and a way with play­ers.

He’ll need all of those at­tributes over the course of the cam­paign to come.

Whether he can sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove Ire­land’s style of play is an­other thing. He is some­thing of a prag­ma­tist and while his ear­lier Ir­ish teams played some bright foot­ball at times, the cur­rent squad is not the match of that one. His im­me­di­ate task is to make it a bet­ter one that it has looked over the past 12 months. That surely must be achiev­able but qual­i­fi­ca­tion for Euro2020 will be rather more of a chal­lenge.

Imag­ine you are John De­laney. It’s been an awk­ward few days. Now that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have stepped off, you are the sole re­main­ing fig­ure against whom the suf­fer­ing foot­ball pub­lic can vent its re­sent­ment and scorn. In­ter­net polls sug­gest your ap­proval rat­ing has slumped into sin­gle dig­its. Peo­ple are writ­ing aw­ful things on so­cial me­dia and start­ing an­gry pe­ti­tions against you.

Thank­fully the FAI board is still stuffed with loy­al­ists, trusted vet­er­ans who have been at your side for years – many, many years – but even they can’t have failed to de­tect the rum­blings of mutiny.

It’s time to choose a new man­ager for the in­ter­na­tional team. And the clock is tick­ing. Next week you are wel­com­ing all the top brass of Euro­pean foot­ball to Dublin for the Euro 2020 qual­i­fiers draw. You don’t want to be the goose­berry FA pres­i­dent who turns up with­out a man­ager on his arm.

Even more im­por­tant, you need Ire­land to qual­ify for Euro 2020, and those qual­i­fiers start in March. Reach­ing the fi­nals of Euro 2016 was worth ¤11 mil­lion in prize money to the FAI and 2020 will be worth more again.

But there’s more than money at stake. There’s per­sonal pride. Se­cur­ing four Euro 2020 fi­nals matches for Dublin has been among the head­line achieve­ments of your 13 years in charge. But now you need the team to get there. Imag­ine the ig­nominy if foot­ball comes home to Ire­land at last, and no­body turns up to meet it? Who wants to host a party to which they’re not even in­vited?

Longterm

You know peo­ple have been com­plain­ing for years that Ir­ish foot­ball needs to start think­ing long term. But right now the short term feels pretty sig­nif­i­cant for you. Your con­tract is up in 2020. Yes, there’s a good chance the board will ex­tend it if you want to stay on. Luck­ily those de­ci­sions are not made by the same peo­ple who vote against you in in­ter­net polls and sign pe­ti­tions de­mand­ing your re­moval. But the wolves are on the trail, the vul­tures are cir­cling. All good things come to an end and in the long run, we’re all dead. How long-term can you af­ford to think?

There are two cred­i­ble Ir­ish can­di­dates in Mick Mc­Carthy and Stephen Kenny, both of whom are known to be avail­able. And there are other can­di­dates too, ex­pe­ri­enced world trav­ellers like Car­los Queiroz. When agents hear you were pay­ing the last man­ager ¤2 mil­lion there is never go­ing to be a short­age of can­di­dates. The idea of bring­ing in a big-name mas­ter­mind is tan­ta­lis­ing. Some­where out there, with­out any doubt, there is a for­eign coach who would be a bril­liant man­ager for Ire­land, who could con­nect with the play­ers and the fans, who would turn out to be an im­plau­si­ble yet per­fect match.

The prob­lem is telling the per­fect can­di­date from all the mono­rail sales­men, celebrity frauds and other as­sorted gold-dig­gers. Turn­ing this team around is no job for a car­pet­bag­ger, this is go­ing to take some­body’s full at­ten­tion. Can you af­ford to hire some­body who might only be in it for the money? In th­ese cir­cum­stances, ig­nor­ing the Ir­ish can­di­dates is surely too risky.

So re­al­is­ti­cally your choice is be­tween Mick Mc­Carthy and Stephen Kenny. You know Mick. Ev­ery­one knows him. There are few bet­ter-known quan­ti­ties in the world of foot­ball. His ca­reer has been so long and so con­sis­tent that you know ex­actly what you are go­ing to get.

If he has one out­stand­ing qual­ity as a man­ager, it is stick­a­bil­ity. He spent nearly four years at Mill­wall, six with Ire­land, three at Sun­der­land and al­most six at both Wolves and Ip­swich.

By in­dus­try stan­dards th­ese are re­mark­able fig­ures. In the Cham­pi­onship – the league in which Mc­Carthy has spent the ma­jor­ity of his ca­reer – the av­er­age man­ager lasts less than a year. If you look at how long the cur­rent man­agers of the 92 English league clubs have been in their jobs, Mc­Carthy’s spells at Mill­wall, Wolves and Ip­swich would all place him among the top 10 long­est-serv­ing cur­rent man­agers, and his three years at Sun­der­land would have him in 15th place.

This tells you that Mc­Carthy is easy to work with. He is good at get­ting along with peo­ple. His for­mer play­ers are al­most unan­i­mous on the mat­ter of his es­sen­tial warmth and de­cency. He gets on with the board, he gets on with the play­ers, he gets on with the me­dia, he runs a happy ship.

No­table

There is an­other no­table pat­tern in Mc­Carthy’s ca­reer. In the end, the happy ship sinks. Mill­wall were al­ready in some­thing of a tail­spin by the time he left for Ire­land and they got rel­e­gated at the end of the sea­son. Ire­land were torn apart by Mick’s fall­ing out with Roy Keane and his six years ended with the crowd turn­ing on the team af­ter a de­feat to Switzer­land, and the FAI’s top of­fi­cial re­sign­ing as the Ge­n­e­sis re­port rec­om­mended whole­sale or­gan­i­sa­tional change.

Sun­der­land were bot­tom of the ta­ble when they sacked him in March 2006 and were rel­e­gated at the end of the sea­son. Wolves were bot­tom of the ta­ble when they sacked him in Feb­ru­ary 2012 and were rel­e­gated at the end of the sea­son. Ip­swich fin­ished in mid-ta­ble last sum­mer in Mc­Carthy’s last sea­son but he had al­ready de­cided to re­sign af­ter grow­ing ir­ri­tated at the con­stant com­plain­ing of the fans. Ip­swich are now nailed to the bot­tom of the Cham­pi­onship ta­ble and look­ing highly likely to be rel­e­gated. Con­sid­er­ing that Mc­Carthy is a renowned good vibes man it is odd how many of th­ese man­age­rial stints have ended in bit­terly ac­ri­mo­nious Mick­erdäm­merung. When­ever and wher­ever the fans have turned, Mc­Carthy has suc­ceeded in com­ing across as a dig­ni­fied foot­ball man, sur­rounded on all sides by un­rea­son and hys­te­ria, sto­ically en­dur­ing the suf­fer­ing that awaits many good foot­ball men. His pop­u­lar­ity in the game means that he has hardly ever been out of work. And yet you have to won­der, why does such a charm­ing and de­cent fig­ure so of­ten end up get­ting chased out of town by an an­gry mob? Is it pos­si­ble that the easy-go­ing sta­bil­ity that is Mc­Carthy’s sell­ing point as a man­ager turns over time into a weak­ness? He’s clearly good at run­ning things day to day and es­tab­lish­ing a happy work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. But he has not been so suc­cess­ful at cre­at­ing the im­pres­sion that his team is go­ing places, that his play­ers are ex­plor­ing the lim­its of their po­ten­tial. There comes a point when sta­bil­ity set­tles into stag­na­tion. De­cency can take you a long way but you need more than that to drive play­ers to fi­nals and to tro­phies. Mc­Carthy has never taken a team to a fi­nal.

Failed­spell

Stephen Kenny has been in many fi­nals with many dif­fer­ent clubs. Five league ti­tles, three FAI Cups, nu­mer­ous smaller tro­phies and ac­co­lades, be­sides tak­ing Dun­dalk into Europe and win­ning Ire­land’s first-ever points in the group stages of Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion. Even in his sup­pos­edly failed spell at Dun­fermline he led the small Scot­tish club to only their se­cond cup fi­nal in the last 50 years. Stephen Kenny had Dun­dalk pass­ing, press­ing, play­ing bet­ter foot­ball than Ire­land usu­ally did un­der O’Neill. In a nor­mal foot­ball coun­try he would al­ready have been ap­pointed as the new na­tional team man­ager.

Of course, Ire­land is not a nor­mal foot­ball coun­try. Ire­land is a coun­try where for decades any­one who was suc­cess­ful at home was al­most by def­i­ni­tion a fail­ure, be­cause if they were re­ally any good they would have been work­ing in Eng­land in­stead. You had to prove your­self in some in­ter­na­tional con­text – usu­ally by play­ing or manag­ing abroad, or in the case of Brian Kerr, by win­ning youth Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships. Suc­cess only in Ire­land was deemed ir­rel­e­vant.

That doesn’t hold any more. The Ir­ish pres­ence in English foot­ball is dwin­dling. The open­ing up of the English leagues to play­ers from all over the world has pushed Ir­ish play­ers to the mar­gins. The League of Ire­land no longer seems like the over­flow bucket for all the play­ers who weren’t good enough to make it in the big leagues. It’s in­creas­ingly clear that the league you once called the “dif­fi­cult child” is go­ing to be the beat­ing heart of the game in Ire­land and the place where many of the Ir­ish play­ers of the fu­ture will emerge.

Un­tapped po­ten­tial

What bet­ter way to har­ness that un­tapped po­ten­tial than to bring in a man­ager who knows Ir­ish foot­ball from the bot­tom up. To see Stephen Kenny’s suc­cess in Ire­land re­warded with the in­ter­na­tional job would show ev­ery­one else in the league that the top level was no longer off-lim­its to them. Surely that would en­er­gise the do­mes­tic game. And if Kenny went on to do well? Then Ir­ish do­mes­tic foot­ball could re­claim a level of re­spect it hasn’t en­joyed in 50 years.

Be­ing John De­laney, you are also aware of cer­tain po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. There is a size­able con­stituency out there call­ing for Kenny to get the job. A lot of the peo­ple who want Kenny are the same peo­ple who are call­ing for your head. Might giv­ing Kenny the job be a good way to shut th­ese peo­ple up?

You reach for the phone. But you hes­i­tate.

What if . . . what if it doesn’t work? Kevin Kilbane was on Newstalk dur­ing the week say­ing there will be play­ers in the Ir­ish squad who know noth­ing about Kenny. He might take time to win them over. Th­ese same play­ers, Kilbane says, will in­stantly re­spect Mc­Carthy. They might be too young to re­mem­ber him manag­ing Ire­land at the World Cup, but they will have seen him many times over the years mak­ing wry re­marks on Sky Sports News.

You think of the Euro 2020 draw and the prospect of hav­ing to in­tro­duce your new man­ager by name to all the other Euro­pean FA hon­chos. Will there be name tags? Mc­Carthy wouldn’t need a name tag.

Yes, O’Neill was some­how able to com­mand the re­spect of UK-based North­ern Ire­land play­ers, even though he’d only man­aged Brechin City and Sham­rock Rovers be­fore. But be­fore he be­came North­ern Ire­land’s most suc­cess­ful man­ager in 30 years, it took him 10 matches and 18 months to get his first win. If Kenny had a start like that, you can for­get all about Euro 2020.

Ca­sual Ire­land fans will ask why you turned down an ex­pe­ri­enced man­ager like Mc­Carthy for a guy who was un­proven at the top level. And the oth­ers – the peo­ple who wanted you to give Kenny the job? The ones you tried to ap­pease? They’ll prob­a­bly find a way to blame you any­way.

Mc­Carthy. He’s been there. Done that. Recog­nised by the play­ers. Pop­u­lar with the me­dia. Easy to work with. Fa­mil­iar. Re­as­sur­ing. Like a com­fort­able old pair of shoes.

You reach again for the phone . . .

Stephen Kenny had Dun­dalk pass­ing, press­ing, play­ing bet­ter foot­ball than Ire­land usu­ally did un­der O’Neill. In a nor­mal foot­ball coun­try he would al­ready have been ap­pointed as the new na­tional team man­age Mc­Carthy. He’s been there. Done that. Recog­nised by the play­ers. Pop­u­lar with the me­dia. Easy to work with. Fa­mil­iar. Re­as­sur­ing. Like a com­fort­able old pair of shoes . . .

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARTIN WILLETTS/GETTY IM­AGES

Mick Mc­Carthy: his un­veil­ing as the Repub­lic of Ire­land man­ager is ex­pected most likely to­day al­though the FAI has yet to con­firm any de­tails.

Mick Mc­Carthy is the ‘safe’ choice, but is he the right choice for the Repub­lic? – Ken Early

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOBY MELVILLE/PA

Mick Mc­Carthy con­soles Kevin Kilbane af­ter he missed a penalty in the shoot-out fol­low­ing their 0-0 draw dur­ing the World Cup knock­out game against Spain in South Korea. Be­low: Shout­ing in­struc­tions from the side­lines dur­ing a game against Rus­sia.

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