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Mick McCarthy was appointed the manager of the Republic of Ireland for a second time in his career back in November 2018, replacing Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, whose five-year reign came to an end.
His task was simple: get Ireland qualified for Euro 2020 before handing over the mantle to current U21 manager, Stephen Kenny.
McCarthy, whose first spell in charge of Ireland ran between 1996 and 2002, only signed a two-year contract with the FAI on the premise that Kenny, who resigned as manager of Dundalk to lead Ireland’s Under-21s, would graduate to the senior team when McCarthy leaves.
The unusual arrangement was the FAI’s attempt to satisfy their dual objectives of qualifying for Euro 2020 while planning for the development of Irish football beyond that. So, this is likely to be McCarthy’s last managerial stint at international level, and he will be keen to go out with a bang and lead Ireland into the Euro 2020 tournament next year, before bowing out with his head held high.
On his appointment last year, McCarthy said: “If we do really well, and we get to the (Euro 2020) final and win it, there might be a push for me to stay and there might also be a job in the Premier League, and I might want to move on there. And if I do badly and we don’t qualify, you won’t want me anyway. I hope I’ll leave a good squad and a good team behind and (Kenny) can go and try to qualify for the World Cup in 2022.”
The appointment of McCarthy was not welcomed by all Irish football fans who have been critical in the past of the defensive style of football his sides usually play. Ask a few Ipswich Town fans what they think. Yet Ireland currently top Euro qualifying Group D and his unpopular brand of football might just have helped them grind out important draws against their main challengers in the group, Switzerland and Denmark.
Despite being unbeaten after five group games, the bookies still don’t rate Ireland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2020 though and have both the Swiss and the Danes as favourites to be part of next year’s tournament instead.
Ireland began their qualifying campaign with an unremarkable 1-0 win in Gibraltar, Jeff Hendrick’s strike the only difference between the two sides, which was then followed up with another 1-0 success, this time against Georgia in Dublin; Conor Hourihane with the solitary goal.
Two uninspiring opening wins but wins none-the-less, and clean sheets which will have delighted McCarthy. However, his defensive style would prove crucial in their third qualifying game when they returned from Denmark with an excellent 1-1 draw to maintain top spot in Group D. Despite going behind to a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg strike on 76 minutes, Shane Duffy was on hand to grab a crucial equaliser with just five minutes left to give the Irish what could prove to be a very important point.
They were then able to build on that result with a 2-0 defeat of Gibraltar in Dublin three days later – although again it was a far from emphatic performance. Ireland had to rely on an own goal to send them in at half-time ahead before Robbie Brady made sure of the win in injury time.
When Ireland welcomed Group D favourites, Switzerland, to the Aviva Stadium, it was once again a strong defensive display that earnt them another crucial point. It was also a near carbon copy performance to the one in Copenhagen; the Irish went 1-0 down to a Fabian Schar strike with around 15 minutes to play, but it was David McGoldrick who grabbed the equaliser this time, again with just five minutes left on the clock.
It might not always be the most thrilling football to watch, but McCarthy’s defensive line-ups had snatched two draws that could be very significant come the final stages of the group. And with Denmark still to visit Dublin in November, it could be argued that Ireland have qualification in their own hands. It is this fixture that looks like being the one that will decide who will join likely group winners, Switzerland, at Euro 2020 next year.
Dublin is also one of the Euro 2020 host cities, so it will be a very special tournament. One thing is for sure: Mick McCarthy will relish the tag of underdogs and the prospect of proving his detractors wrong.