LONDON — It is difficult to imagine a coach can be under pressure after his team made a positive impression at the World Cup finals, has lost only three of its last 27 games and just seven of 41 competitive matches during his 6 1/2 years in charge.
Step forward Mick McCarthy of the Republic of Ireland, Europe’s longest-serving national coach but whom many Irish observers are delighting in ridiculing.
As the spotlight turns from league to international matters over the coming days it is probably true to say no coach of all the teams in Euro 2004 needs a victory as much as McCarthy, with the possible exception of Scotland’s Berti Vogts who is relatively new to his job.
If Ireland does not beat Switzerland in Dublin on Oct. 16 — ironically the day after the English Football Association decides whether Roy Keane’s book revelations have brought the game into disrepute — the knives will not so much be sharpened but metaphorically plunged into McCarthy by a section of the Irish media which has been savage in its criticism.
Having covered Ireland for almost 17 years, I have seen soccer in the Republic grow from being below field hockey, rugby union and horse racing in the popularity stakes to third behind hurling and Gaelic football, which will always be the major national sports.
McCarthy has played a significant part in the rise of Irish football. As Jack Charlton’s captain, McCarthy led the Republic to the quarter finals of Italia ’90, two years after Ireland had been unlucky to lose to eventual winner Holland at Euro ’88.
When Charlton stepped down in 1996, McCarthy assumed control of an aging squad with up and coming young players in short supply.
Even so, Ireland reached the playoffs for France ’98 (where it lost to Belgium) and Euro 2000 (where it went out to Turkey on the away-goals rule).
Despite being paired with Holland and Portugal for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Ireland reached the finals via a playoff against Iran and captivated the Japanese public this summer with some skillful displays where the Republic’s courage and commitment were not properly rewarded with a penalty shootout loss to Spain in the second round.
It is difficult for outsiders to view McCarthy as the failure too many in Ireland perceive him to be. He has kept a team, with two or three outstanding players and a number of journeymen, competitive and playing above itself, avoiding defeat against nations with, player-for-player, far better sides.
True, Ireland was dreadful in losing 4-2 in Moscow last month but Russia has not lost a European Championship or World Cup qualifying game at home in over 50 matches — we are not talking San Marino or Luxembourg here.
What is particularly distasteful is that too much of the venom thrown at McCarthy is personal rather than professional criticism.
Coming away from the 2-2 draw in Holland and the 1-1 draw in Portugal a couple of seasons ago, I was amazed to hear members of the Irish press saying how poor McCarthy’s substitutions were. The Republic had picked up points in venues where any team would be happy to avoid defeat and his substitutions were the talking point — what do these people want?
It is said McCarthy is out of his depth as an international coach, which is hardly backed up by his record. His tactical acumen apparently ranges between poor and awful, his team selections are wrong — in fact in the eyes of some he can do nothing right. Ireland wins matches despite McCarthy not because of him.
So why the overdose of vitriol? Though McCarthy is a decent, honest man — the most engaging of company over a pint or three of Guinness — he has been spikey with the Irish press, seeing every question as a potential hand grenade.
Whereas Charlton always said what he thought and tough if anyone took offense, McCarthy has been wary — almost paranoid — about saying anything that could rebound on him. A good guy but not always good copy and that makes him a bad guy and an even worse manager, it would seem.
His biggest sin, however, was falling out with Roy Keane, Ireland’s greatest ever player but far from the nicest, just before the World Cup finals. The rights and wrongs of that episode are still a major talking point in Ireland and the anti-McCarthy brigade has been searching for new ways to humiliate the coach since Keanegate.
McCarthy’s critics seem to overlook the reality of any successor. Some say David O’Leary, the former Leeds manager, is the leading candidate, forgetting that O’Leary earned £3 million in his penultimate season at Elland Road. That is almost 10 times McCarthy’s £350,000 annual salary.
So no O’Leary then. No problem, say the never-beaten anti-McCarthy brigade — Celtic’s Martin O’Neill, a former Northern Ireland international, would do the Republic job part-time. You couldn’t make it up.
If McCarthy left the Ireland job for whatever reason, the financial restraints of the Football Association of Ireland means that the short list would include names such as John Aldridge (ex-Tranmere) and Joe Kinnear (Luton) rather than Arsene Wenger of Arsenal or Real Madrid’s Vicente Del Bosque.
With respect to Aldridge and Kinnear, would they really be better than McCarthy? The blinkered critics look no further than McCarthy’s exit — who comes in the door next is almost an irrelevance as long as whoever he is gets Keane back in the team.
More immediately, the Manchester United captain will be up before the F.A. to answer charges that he brought the game into disrepute by, it is claimed, admitting he deliberately tried to hurt Manchester City’s Alf Inge Haaland in April 2001 and making money out of such a revelation in a book.
Keane was sent off for the horror tackle which, probably more by luck than judgment, did not break Haaland’s leg even if the Norwegian has been plagued by injury since because of problems unrelated to Roy’s rage.
While in no way condoning Keane’s red-card assault, this observer defends his right to free speech. The F.A. could find itself on tricky legal grounds if it finds Keane guilty and punishes him either by a fine or a ban (the latter is probably unlikely).
Predicting the outcome of such a hearing is difficult, but how embarrassing it would be for the powerbrokers of English football if Keane is let off on whatever grounds.
The three-man disciplinary commission’s judgment will be delivered as McCarthy prepares the Keane-less Ireland for the showdown with Switzerland, and not for the first, or probably last time, the Republic’s former captain will overshadow events elsewhere.