By Dave Hannigan
With eight minutes remaining on Anders Frisk’s watch, his fourth official came to the touchline and flashed up the numbers 3 and 13 on his electronic board. Another striker was required to assist with the all-out assault on Iker Casillas’s goal, and David Connolly dashed on to replace Ian Harte. The Leeds United fullback and the manager who has always championed his cause shared an emotional embrace near the Irish bench, but at the fag end of a tournament where he finally seemed to discover the value of canny substitutions, Mick McCarthy’s last change was in so many ways his worst. It was the one he never should have had to make.
For the fourth time in four games, Harte was called ashore before the end. The unfortunate penalty miss aside, his presence in the starting lineup was ridiculously shortsighted, and represented a criminal waste of a substitution before a ball was even kicked. As Jose Camacho nearly discovered to his cost, few teams can afford to mess around with their use of the three available subs. That the beleaguered and less-than-fit Harte had enjoyed his best game of the World Cup — in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king — is less relevant than the insight it provides into the concept of loyalty, the attribute that is equal parts McCarthy’s great strength and enduring weakness.
So the theory goes, one of the reasons McCarthy has been able to wring every last drop of effort and ability out of this side is the faith he’s shown in each of these individuals over the years. They have rewarded his belief in them by becoming a team that is more than the sum of its parts. While a player is bound to feel a certain heightened allegiance to any manager who fights his corner, what would have happened if, as pragmatism and the knockout stages of the competition demanded, Harte had been dropped that Sunday night? With Gary Kelly at left back, and Steven Reid or Jason McAteer parachuted into the right side of midfield, would Spain have encountered an Irish team that was any less united or determined? Remaining loyal to a fault never helped anyone.
In a checkered Irish career, Alan Kernaghan appeared to have matured into a full-blown international center half the night of the 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. Withstanding ferocious personal abuse from the crowd, he did enough to suggest he would be playing in the World Cup finals the following summer. Seven months later, Phil Babb made his competitive debut against Italy at Giants Stadium, was arguably Ireland’s second best player over the course of the next four games, and Kernaghan didn’t get a single minute of action. Even a notorious conservative like Jack Charlton realized that progress at this level demands a distasteful ruthlessness. Gary Waddock and Alan McLoughlin can testify to that.
Charlton gave Babb, McAteer and Gary Kelly their first taste of the international scene in March of 1994, and by June they were all playing in the World Cup finals. Sad to say, McCarthy’s most enlightened squad selection was Reid, and he was the accidental tourist, owing his trip to Mark Kennedy being admirably honest about the state of his own fitness. With 23 places to fill, a manager can and should be a little more adventurous with his choices. Why bring Carsley, a never-was, when he could have introduced Colin Healy, a maybe for the future? Richard Dunne played his part in qualifying, but with Kenny Cunningham and Andy O’Brien ahead of him in the queue, gambling on Gary Docherty’s versatility at back and front would have been the bolder move. Refusing to leave behind those who fought well in previous battles also begs the question as to when the loyalty clause protecting them actually expires?
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Eight years ago, Charlton’s surprise blooding of the three amigos, and the emergence of Roy Keane, presaged a promising future for Ireland and allowed a positive sheen to be placed on a disappointing second-round exit. Unfortunately, Kelly, McAteer and Babb allowed a modicum of fame to interfere with their development as footballers and fortunes suffered accordingly. Notwithstanding any potential trouble emanating from the next phase of the Keane wars (the imminent publication of the manager’s World Cup diary and the Manchester United captain’s autobiography), McCarthy has a lot more going for him than his predecessor did after that Dutch defeat. For the Euro 2004 qualifiers, he has a young and confident bunch of players whose self-belief is unlikely to be affected by their failure to finish off the Spanish before the penalties.
Damien Duff and Robbie Keane were 9 and 7 years old, respectively, when Ray Houghton scored against England in Stuttgart. In what is one of the great legacies of the Charlton era, they spent their formative years believing it was normal for Ireland to participate in major championships. Deprived of the inferiority complex that often afflicted those generations who never saw their country reach the World Cup finals, that admirable cockiness they display on the ball and the brazen way they tear into some of the most vaunted defenders in Europe can be put down to personal triumphs in serious youths football. Five years ago, Duff almost singlehandedly dragged a very ordinary team to third place at the World Under-20s cup. The guy who terrorized Mendieta in the second half in Suwon didn’t just walk in off the street last week.
Another side effect of the Charlton success was the huge increase in numbers playing the game. This explosion, especially in rural areas, can be put down to the Irish team reaching two successive World Cups at a time that also saw the sudden arrival of a smorgasbord of live soccer on TV. In between the quarterfinal loss to Italy in Rome and the victory over them in New York, Sky Sports began evangelizing on behalf of the sport, the Champions’ League simultaneously introduced its own gospel, and 12 months before Liam Griffin led his people to the promised land, a group of Wexford schoolchildren would vote Eric Cantona their favorite sportsman in a survey. The drama and excitement of recent weeks will prompt a renewed surge in interest in the game, and over the last couple of years, Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly have worked to put in place a national coaching structure to ensure quality teaching is available in all corners of the island these days.
If the FAI is better prepared to harvest any new crop, these long-term initiatives won’t yield any benefit for McCarthy as he enters the final two years of his term. After showing an inability to man-manage the most important player on his team — in complete contrast to Charlton’s astute handling of Paul McGrath over a period of years — that seemed a certain portent of doom, he guided his side to the second round and defeat in emotional circumstances. A worthy achievement in some quarters, an all too familiar heroic failure in others. The real fallout from Saipan will come when the first sign of a slip up in the forthcoming qualifying campaign prompts calls for McCarthy’s departure and Roy Keane’s return to the fold. That we can’t have one without the other is the only thing we can say for certain now.