Although McCarthy signed a two-year extension to his contract, which should keep him in charge until 2004, if Ireland lose to Switzerland in today’s vital European Championship qualifying game at Lansdowne Road, then the FAI could be looking for a new manager.
If the shadow cast by Keane hasn’t been long enough to divide public opinion and make McCarthy either a heroic coach who stood up to an angry, embittered captain, or a stubborn, unskilled man-manager who contrived to deprive Ireland of its greatest ever player at the World Cup finals, then this latest controversy is more clear cut.
Following suggestions that McCarthy was weary of the on-going Keane question — although he has hardly knocked the issue on the head by publishing his own World Cup diary — there was intense speculation when the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, was sacked that McCarthy might be in the running to take over at the English Premiership club.
In fairness to McCarthy, he didn’t fan the flames, but he pointedly refused to dampen them down either. “I’m flattered that my name has been mentioned,” he said. “Maybe that’s the price of success, being linked with a country that has moved from 54th to 13th in the FIFA world rankings and then a good World Cup last summer.”
So here was the Ireland manager, just eight days before a vital game, which his team desperately needs to win following a disastrous 4-2 loss to Russia last month, leaving some ambivalence regarding his current job hanging in the air. As for his employers, the FAI, they could’ve been forgiven for thinking their man had his eyes on a different prize.
Meanwhile, a journalist, Cathal Dervan, who is a friend of McCarthy’s and who has ghostwritten his World Cup memoir, was offering his read on the Sunderland job. “My information from Sunderland,” said Dervan, “is that Mick is indeed top of their list. . . . McCarthy will welcome advances from the struggling Premiership club.”
Dervan doesn’t speak for McCarthy, but in the absence of a firm statement ruling himself out of contention for the Sunderland post, McCarthy was doing nothing to prevent further speculation that he was about to leave the job he has held since 1996.
The day the Irish Mirror trumpeted over several pages that McCarthy was ready to quit and that David O’Leary was being lined up as successor, it was announced that Sunderland had appointed Howard Wilkinson as their manager. It later emerged that Wilkinson had accepted the job the day before McCarthy refused to rule himself out of contention, and it also emerged that McCarthy had never been approached by Sunderland.
Dervan got it badly wrong; McCarthy got it badly wrong by not distancing himself from his friend; cue embarrassment all round. Now the FAI is aware that McCarthy has itchy feet and that he is open to offers. The national manager is restless, his team are without a leader. The end could be nigh.