The sensational row between McCarthy and Ireland captain Roy Keane will not, and probably never will, go away. Keane left the World Cup without playing a game, questioning McCarthy’s competence to lead a national team. Now the question is: how will McCarthy do at Sunderland?
Will the former Irish manager and player prove many an Irish supporter and football critic wrong by saving Sunderland from relegation? Well, that would be a bit of a tall order. Sunderland, bottom of the EPL barrel, have only 19 points and are 10 behind Bolton Wanderers, who beat them 2-0 over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Hardly the greatest of starts for McCarthy, who now faces West Ham United this coming Saturday. The Hammers have won 7 points out of their last three games and look like the side that can avoid the drop. They are third from the bottom and both teams are aware they have to win this survival match.
West Bromwich Albion are just above Sunderland on 21 points and are more or less in the same sinking boat. The teams to catch are Birmingham on 32 points, Leeds 34 and Aston Villa 35.
It’s not really what McCarthy can do, but, rather, which team or teams will continue to slide. Leeds United looks to be favorite in this category, as they were beaten 3-2 by Middlesbrough last week. Terry Venables may find he will have to repeat last year’s Messiah act when he saved Boro in an unforgettable relegation battle. El Tel’s Leeds have only picked up 4 points from their last eight games.
It seems difficult to figure out what McCarthy has to do at Sunderland other than rebuild. It’s more about other teams wilting under the pressure. For now, the odds continue to stack up against Sunderland, with Birmingham having beaten Villa and Liverpool in recent games. However, last Sunday, Birmingham did slip up against Manchester City, with Robbie Fowler hitting a special finish. So those 3 valuable points for City kept Birmingham in the doghouse, which is what McCarthy needed. Regardless, with eight games left, Sunderland would likely have to win all of them. It’s more realistic to say that McCarthy and Sunderland will give it a go but, truthfully, it’s all about lifting the club out of the dumps. That’s where it’s at, whether Sunderland survive or not. Indeed, many questions about Mick McCarthy’s ability as a manager will be answered over the next year, not over the next eight games.
Of course, there is now more than ever a huge Irish interest in the club as McCarthy joins Jason McAteer, Kevin Kilbane and Phil Babb. Dare Mick bring in other members of his old Irish squad, like Gary Breen or David Connelly? Several players who played for the Republic in the World Cup could find themselves getting a call from McCarthy. Ian Harte and Gary Kelly are not having the best of times at Leeds, while Steve Staunton has never let McCarthy down. McCarthy also gave the green jersey to Colin Healy who may be due a transfer.
It sounds and looks like a big Irish joke, but there is already talk of Breen making the move. We may see quite a few tri-colors in Sunderland’s Stadium of Light just yet. In fact, there were a few Irish flags flying last Saturday. A folk band sang Irish songs outside the ground, while in the stadium they danced a ceili, blew some pipes and played traditional Irish music. Mick moved out into the center of the field to a rapturous applause and then signed some autographs along the edge of the crowd. Maybe it was the start of his healing process.
He was out to enjoy himself but he did admit he got a reality check with the defeat. That’s great, fair play, at least you’re honest, Mick, but it’s time to stop the Irish shenanigans. It’s been milked enough.
Nevertheless, there’s not a lot of money at Sunderland these days, so a few players may have to hit the road. McCarthy is no stranger to working on a tight budget, which also reinforces the feeling that he might bring in players with whom he’s a long-standing relationship — players who would play for him at low cost. Or, put another way, players who would play for his cause.
McCarthy knows Sunderland players will transfer and he knows he may have to sell to balance the books. It’s unlikely Kevin Phillips, Tore Andre Flo and Claudio Reyna will stick around if the ship goes down, but the Irish mates will stay on board. McCarthy has never really had a huge amount of money to buy players in his previous clubs, particularly Millwall. Besides, his personal rolling contract without security suggests he’s not in it for the money.
None of this worries McCarthy. “This place will be hopping with excitement,” he said. Perhaps he means hoping for excitement.
He’ll be given the benefit of doubt for the future. Already conveniently forgotten is his dubious reshuffle against Bolton at halftime when the sides were at 0-0. Sunderland collapsed in the second half, making it their worst losing streak in the club’s 124-year history. Not the greatest of starts for a new manager who expects his new players to play out of their skins to get at least a result. However, there are a lot of points to play for and McCarthy will have over a week to prepare for West Ham. Remaining games are against Chelsea, Birmingham, West Brom, Manchester City, Newcastle, Villa and Arsenal with each game looking as difficult as the next. Challenging games are what McCarthy should be telling his club to prepare for, not some silly song-singing outside the ground and dizzy dancing inside. St. Patrick’s Day is a great day for the Irish, but it’s a celebration that should be given more respect and used more wisely. Come on now, Mick, concentrate on the task at hand, give the Irish episode a break. Move on to rebuilding the club, not trumpeting your heritage.