FAI History Chapter 35 – Slow start for Mick McCarthy
FAI History Chapter 35 - Slow start for Mick McCarthy
Mick McCarthy's task was not an easy one. The troubled background at Council level caused much public controversy and damaging rumour. And he was succeeding the most successful manager in Ireland's history.
Yet the Association was expanding rapidly on the back of large attendances at a succession of attractive championship matches under Jack Charlton.
The financial support of a corporate sector that was now acutely aware of the attractions a successful Irish team had for the public at large was buoyant, led by the FAI's primary sponsor Opel.
Footballers and their managers seldom have reason to concern themselves with the workings of the sport's governing bodies and, at one level, these could not have impacted upon the manager's work.
But public perception was inevitably affected by the on-going reportage of events in the public press and must have influenced the mood and attitude of the team's supporters.
The need for McCarthy to introduce new players and the little time before the kick-off of the World Cup 1998 demanded drastic action on the part of the manager. Results inevitably suffered.
The new manager had a programme of six warm-up matches before the World Cup programme kicked-off and first up was a match against Russia in March 1996.
He chose to offer a number of the heroes of Charlton's reign the opportunity of extending their careers but made a significant selection when he played the 19 years old Shay Given in place of the injured Alan Kelly in goal.
Given was reserve goalkeeper at Blackburn at the time but was immediately identified as a player for the future. He played with typical confidence and effectiveness even if Russia won the game at Lansdowne Road 2-0.
The game attracted 41,600 spectators and they witnessed two other significant events. Andy Townsend led the team out as captain and when he was replaced at half-time the captain's armband was handed to Roy Keane.
It was a changing of the guard in a very real sense and McCarthy stood by his selection for the future even though Keane marked his elevation by getting himself sent off as late as the 88th minute.
A month later Ireland travelled to Prague to meet the Czech Republic who were heavily into their preparations for the finals of the UEFA Championship in England.
McCarthy never compromised on commitment or effort as a player ... now he showed the same courage as he grasped the need to push on with all haste in search of younger players.
Given was again in goal and was joined by debutants Kenny Cunningham of Wimbledon and Alan Moore of Middlesbrough. Curtis Fleming, also Middlesbrough, won his first international cap when introduced as sub.
Ireland played with great spirit, something the fans soon came to recognise as a constant with all of McCarthy's teams. This was a talented Czech team, however, and they would go on to finish runners-up to Germany in the UEFA Championship final in Wembley. They beat Ireland 2-0.
There was no respite for the emerging Ireland for Portugal arrived in May with a talented squad intent on bringing their preparations for the UEFA finals to a peak. This, remember, just six months after they had crushed Ireland 3-0 in Lisbon in the UEFA qualifiers.
McCarthy spread his net a little wider still by calling up Gareth Farrelly of Aston Villa and the 18 years old centre-forward David Connolly of Watford for their first internationals. They were joined by three other newcomers in the course of the game - Keith O'Neill, Norwich City, Dave Savage, Millwall, and Gary Breen, Birmingham City.
Portugal were short some of their front-line stars but that did not detract from another brave performance by Ireland's experimental team. They fought stubbornly for a result only to be undone in added time when a shot from Antonio Folha was deflected beyond Shay Given for the winning goal.
Four days later, on June 2nd, 1996, Ireland faced Croatia at Lansdowne and Ian Harte, Leeds United, stepped into the team as a second half substitute for the first time from the U21 squad.
An early goal for Croatia tested Ireland's nerve as they were at risk of a sixth consecutive defeat, but they struck back for Keith O'Neill to claim an excellent equaliser.
Croatia edged in front again just before half-time but Ireland persisted and continued to play with optimism, even as McCarthy continued his experiments with several substitutions. Niall Quinn ensured they were rewarded with a second equaliser late in the game.
Two days later Ireland were in Rotterdam for a reprise of their play-off game against Netherlands who were facing their final match before the UEFA finals. Any thoughts of a relaxed evening for the home side were quickly dispelled when Gary Breen strode out of defence to flash a header past goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar after 13 minutes.
The pace of the game increased appreciably as Netherlands were stung into reaction and Dennis Bergkamp had them level before half-time. The pressure they maintained after the interval produced further goals for Clarence Seedorf and Philip Cocu.
This was a high-intensity introduction to international football management for Mick McCarthy and his developing squad. They embarked upon a three-match programme for the US Cup in America in June ensuring there was to be no close-season for Ireland's youngsters and, indeed, for many of their experienced players as well.
Their first match was a difficult one in the Foxboro Stadium, Boston, against USA. Ireland played brightly and raised hopes of a first win as David Connolly claimed his first goal in the 57th minute. They conceded an equaliser within 90 seconds, however, when Tab Ramos equalised and Claudio Reyna scored the winner 15 minutes from time.
Three days later, on June 12, 1996 Ireland revived memories of the World Cup of 1994 when they faced Mexico at the Giants Stadium, New Jersey. The memories conjured up by their defeat on that occasion to Mexico in Orlando were not encouraging and Luis Garcia, on the scoreboard in the World Cup tie, was again on the mark in New Jersey.
Ireland were not prepared to accept a defeat that seemed predictable and they hit back through David Connolly. And when they forced an ‘own goal' from Davino early in the second half there were hopes of something better still.
What followed was more farce than football, however, as a referee from Cuba, Raul Dominguez, decided to exert an influence best described as bizarre. He first sent off Liam Daish for time-wasting and also dismissed Niall Quinn, who had run from the substitute's bench to protest at this decision. Later, when Mick McCarthy tossed a ball away from a Mexican player looking to play a free kick, the referee sent him off.
The manager's sending off was later expunged and Dominguez was demoted from the list of referees at the competition. But this occurred after the referee had intervened again to Ireland's chagrin by awarding Mexico a controversial penalty which Garcia despatched beyond Packie Bonner for a winning goal.
It was an extraordinary match from many points of view but it meant Ireland faced their final match against Bolivia in the Giants Stadium on June 15 still searching for a first win for McCarthy.
The manager must have been feeling some pressure but he remained true to his policy and the team he sent out was the youngest in history with an average age of 21 and only one player, Liam O'Brien, over 30.
The dark clouds gathering after a nine-match run without a win under Charlton and McCarthy were suddenly and devastatingly blown away by McCarthy's youngsters. They riddled Bolivia's defence with bright and breezy football that produced three stunning goals and a 3-0 win.
Keith O'Neill set the ball rolling with a crashing header from Gareth Farrelly's corner-kick. O'Neill, full of guile and potential, soon added a second and when Ian Harte, at 18 the youngest in the team, added a third with a header from another Farrelly's corner, the job was done before half-time.
Ireland's 3-0 success was McCarthy's first as manager. The performance, the result and the youth of the team selection seemed full of significance.
McCarthy showed a sensitive appreciation of the mood of a united dressing-room as well for he introduced Packie Bonner as sub for Shay Given in the closing minutes. The symbolism, as Bonner made his farewell appearance in his 80th international, was strong.