Hawkeye Sidekick

Mick McCarthy steps aside as the Stephen Kenny era begins

Managerial changing of the guard

In these surreal days of social distancing and self-isolation, sporting news bites have being few and far between. So when the FAI press statement was issued yesterday afternoon indicating the end of the Mick McCarthy era, it threw plenty of opinions.

Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Mick McCarthy second stint as national team manager and wonders if the FAI decision to place their faith with Stephen Kenny is destined for success or failure.

Mick McCarthy: Safe pair of hands

I like Mick McCarthy (even though Saipan I was on the other side of the argument). I like Mick McCarthy in terms of his playing career, his professionalism and hard work reaping a fruitful career on the pitch and this work ethic continued in his club managerial career. All you have to see is the demise of Ipswich Town in recent seasons since McCarthy left Portman Road to fully appreciate the stability he brings to a football club.

Mick McCarthy knew what he was getting himself into when he accepted the call from the FAI to become the manager of the national soccer team for the second time in his career. The succession plan was in place. Stephen Kenny was the chosen one to lead the side long term but for now Mick McCarthy was there to put stability back into the national side fortunes and look to secure qualification to UEFA 2020 championships.

People will always have a pop at McCarthy for his managerial tactics but he is built on the premise of being defensively solid, keep clean sheets and look to score from putting the ball in the box either via set piece or crosses from open play. This current qualification was no different in that respect.

Mick McCarthy: Second Era Reflections

How to reflect on the Mick McCarthy second stint in charge? A qualification draw which could have been an absolute stinker as the Republic of Ireland were first pitted into the Netherlands and Germany group but then quickly were relocated to the pool featuring Switzerland (nemesis, never play against this side) and Denmark (familiar friend / foe). Minnows Gibraltar and the always tricky Georgia completed the group lineup.

Exciting football was not in abundance in the opening fixtures. Gibraltar on the road was a horrendous spectacle, strong winds and no flow to the game. Jeff Hendricks goal after the break secured the win but not until Darren Randolph pulled a stunning save to keep the clean sheet intact. McCarthy’s relief at the final whistle was palpable. Republic of Ireland had gotten out of jail but the show was on the road.

The first home game of the group was a visit from Georgia who in recent fixtures have provided plenty of issues for the Republic of Ireland. The tennis ball protest in full view. A splendid Conor Hourihane free kick in the opening half again secured the win. Two wins from two. Some good moments of attacking play, some good passing phases, work in progress but the side were competitive.

Denmark away. Copenhagen. Both sides knew each other inside out and for the opening half, it was a cagey affair. When Denmark took the lead late on, it was a big early test for the resiliency of this Irish side. Step forth, Shane Duffy to power a header past Kasper Schmeichel to secure a share of the spoils. Seven points from three games. Good start.

A routine 2-0 win against Gibraltar at home setup the key fixtures for the side in this group. Switzerland came to Dublin with a game plan and took the lead courtesy of Fabian Schar but Ireland again showed massive heart and fight equalizing late courtesy of David McGoldrick. The performance was patchy in possession and more questions on the midfield quality to control games. No ground lost but no room for error now heading down the stretch.

Tbilisi. Georgia. A difficult road trip for Republic of Ireland continued as both sides delivered a bore 0-0 stalemate. No late heroics to snatch a much needed win. The margin of error and further loss of points narrowing with each fixture. The side’s inability to create clear chances in open play becoming a big issue, the lack of drive from central midfield to support the likes of McGoldrick exposed and the over dependence on the set piece even more relied on.

The Switzerland road trip was a horror show from start to finish. The hosts never let Republic of Ireland settle into the contest and they deserved the win. I am not the biggest fan of the Swiss style of play — very methodological but it gets the job done. Seferovic and Fernandes scored the goals but in truth, it could have been more in this 2-0 win. Irish discipline issues as well to compound a miserable night.

Mission objective was set out on the final fixture. A win against Denmark was required but as in previous fixtures, Denmark were able to absorb the early exchanges and strike the front courtesy of Martin Braithwaite late on.

Matt Doherty’s equalizer provided a glimmer of hope and a last stand but that lack of quality in the final third was exposed. 1-1. Denmark and Switzerland through and Republic of Ireland would need to be content with a playoff spot.

Precarious position for Republic of Ireland on and off the pitch

Given the financial turmoil at the FAI, the playoff spot was a precarious position to be in. The side having to be contend with an one off road fixture to Slovakia and then potentially another away trip to either Bosnia / Herzegovina or Northern Ireland. No guarantee of progression here and the prospect of a massive financial loss staring the FAI HQ in the face.

The Covid-19 global pandemic is focusing minds all around the world except for Belarus in the footballing world. The further delay in the Slovakian playoff fixture posing massive issues for the FAI and their succession plans which looked good at the start of this current Euros campaign. Contract fine print then became an issue.

Progressive move or a big gamble going to go wrong?

Mick McCarthy has got the FAI out of a bind with deciding to step aside now but it now means that an experienced manager and backroom staff steps aside for Stephen Kenny whose experience in international football is minimal. FAI have to put it fine taking a punt on Kenny to deliver the goods for the organization.

This is such a precarious appointment. The expectation was that Kenny would be given some lead up time and a fresh new qualification campaign to start. The chance to bring in some talented U21 players through to the senior ranks.

Molumphy, Idah, Masterson, Connolly, Parrott, O’Shea, Collins to name but a small group of promising prospects. How does Kenny approach the integration of youth into a senior squad who are still in the midst of a playoff qualification campaign?

The backroom staff for Stephen Kenny must step up to the mark and provide leadership and guidance to Kenny in these early days of his international management career. McCarthy’s backroom staff had a blend of experience (Terry Connor) while new fresh coaching faces (Robbie Keane) provided enthusiasm and energy. FAI may need to review this side of the management team as a matter of urgency; it has to be the right balance. We don’t want a repeat of the Steve Staunton fiasco part two.

How does Stephen Kenny look to implement his football ethos on the current senior players of the squad? The U21 side during their group campaign this year have been so easily on the eye with their slick passing, tempo and movement.

Genuine pace upfront which created goal scoring chances aplenty. This is going to be intriguing to see the potential transformation. Will Kenny go three at the back and look to play out from the back like the U21 side? All indications would be that this will be his philosophy.

Stephen Kenny’s domestic managerial record is very impressive. Dunfermline stint saw a Scottish Cup final appearance but ultimate relegation from the SPL.

Stephen Kenny now has his opportunity to shine but as mentioned, the timing and where we are in the international football calendar is leaving little room for error for Kenny straight off the bat. A poor playoff exit immediately and the pressure is reaped on the domestic coach and it will be a test for the FAI to back their main man.

The other point is how Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty can coexist in the same side. For the side to be successful, both need to be in the side. Doherty’s time is now. His impressive performances for Wolves this season is yet more proof of his growth in talent and performance consistency. Coleman is still an integral part to the Irish setup but can he adapt to the new managerial style of play and perhaps slot in a back three long term?

It never gets boring when it comes to the FAI and the Senior Men’s soccer team. Once the football calendar gets back on track, it is going to be a fascinating watch on how Stephen Kenny and his side fare? I wish Stephen well but this is a tricky assignment for any manager stepping in let alone one who has minimal international senior experience. Time will tell.