Round Table | Mick McCarthy’s options

Kevin Higgins joined David Smith and myself, to discuss Ireland’s upcoming qualifiers against Georgia and Switzerland. Two games of real significance as Ireland continue to endeavour to make Mick McCarthy’s bookended return to the job, one that could result in reaching next summer’s European Championships.

Everything is in Ireland’s hands, but when has that ever meant a polished ending to a campaign? The decisions McCarthy has in his team selection for these games are obviously pivotal. But, is he willing to throw any caution to the wind in doing so?

Brian Strahan: The positional sense of Otar Kakabadze, the Georgian right back, was the first thing to jump out at me, when I was watching back the highlights of the Georgian game against Denmark from last month. 

There is a definite weak-spot there. So, you know where I’m going with this – Aaron Connolly has to start, right?

David Smith: Good point about Kakabadze. I’d love to see Connolly given a chance, but I think a cameo from the bench is probably the best we can hope for.
I imagine Mick will hand Matt Doherty a start at left back, with James McClean ahead of him?

Another option would be to move McClean back to left full and opt for Connolly in front of him. Personally, I’d like to see Doherty and Connolly both start on the left. side.

Kevin Higgins: True. It would be unlike Mick to turn his back on experience in favour of a prospect. If I had a magic wand, it would be Ryan Manning at left back, with Connolly on the wing. Could have used the Bulgaria game to gauge the cohesion there, if any.

Some calls to have Connolly up front, but, I imagine an in-form James Collins will take up that role, assuming McGoldrick doesn’t catch the plane to Tbilisi.

DS: It would certainly he interesting to see Manning at left back. I think you are right about Collins, he’s the type of striker McCarthy favours.

The centre back situation is an interesting one. At his age, and given the nature of his injury, I’m not sure if we’ll ever see Richard Keogh for Ireland again. Shane Duffy is a guaranteed when fit, but Keogh’s injury opens up a huge opportunity for John Egan and Kevin Long.

Egan was obviously handed the captaincy in the last international break and has enjoyed a good start to the season with Sheffield United. Would he be your long-term replacement for Keogh? Or which partnership would you both like to see moving forward?

KH: Pains me to say I don’t think we will {see Keogh again}. Can’t agree more. Egan has put on some defensive displays of late, I think Duffy/Egan look like the favoured pair for years to come.

Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins, Conor Masterson and Darragh Lenihan should all be in the mix as time goes on. The midfield have been doing well at club level recently, who would you like to see against Georgia?

DS: I think so too. Do we expect it to be Egan and Long against Georgia with Duffy also missing out through injury? Ciaran Clark played for Newcastle in their win over Manchester United at the weekend, so he’s another option. There is plenty of competition in midfield which is great to see.

Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick were both on the scoresheet at the weekend and I expect both to start, probably with Glenn Whelan at the base of the midfield.
What do you think?

It was great to see Josh Cullen play so well against Bulgaria, I look forward to seeing him, and the likes of Jay Molumby in the senior team over the next few years.

I’m also a big fan of Alan Browne.

KH: Possibly, but with Duffy passing that fitness test, I think Mick will give him every opportunity to start the game alongside Egan.

Whelan, Hourihane and Hendrick seems a sure start at the moment with all on form. Cullen could inject some energy in the second half, and Jack Byrne can make quite the impact.

When Kenny comes in I see him eliminating the holding role for Whelan. 

DS: Very true, it would be good to see Cullen and Byrne being introduced at some stage.

Georgia can be very hard to break down, so Byrne’s quality from set pieces and vision from open play could be key as the home side tire. 

You’re obviously a huge fan or Stephen Kenny, and the U21s have really impressed  so far.

How do you envisage the senior team will look in 3/4 years?

KH: The pressure will be on Kenny from day one as we try to end two decades without making the World Cup finals.

I don’t expect sweeping changes but definitely a change in style and possibly formation.

My money is on the 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked a charm with the U21s to date.

I expect players like Molumby, Parrott, Coventry, Collins, Knight etc… to join Kenny in taking the step up to the seniors, but it will take time, which I hope the FAI give to him. 

BS: I like Whelan. He is often a lazy target for criticism. His mistakes are jumped on. When I read some of the shit written about him, it bugs me. He is a far more intelligent player than given credit for.

He’s measured and can control situations well, but then gets criticized for his lack of flair. I’d start him. Him, Hourihane and Jack Byrne. What Byrne can do is not a reflection of not playing at the highest level. He is a smart, skillful player who has the courage of his convictions.

He’ll not just create; he will draw opposition players out and create so much space. But he then delivers on that and can find players.

Don’t get me wrong, he won’t start. But he should. What level does he need to play at for people to say, ok let’s start him?

DS: Whelan is definitely a convenient scapegoat. In truth, I haven’t always been his biggest fan but he deserves huge credit for forcing his way back into the team after what felt like his unofficial testimonial against Northern Ireland last year, and his experience has been key so far in this campaign.

I think we are well covered in that position moving forward. Byrne is a really interesting one, it seems like he has already filled Wes’ position in the squad as the player who may well be viewed as under-used and under-appreciated.

There’s a lot of competition in the middle of the park, so I think it’ll take another few influential cameos before we see him challenging Mick’s established starters.

BS: That’s the thing. I like McCarthy hugely, and he is a fine example of man management. But I think a conservatism is present in his team selection. Byrne’s inclusion would be a dynamic, that in his head will have risk attached. It may be a case he has to throw him on late in the game, and if he does I still think there will be a reaction.

Georgia are going to be tough to break down. I’ll go back to the Connolly thing, if he pushes left he can find space. Calum Robinson isn’t been spoken about much, but will need a shackles-off performance from him.

It’s a huge week.