Mick McCarthy didn't hold back as a defender - and if Ireland are to get something out of Monday's Euro 2016 clash with Sweden they need to follow his lead
There aren’t too many strikers at Euro 2016 who stand out as world class, but then you get to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He is unplayable on his day. He is one of those centre-forwards who can carry an ordinary team. While Sweden may be slightly better than ordinary they don’t strike me as a stand-out squad of players. They work hard, they’re organised, they have a strong team spirit, but then they have this one stand out striker who is simply immaculate when he wants to be. Other members of the team tolerate Zlatan’s indulgences because he is that good. He is a real presence and a real leader, despite his moments of petulance.
If Ireland can put in a ‘hefty’ challenge, to put it politely, then absolutely they should on Monday evening. It’s not about hurting anyone or being malicious, but certainly letting Zlatan know we mean business.
I singled out all the strikers I played against for a bit of ‘special treatment’ back in the day. You’d try to intimidate the opposition. I played against Spain at home in 1989 – Emilio Butragueno was their captain and I was captaining Ireland. Before the game kicked off I shook his hand and I was putting my marker down then. I was on the front foot, got in his face and squeezed the life out of his fingers! We won that game 1-0 and we were all over them that night.
Ruud Gullit was another incredible player I faced when we took on Holland in 1988. I wanted to let him know I was there, but I couldn’t get near him – he was so bloody quick! When I did get close to him he just held me off because he was so strong too. ‘Well, at least I can beat him in the air’, I thought. Next time the ball was coming in, I went to head it and I had all these dreadlocks in my face. When I landed Gullit had chested the ball down and raced away! He was just unbelievable.
Defenders must intimidate forwards, although times have changed in the game. It’s a well-known fact I committed more fouls in the 1990 World Cup than anyone else (without getting booked, I should add) – but they were all nice fouls! None of my managers ever complained about the way I played. Defenders have to be ready for a bit of combat. You have to be competitive. You have to get a tackle in. You have to stop the opposition playing.
Physically Ibrahimovic is an unbelievable specimen. He’s a magnificent player and everywhere he has gone he has won trophies – league titles with Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona, Inter Milan and PSG. But there are times where he drifts in and out of games. Ireland have never really singled anybody out, but against Sweden the best tactic might be to put someone on Zlatan and man-mark him for 90 minutes. Sweden aren’t littered with world-class players bar Ibrahimovic, and if you cut his supply you weaken Sweden.
There’ll be plenty of nerves in the Irish camp no doubt about that. Everyone wants to play well, nobody wants to be going home early, and nobody wants to make a mistake. That’s why this opening game against the Swedes is so important. It’s Ireland’s opportunity to get off to a good start, but Sweden are approaching the game in the same way. Everyone will have an opinion about how we should get at Sweden and go out and attack because this is a winnable group game, but if we concede because we’re wide open then it’s an awfully long way back. The message is essentially: Look after Zlatan and don’t get beat!