It is February 1996, and Mick McCarthy has just been appointed the manager of a Republic of Ireland side desperately in need of rebuilding. The Jack Charlton era had come to an end with a defeat to Holland in a Euro 1996 play-off at Anfield and, for many, it was the end of the road.
Stalwarts like Andy Townsend, Paul McGrath and Packie Bonner were approaching the end of their careers and the squad was in desperate need of an overhaul.
McCarthy’s first campaign was a largely forgettable one. With a good portion of the squad already past their peak and missing Roy Keane through injury, Ireland stuttered through their qualifying group and finished ten points off group winners Romania. They made the play-offs by default, finishing just a point ahead of Lithuania, but succumbed to a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Belgium and missed out on the 1998 World Cup in France.
Luckily for McCarthy, at around the same time as his appointment as manager, Ireland was enjoying its most successful ever period at youth level, winning the European Championships at both under-16 and under-18 level in 1998, as well as finishing third in the under-18 World Cup in 1997.
Those teams provided players like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne; players who would go onto represent Ireland for over a decade. Blending this newfound youth with the already established experience of the likes of Roy Keane, Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton, McCarthy was able to build arguably a better team than the Charlton era.
Despite this new influx of youth and the return of Roy Keane, Ireland suffered play-off heartbreak for the second time under McCarthy when the infamous concession of a 90th minute equaliser in Macedonia consigned Ireland to the play-offs, where they were edged out by Turkey.
In his third campaign, however, McCarthy struck gold. Ireland didn’t lose a game in a group consisting of Portugal and the Netherlands and only missed out on the top spot on goal difference. For 70 minutes, their performance in Amsterdam was as good as any Irish performance as they cruised into a 2-0 lead, and but for a lapse in concentration, they would have come away with a famous victory.
The 2002 World Cup was obviously overshadowed by Roy Keane’s premature exit, but yet again McCarthy played a style of football that had never before been seen by an Irish team at an international tournament.
Who knows how far Ireland could have gone in 2002 with Keane in central midfield, but ultimately the incident in Saipan, coupled with defeats to Russia and Switzerland in Euro 2004 qualifying, proved to be McCarthy’s downfall.
Now, 17 years later, McCarthy finds himself back at the helm. The manner of his departure in 2002 made a return seem extremely unlikely, but no one could have foreseen the manner of his comeback.
Not only does Mick McCarthy know when he will leave his post as Ireland manager, but he also knows who his successor will be.
It took Mick McCarthy three full campaigns to get Ireland to a major tournament. He has only one campaign to do so this time around, and he must do it with an infinitely inferior squad. If the squad in 1996 was in need of an overhaul, this current crop is in need of levelling.
Ireland won just one of 12 games in 2018, scoring one competitive goal. They are increasingly relying on Championship players to fill their starting 11 and are consistently losing promising youth players to England, largely because of Martin O’Neill’s refusal to trust them in competitive games.
McCarthy’s appointment has again come at a prosperous time for Ireland’s youth set-up, but he has very little time to embed players like Troy Parrott and Adam Idah into the senior side. However, he can’t use that as an excuse and must introduce Ireland’s brightest prospects to international football before he departs.
A departure from the toxic football of the Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill eras is also a must.
McCarthy might not have the same calibre of player that he had in 2002 at his disposal, but Northern Ireland have proved recently that you don’t need a Roy Keane in your team to play nice football.
Attempting to change Ireland’s philosophy in such a short space of time may, however, compromise results. Ireland find themselves in a group with Switzerland and Denmark, admittedly not the best two teams in Europe, but they’re certainly better than Ireland.
The tried and trusted long ball strategy may work in getting Ireland to Euro 2020, but will fans accept it for the third management team running? On the other hand, trying new things might be easy on the eye, but it might backfire spectacularly and see Ireland miss out on the European Championships – and since Dublin is a host city, that is unthinkable.
If McCarthy can somehow achieve the happy medium of getting results and appeasing supporters with the style of football he employs, he may well trump anything he did in 2002 and that is no small order.
Despite finding himself in an utterly bizarre contract situation, there are striking similarities between Mick McCarthy’s first tenure as Ireland manager and his second coming, and he’ll need to draw on all of his experiences from that first stint if he is to succeed.