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Friday 20 September 2019

Future is now for Mick

Ireland v Bulgaria (Sky Sports, 7.45pm)

Mick McCarthy talks to fitness coach Andy Liddle during squad training at Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick McCarthy talks to fitness coach Andy Liddle during squad training at Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Hourihane (l) and Enda Stevens seem to be enjoying themselves during training at Abbotstown

A win at home to a pretty demoralised-looking Bulgaria side in Dublin tonight will be of some help to Ireland when it comes to the FIFA world rankings, maybe even turn Mick McCarty's team into a top-30 hit.

But outside of a rise in the rankings, and the outcome of Conor Hourihane's audition for the left-back slot, there is little else to be gleaned from this meeting with a team coming to Dublin off a three-game losing streak and a run of eight games without a win.

McCarthy will rest some of his bigger names for this friendly.

Loyal

The B-Specials, the loyal servants who have travelled to places like Copenhagen and Gibraltar without kicking a ball, will get a run-out and, over the next few days, when he has time, McCarthy will catch up on the footage from the U21 team's qualifier this evening in Sweden, possible food for thought there.

But time is not on McCarthy's side: he has three competitive games left to qualify for Euro 2020. If the campaign does not go well, and the FAI's succession plan remains in place, McCarthy could be out of the job in 69 days' time.

This is where that pre-determined handover of power starts to look weak, McCarthy's focus on the next 270 minutes of qualifiers, not some long-term project. He's been dealt a hand by the FAI and he will play that his way.

All that makes tonight's game a very hard sell for the FAI.

Coming in between the qualifier at home to Switzerland and Saturday's All-Ireland final replay, sports fans may look into their wallets and see what's left, or likely to be left at the end of the week, before buying tickets to see a shadow Ireland XI play against players from Cherno More Varna and Etar Veliko Tarnovo.

Fair to say Sturm Graz players don't put bums on seats and, for all their endeavour and honesty, neither do Scott Hogan or James Collins.

Throw in the financial demands of the back-to-school period on Irish families and the idea of spending cash on a friendly with Bulgaria is a real test of loyalty.

What about the kids? McCarthy says that he would have called up some of the current U21 panel, such as Aaron Connolly, only for the fact that they have a qualifier to play, also tonight.

"I thought he was exceptional on the night. There's not many like him, him and (Jayson) Moloumby were outstanding," McCarthy said of U21 man Connolly's outing last week.

But even senior internationals like Callum O'Dowda and Alan Judge know that McCarthy has his team in place, a team he hopes can get to Euro 2020, so even a mammoth effort against Bulgaria will still mean a spell on the bench in October.

"It's about tried and trusted players, experience. You've seen Denmark in Georgia, you've seen us against Switzerland. I've got to have our most seasoned pros out playing," he says.

In his first five games as Ireland manager back in 1996, McCarthy used 29 players, nine of them debutants. In the five matches since he took over for a second time, he's kept things a lot tighter: just 19 players used and no debuts.

But that was a different era. The 1996-vintage McCarthy was building a new team from the ashes of the Charlton era and he had time for the project. Now, it's a rush job.

The future is now for McCarthy, who will not be around to reap the rewards should a teenager emerge on the big stage.

McCarthy is a loyalist. He knows what he likes and he likes what he has already.

So John Egan, Alan Browne, Callum O'Dowda, Alan Judge and Scott Hogan will get some minutes on the field, while Mark Travers and Jack Byrne could get debuts.

But even if one of those fringe players has the game of his life, by the time Euro 2020 action resumes next month, it's back to the old guard. McCarthy's team is one that picks itself.

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