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Saturday 14 December 2019

Mick's view: We will stick together out there no matter what

OLD PALS: Shane Duffy (l) hugs the injured Richard Keogh in the gym. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
OLD PALS: Shane Duffy (l) hugs the injured Richard Keogh in the gym. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Will there be a redemption song for Mick McCarthy this evening by the Dodder, whose waters still carry the rippling echoes of the boos and jeers that once coursed him from this very patch of land all those years ago?

An improbable journey demanding a date with Dublin destiny next summer for this son of Waterford.

A long and winding road that has taken the manager from the fear and loathing of his 2002 end game to the warmth and affection that might buoyantly flow forth tonight from the bulging bleachers of Lansdowne Road.

After fighting a war he never wanted which would ultimately remove him from the battlefield altogether, the next 90 minutes might belatedly ink a signature on a convenient ceasefire.

This team, so seemingly utilitarian and unloved, will once more be transformed into a vehicle for untrammelled national pride and joy were they to summon up the spirits of so many glory nights that McCarthy has enjoyed in his colourful life.

That he could easily pick up the threads of an international management career that had so spectacularly unravelled a mini-lifetime ago is not a trick conjured as if wielding a magician's wand. Befitting the Barnsley brawn that shields his beating Irish heart, there are rather more fundamental precepts at play here.

They represent a currency that might seem redundant in the modern game but, in the absence of outstanding individual quality, and once distilled and distributed throughout a squad, the attributes of desire and commitment can occasionally supersede skill deficiencies.

McCarthy, since he first walked into a Dublin Airport hotel in 1984, has developed an intimate acquaintance with the sights and sounds which form the soundtrack of something uniquely Irish, where attitude can trump aptitude.

He demurs when it is suggested that he has single-handedly raised the spirits of a limited squad beaten down by the penury and pettiness of the Martin O'Neill era but concedes that change can be arresting.

"Sometimes a fresh voice changes it. I know it does. I've been that fresh voice, seen it happen."

As he did as a player and future World Cup captain in 1984, and again in 1996, as a fledgling, future World Cup manager; both times viewed with suspicion by rather more gilded reputations in Irish football.

He has known both delight and despair yet throughout remains stubbornly loyal to instinct.

Why else would he dare to risk public opprobrium by so publicly inviting the shamed Richard Keogh into the squad?

The gently human side of the man tells us that it was done to boost the spirits of a player who will never play for his country again.

A keener observer of human nature will recognise the emotionally symbolic resonance of the gesture; each player will have known, looking at their still limping erstwhile colleague, for whom there will be no redemption next summer, just how important this evening is in their lives.

Even though there have been reams of quotes and endless interviews, tonight's events will be decided by wordless deeds, not wordy screeds.

Shane Duffy, appointed captain for the first time in Seamus Coleman's self-inflicted absence, will signify this steely approach in a dressing-room which will be stripped of hysteric hyperbole; the field is the place to unfurl energy.

"If you look at the team, there is a lot of experience there now," he points out. "They don't need me telling them that this is a big game. Everyone knows.

"So it's just maybe little details, making sure everyone is switched on, stuff like that, making sure we are ready and we know what we are in for.

"We stick together out there, no matter if someone is having a bad game or if someone is making a mistake; you just pick them up off the floor."

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