Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ronnie Whelan: It's time for McCarthy to step up to the plate

The Republic of Ireland’s James McCarthy vies with Gibraltar’s Anthony Bardon during their Euro 2016 qualifier at the Algarve Stadium in Faro
The Republic of Ireland’s James McCarthy vies with Gibraltar’s Anthony Bardon during their Euro 2016 qualifier at the Algarve Stadium in Faro

If there was ever a game for James McCarthy to step out of the shadows and make a name for himself, this is the one. A command performance against Georgia would be perfect.

For far too long now, the man everyone turns to for a solution to Ireland's woes is Robbie Keane and despite ageing legs and transatlantic travel, he is still able to do it for us.

But even Robbie himself understands that he cannot do it forever. He is one short of Gerd Muller's 68-goal international goal-scoring record and continues to expand his reputation with every goal but he needs help. He needs other players to take some responsibility into their shoulders.

That, for me, has been the great disappointment of the last few years. When Ireland lost Richard Dunne and Damien Duff, they lost two pillars and nobody has moved in to take the strain.

Back in the day, Ireland always had a key man, someone the rest of the team and the nation looked to for a direction. Some of them were that good that we came to associate an era with them.

John Giles did it and Liam Brady too. Paul McGrath did it by being brilliant and Roy Keane ran the show with the force of his will and his great talent.

There have been others but I look at this group of players for men to lead the charge and I'm sorry but I just don't see them. If they are in the squad, they have yet to do it.

McCarthy is the obvious candidate. This could be his Ireland team and in years to come, people would reference this era with his name.

Can he do it? Is he the man to lift Ireland, the man who rises to that challenge? Can he take hold of the players around him and bend them to his will?

On the face of it, the answer is no. Up to now, McCarthy has never risen above a level of competence in international football which doesn't do justice to his skill set.

But I've seen him do it at club level. I watched him dominate Manchester United at Old Trafford and my heart lifted. It hasn't happened often enough but enough to know that it's there in his locker waiting to be developed. The worry is that his full potential might never be realised.

Roy Keane spoke about McCarthy shortly after he and Martin O'Neill began their work and observed that you cannot make someone change his personality on demand.

This is true, of course, but I'm not suggesting that McCarthy has to suddenly strap on the character traits he doesn't possess and to change who he is.

In my time, I was a shouter but I always felt that it was better to do than talk and I was surrounded by players who thought the same way. It took us a long way.

By the time I was McCarthy's age, I had just about every medal there was to be won and it didn't happen by avoiding responsibility. You had to dive straight in or be left behind.

Good players lead by what they do on the pitch and McCarthy has never taken a game by the scruff of the neck and made it his own. He doesn't have to shout or point. He simply has to take the ball and direct play from the centre of midfield.

He needs to look forward and not back or sideways and most of all, he has to show the kind of belief in his own ability which I believe is the key element missing from his game.

I would have to include the game against Gibraltar in that assessment. Neither McCarthy nor Glenn Whelan were able to dominate the game in the way I would have liked to have seen and they were up against lads they should have snuffed out without trying too hard.

Once again, Ireland relied on Robbie Keane to subdue minnows and although he did it with a tap-in and a penalty, his impact on the game was massive.

Georgia's impact on Group D was equally significant when they opened up what seemed to everyone to be a dead group for Ireland by beating Scotland and what was a very gloomy picture before Friday has been transformed into a much brighter outlook.

But I'm still worried that Ireland have not found their stride under O'Neill yet and that no clear picture has emerged about his best team.

That's why I think this game is tailor-made for someone to step forward and make a mark. Really command the game and put Georgia away with a performance which makes everyone hope again.

I know Georgia have come to Dublin with confidence levels high but that shouldn't matter. On a level playing pitch, Ireland should beat them every time.

But let's do it well. Let McCarthy stand-up and take control of midfielder from the first whistle and make the crowd believe that he and this group of players are much more than the fitful, disjointed and only occasionally coherent team we have seen in this campaign to date.

Do that and add three more points and maybe Germany won't look so ominous in a month's time or even more important, the trip to Poland for the final game might not be win or bust.

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