Saturday 25 January 2020

There's plenty on Irish to-do list in the face of friendly fire

Parrott and Byrne can stake their claims as future stars

Jack Byrne has been working hard to improve his game off the ball
Jack Byrne has been working hard to improve his game off the ball
Jeff Hendrick with Robbie Brady, left, and Glenn Whelan during training at Abbotstown yesterday

November internationals against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium are synonymous with a different sport. Maybe the events of recent months have raised questions about the value of the rugby equivalents in the longer run, but there is no doubt about the status of this fixture.

It's a warm-up game for a year-defining match on Monday and Mick McCarthy will be approaching it accordingly. His assertion that he always wants players to operate at full tilt means that all of tonight's participants are expendable in terms of devising the Danish plan. Injury to a player he desperately needs would be an avoidable disaster and that's why the leading lights will be spectators.

The FAI bean-counters will be hoping they have some company and it wasn't hugely surprising that McCarthy revealed team news on the eve of the match that might build a bit of a buzz.

Nevertheless, while the details of this match will be forgotten by next week, there are reasons to pay attention.


If all goes to plan, then this game will be referenced in the history books as the night that Troy Parrott made his international debut.

That is dependent on the teenager delivering on the weight of expectation resting on his shoulders. It seems a bit unfair but this is the product of the Irish desire for a star to emerge at a leading Premier League club.

Parrott is a confident youngster who relishes the attention that is coming his way. McCarthy referenced the self-belief that stands out when he walks onto the pitch.

Parrott was bullish that he would score on his Spurs debut against Colchester in September, yet that didn't quite work out. However, there were reasons to be encouraged by his performance in general play and he was inches away from getting on the end of a couple of crosses.

With Irish underage sides, Parrott has primarily operated behind a central striker whereas he is viewed as an alternative to Harry Kane at his club. Comparisons with Robbie Keane are inevitable because he has a decent goalscoring record, but he's not really a similar type of player.

Parrott is big for his age and is arguably more versatile than Keane, yet there's a possibility that he could spend the early part of his Irish career being used in a couple of different roles. There's a contrast from his club environment in the sense that there will be Ireland games where his team don't have much of the ball at all.

However, the great players can always find a way to influence the game.


It was probably a pleasant surprise to some observers when the Shamrock Rovers player starred in his cameo against Bulgaria in September. Mick McCarthy had offered mixed vibes about the 23-year-old throughout the year.

In the summer, he said emphatically that Alan Judge was better than Byrne, which was an unusually blunt statement about two competing squad members. Judge is a talent who has been desperately unlucky with injuries, but he can't get into the Ipswich side in League One right now.

Byrne is now attracting interest at Championship level and it's entirely plausible that Shamrock Rovers will receive cash offers for his services over the winter.

This match is pretty important for him, though, as there are suitors who want to see him compete against higher-level opposition than he faces week to week, although it could be argued that the New Zealand midfield operate at a similar or lower level to the Brann and Apollon Limassol teams that he thrived against in the Europa League.

"The improvement in Jack has been massive," said McCarthy, with a clear nod to his work off the ball.

"He's fabulous on the ball and wants to show how good he is, but against Denmark or Switzerland, how often are we going to have the ball? How often are we going to have to chase and tackle? Everybody is going to have to do that and he's tried to improve on that."


Time moves fast in this game. Robbie Brady made his Ireland debut against Oman at Craven Cottage in 2012 and there was excitement about the technical quality that he possessed.

He slowly built from there towards the high of Euro 2016, and that magic moment in Lille. Yet there's been a sense of anti-climax about his Irish career since then.

That is a natural product of increased expectations, which can lead to performances being judged with a more critical eye.

But Brady would admit himself that it's been a frustrating period and therefore he has to view this match as the opportunity that he can genuinely impact the Denmark match.

McCarthy has already laid out the metric for how he's faring.

He said that if Brady is withdrawn before the end of the 90, it would suggest that he's keeping him in reserve for Monday as full participation might present issues in terms of recovery time.

"Had he been fit, he would have been involved in all of the games," said McCarthy. "I won't be kidded by somebody playing well in this game that all of a sudden they should automatically play in the Denmark game. But it's to see if they are sharp."


Let's be honest, October wasn't good, no matter what spin is put on the away dates in Georgia and Switzerland. Results generated criticism, McCarthy wasn't especially happy about that, and it made for a cranky period all things considered.

With Ireland, there are always extremes of reaction. Maybe the international team doesn't grab attention in the way that it used to, but the extent to which people go out of their way to make that point in the aftermath of a disappointment actually hints that plenty of latent interest lingers. That headline is enough to grab attention. An Irish team that entertains and energises will quickly bring everyone back on side; there remains something special about a big international match.

There will be no comparison between tonight's occasion and Monday, of course, but an impressive cameo from some young players and enough reason to leave the ground feeling optimistic could generate a semblance of momentum.

At his squad announcement, McCarthy felt compelled to call for a positive build-up to decision day. Words can only do so much.

A win and a half-decent performance might just help to erase some of the deflating October memories, even if we know that an alternative cast of characters will be tasked with the important work.

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