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Time for McCarthy to take centre stage for Ireland

Midfielder needs his football to do talking at this level

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James McCarthy in conversation with Ireland boss Stephen Kenny yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

James McCarthy in conversation with Ireland boss Stephen Kenny yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

James McCarthy in conversation with Ireland boss Stephen Kenny yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Sometimes, it's the little details that live longer in the memory.

It's late December 2007 and in the living room of his house in Castlemilk, a working-class estate in Glasgow, James McCarthy has finished a stilted interview with a visiting reporter from Ireland.

"Do you ever get nervous using that?" he says, filling a small talk void by pointing to the dictaphone that had been placed before him.

McCarthy is 17, a quiet lad thrust into spotlight because of a talent that brings scrutiny.

His parents Willie and Marie were becoming used to press attention and trying their best to shield their son from the worst of it, yet there would be plenty when it came to the thorny issue of his international allegiance.

The level of interest in the young midfielder was making it clear that these would be the last days of something approaching normality.

His profile was growing on account of his exploits with Hamilton in the second tier of Scottish football.

The earlier part of his day had been spent in town sourcing a shirt for the Christmas party with the help of his mother.

This is where the majority of football careers start, far from the gilded treasures of the Premier League, and it's easy to forget that those who make it there and stay there are beating all the percentages.

McCarthy turns 30 next month, thus meaning that he has spent half of his life in a cut-throat, unforgiving industry. In the same month as that 2007 interview, Dunfermline sacked Stephen Kenny.

Level

He was starring at the same level where Kenny's side were struggling. Around that time, Kenny had spoken of his admiration for the starlet, then viewed as goalscoring box-to-box player. The Dubliner was actually struck by how tough he was.

Fast forward to 2020 and McCarthy is set to become a central figure in the most important match of Kenny's managerial career.

The Irish public are familiar with the highs and lows of Kenny's journey to here, yet McCarthy remains something of a mystery.

He retains a certain suspicion towards microphones. Early in his development, he clearly underwent media training that has allowed him to steer clear of landmines.

McCarthy was also on the receiving end of unfair criticism, including from this parish, during the debate around his commitment to Ireland and his wariness is perhaps understandable.

His aversion to publicity and posturing is such that he hasn't come out to remind people of the flak he took for staying loyal to the country that brought him into their underage system years before his 2010 debut, grief that is forgotten when snide comments are made about his attendance record on account of the injury nightmare that effectively placed his career on hold for three years.

FAI insiders speak of the times he flew to Dublin to report for service when it was obvious he wasn't going to be passed fit, noting there are others that would never do so. Last year, he concentrated on rebuilding his career at Crystal Palace as stage one before making a return to the Irish scene. His appearance on Kenny's opening night in Sofia was his first Irish outing since October 2016.

McCarthy was sluggish at times as he came back out of his summer holidays into a key role. He instantly became a magnet for criticism with John Giles to the forefront, exasperated by the amount of pointing the number six was doing when he would prefer a more dominant approach.

It's fair to say he is not alone in being unconvinced by a player that has struggled to win over a rump of the Irish support. There has always been a sense that he has failed to live up to early expectations, with McCarthy now perceived as a conservative option that tends to win more praise from teammates and ex-pros than he does from fans.

He covers ground and breaks up play but doesn't have the personality or swagger of an enforcer. Even in his best games for Ireland, he's operated under the radar, an understated influence against Germany in Dublin and Italy in Lille that didn't deliver any moments for the montage.

He's very good friends with Seamus Coleman and neither have a tendency to seek attention for the sake of it. That's not to say that grief is coming from nowhere. In truth, he has yet to put together a really consistent run of top-drawer displays for his country.

But he seems to fit the profile for a soft target too, based on unrealistic expectations of what he can offer. A fully functioning McCarthy will always provide the platform for others to shine and a Kenny system demanding attacking full-backs means that he should be spending a fair bit of time covering the space in behind as they rove. Hard yards.

Ultimately, the jury is out on whether he has the attributes to function as a creative force from deep for Kenny's chosen style but he will be pivotal in any attempt to upset Slovakia's rhythm.

This manager has a firm belief in his ability, but he always featured for Martin O'Neill when available too and Mick McCarthy was frustrated to be deprived of his services.

Teammates who haven't worked with him before will find a character that isn't a ranter or raver yet is regarded as quite demanding in training and prone to a moan.

Roy Hodgson has praised his tenacity in battling back to establish himself as a Premier player again when the signs were ominous. McCarthy has now reached the 260 top-flight appearance mark, which is noteworthy seeing how much time he's lost.

That puts him 20th in the all-time Irish list, with Coleman and Shane Long the only other current Premier players ahead of him. He's on course to skip up that chart.

In a rare open interview last year, McCarthy spoke of how he had been inspired by his father's attitude to a long battle with cancer that dates all the way back to pre-Euro 2012.

Skin grafts, custom made shinpads and insoles and the other treatments that were necessary in his recovery from a horror leg break in January 2018 pale in comparison to that.

"I've seen what he's been through all these years and he's still so positive," McCarthy told 'The Star'.

He's a father now himself, streetwise to the ways of the world and his trade. Now, more than ever, he needs his football to do the talking.