Stuck in the middle with you – James McCarthy and the Euro 2020 playoffs

With Glenn Whelan currently without a club and James McCarthy back playing first team football, Mick McCarthy has some big decisions to make when it comes to picking his central midfielders for the upcoming playoff against Slovakia.

The biggest trick an Ireland manager has ever pulled is to make us believe that only Glenn Whelan can do the things Glenn Whelan does.

In fact there has been, and are, numerous other midfielders that could perform his role just as well and probably better.

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After all, his role in the Irish team is a basic one. He is a disruptor. Someone to run around and put out fires as best he can. To clean up as many second and lose balls as possible. To throw himself in front of shots and kick someone when they need kicking.

It’s a basic enough job for a midfielder. You don’t need to be blessed with a great touch, or brilliant vision. You just need to be able to get about and make a nuisance of yourself. It’s a dirty job that doesn’t get noticed all that much. This is what Glenn Whelan does for Ireland.

This is not a Glenn Whelan bashing piece though, even though it may sound like it is going that way. He has performed his role diligently during his time in the green jersey, and always made himself available for selection, for which he deserves praise.

If we did believe for all those years though that he was the only one capable of doing what he was doing, we certainly shouldn’t be believing it now.

Whelan has just been released from Hearts after only four months by their manager Daniel Stendel who took over in December. The main reason being that he doesn’t believe him to be “ a real leader on the pitch “. This is potentiality bad news for Irish manager Mick McCarthy in the run up to the playoff with Slovakia in March.

Whelan has been an ever present during his regime so far, as he has been for the previous couple of Irish manager’s. To have him without a club leading up to the playoff game makes his selection a little trickier.

It wouldn’t be the first time McCarthy has called on a clubless player to help in a playoff. Jason McAteer was without one when he bagged the goal that saw the Dutch beaten in Lansdowne Road back in 2001. This justified his inclusion and helped him earn a move to Sunderland.

With Whelan though it’s a different situation. What’s being asked of him is a lot more than popping up with a goal, although that would be a sight to see. He has to anchor a midfield for 90 minutes with the strong possibility of extra time. To do this you have to be playing games week in week out, not just for general fitness levels but for sharpness as well.

He could find himself miles off the pace if he hasn’t found himself a new club, or at a club that is playing at a high enough level. He hasn’t exactly been running the legs of himself with ten minutes to go in our last few games. No, he’s usually somewhere on the halfway line, bent over with his hands on his knees. The man is 36 after all though.

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So if not Whelan then who? Step forward Ireland’s forgotten Scotsman – James McCarthy. The Irish international has been gradually working his way back to full fitness under Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace, and has managed 17 appearances so far this season. That is nearly as many as he made in the previous three seasons.

He has been horribly unlucky with the amount of injuries he has sustained. So much so that he has missed out on playing during what should have been the prime year’s of his career.

A month out injured is a long time to be out of action these day’s in football, with so many games being played and so many new narratives forming. It’s easy to forget about player’s when they’re not playing. This has been the case with McCarthy.

It took a lot of people looking back over the last decade of Irish football recently to be reminded of just how important a player he was for us, especially in the run up to qualifying for France in 2016. During that time he played all but three games. He featured in the last six qualifiers all but for 20 minutes and also played both playoff games in full. During the tournament proper he started every game, including the famous win over Italy.

At 29 years of age, he is far from finished as an international player. He still has so much to offer, and is probably still one of our best central midfielders if we can call on him. He has the ability to sit deep and shield the back four, and can also make driving runs through the centre and contribute to the attack. He would add so much more to the team than Whelan might.

This attacking threat is something we have missed since the Euros. Jeff Hendrick, who had such a good tournament and looked like he would kick on, has fallen out of form and struggled to show any real consistency in the green Jersey.

Along with trying to find a striker that scores goals, midfield has been one of the main problem areas for the Irish team. No pairing seems to have clicked or shown any decent sort of link up play. It’s been a case of putting in the names and hoping they can do a good job. Which often times they haven’t.

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With the current management team heading for the exit door at the end of this summer regardless of what happens, it might be the easy option to stick to the player’s that they have used for the majority of the qualifying campaign.

But with a player of McCarthy’s ability available for selection, it would be a foolish move not to select him. When Stephen Kenny takes over he will want someone in the centre of midfield that is established, but can also play football the way he likes.

That means their will be no place for someone like Glenn Whelan, but their can be for McCarthy, who has a lot more strings to his bow. He definitely has the ability to play the type of progressive passing game that Kenny will bring to the team.

All this depends on McCarthy staying fit between now and the playoff of course. At the moment there are rumours that a number of Premier League clubs are looking to acquire him this January. That says a lot about ability and reputation as a skilled midfielder, considering he’s played less than 30 games in three seasons. The question now is Mick McCarthy brave enough to take a chance on him.

The Author

Philip Flanagan

A West of Ireland based football writer/blogger. You can find me daily over at The Bottomless pit of football.

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