Mick McCarthy picked up the phone.
Or at least it was his phone that had been picked up.
For the first few seconds all that could be heard was the sort of gasping that was desperately seeking out a badly needed breath. Then came that tell-tale Barnsley drawl that makes his voice among the most recognisable in all of our sport. “Yeah, Mick here,” he Yorkshired.
It was the late 2000s, he was in charge of Wolverhampton at the time – the latest in a long line of jobs where he swam bravely and brilliantly against the tide and got fired for it – and I’d called for a chat. “I’m under a desk trying to wire up a computer and I cannot make head-nor-tail of what cable goes where,” he panted. “Can you call me back in an hour or two?”
By then the era of managers kitted out in designer suits and designer stubble, who broke down the game to the point of making it too complex for the commoner, had come along. But regardless of his successes and failures, this was the sort of haggard and earthy accessibility that always made him likeable. Watching him prowl the sideline in Copenhagen on Friday in an ill-fitting green sweater that had someone else’s initials on it again reminded that as so much in this sphere evolves and uncomfortably changes, he never will.
A rock in a hard place as from Jose Mourinho to André Villas-Boas, from Jorge Sampaoli to Julen Lopetegui, how many have gotten higher and since fallen far further as he kept on keeping on?
Maybe it skews the view of McCarthy, as no doubt the €2.4m for a two-year job that he signed up to is major given the place he came from to try and rescue little old Ireland. And no doubt there are those who can rightly claim that Denmark could have scored four and had they taken their chances the outcome wouldn’t have been all that different from the turgid reality of Martin O’Neill’s tail end. That’s to miss the point though as this was about the journey and not the destination and even had his side lost their World Cup qualifier, it wouldn’t have changed that.
There still would have been Enda Stevens impressing for a bit, and Shane Duffy showing glimpses of his 2016 self, and Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane throwing themselves about with no care for their bodies, and the substitutions being positive, and the side trying to play ball for a bit, and a freedom and flightiness not lost to an outdated system.
But it went beyond that too.
Despite Ireland’s long-lasting struggles and amidst our desperate and in-your-face limitations, the atmosphere around football here seemed to shift for just a little while.
* * *
Last October, when Irish fans made their way to Denmark for a Nations Cup game that pleased only the sadomasochists out there, they were bullied and harassed. Local stewards had been given a photo by the FAI of a flag calling John Delaney the problem child and were told to make sure it didn’t make an appearance in the stands. They followed orders strictly. If our association was about as successful in their day-to-day duties of care as North Korea, they had long seen Pyongyang as a place to follow in terms of security, democracy and freedom of speech as well.
On Friday though, those same fans arrived with a banner showing John Delaney and his bag man Joe McGlue, along with Noel Mooney. It read ‘Same Old FAI-L. New balls please.” On this occasion, they were allowed to get on with it and that’s a small victory to be grateful for.
There were others also. For instance, there was no camera that cut away to Delaney’s jowly face, a rounded symbol of the greed as it had grown across his tenure via the five-star hotels and Michelin meals and duty-free meanders on money meant for the sport and not his lifestyle. And there were no shots of secret football agent Emma English at his side, her glowing skin a sickly reminder of all the day spas and limos that allowed her to live it up as if her man was owner of our game and of its accounts.
That of course badly needs to be resolved and Delaney’s hanging around – as if a leech clasping the skin and sucking every last drop of blood it can before being pulled off and chuck off into the distance – says all you need to know about the person we are dealing with here. The Celtic Tiger elitism, that representation of a new and confident and successful Ireland cannot remain but for a night his absence allowed for a throwback to the roots of football and for this to be about a working-class honesty and integrity of effort.
Crucially, for the first time in a long time, our football wasn’t about him.
* * *
By full-time, when Mick McCarthy came bouncing down the tunnel, Tony O’Donoghue need not have worried.
Gone was the sort of angry misery that came to define the last regime.
It’s in McCarthy’s nature to be welcoming and warm, regardless of a result, but this result had given him more reason to be pleased. If the Danes have become obnoxious and arrogant with little reason to be, we must remember not to be the same. For sure we can complain and demand change in the structures that produce our players, but it won’t change the level of the players there right now. When looking at matters on the pitch, and while it may seem only a quick and simple analysis, merely contrast and compare the starting teams and introductions by their clubs.
Theirs read Leicester, Brentford, Sevilla, Chelsea, Udinese, Ajax, Tottenham, Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Feyenoord, Leganes. Their subs that were used were Ajax and Southampton.
Ours read Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, Derby, Brighton, Everton, Stoke, Aston Villa, Aston Villa, Burnley, Burnley, Sheffield United. Our subs were Ipswich, Aston Villa, Preston.
In modern football nothing tells quality like the market value and so fine-tuned is the entire system that all tend to find their right level. If you didn’t know it was Denmark-Ireland, and that first list was at home having recently bullied the away side in meetings, what result would you expect? Thus the draw was pleasing but genuinely giving it a go was most pleasing. Therefore both the players and McCarthy deserve much credit as they returned a sense of long lost and badly needed pride. That a point does that might tell an awful lot about the overall place we’re in at the minite but that’s also the reality they’ve achieved in.
The overall mood at the end was helped along by Denmark of course and, for all his talent, Christian Eriksen’s whininess and whinge off the field as well as on it was the embodiment of a frustrated team. They’ll likely still qualify and we likely won’t, but still. Enjoy the moment.
What it means is that come this evening, enough has been done in McCarthy’s tenure for Gibraltar to have gone from a concern last time to a guarantee this time, and that’s more to do with confidence, attitude and set-up than venue. Small acorns is probably overstating it as there will be no mighty oak to from this. But these last few days reminded of a key element of what Irish football for so long was and had been forgotten.
It’s been a bit of fun again.