Mick McCarthy’s return as Ireland boss has heralded two wins and two clean sheets as Ireland top their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
In what has been an eventful week on and off the pitch, spirits have been raised with the collection of maximum points and a clear change in approach.
As the international break draws to a close, we examine the five winners and five losers of Mick McCarthy’s first week back in charge of Ireland.
The Sheffield United man has been long touted for a key role since McCarthy’s return at the helm. One of Ireland’s bests available technical talents, McGoldrick played in the number 10 role against Gibraltar, teeing up Jeff Hendrick for the winner.
Having been moved into the lone role against Georgia, McGoldrick did what very little front men have managed for Ireland in recent years, hold the ball up, link the play and create chances.
Although he did not score, the 31-year-old’s contributions were key, making him odds on to play against Denmark in the summer.
McGoldrick’s teammate Enda Stevens has been thriving domestically as a wing back and was assured in the flat four for Ireland.
Stevens was cool as a cucumber with good distribution from the back and decent overlapping runs.
His final ball let him down on occasions but given his assist count in the Championship and quality of service at club level, that will come. Like McGoldrick, could be a Premier League defender the next time the Irish assemble.
Despite being a Premier League regular in an array of positions, Jeff Hendrick has been the invisible man of Irish football since Euro 2016.
However, Mick McCarthy’s introduction to the set up has seen parallels between now and 2002 when he allowed his central midfielders to get forward.
With this licence to get forward, Hendrick has contributed a goal, linked up well with Ireland’s attackers and in addition to this, get up in the faces of the opposition higher up the pitch.
Another who was misused under Martin O’Neill as a holding midfielder. Hourihane now looks a rejuvenated player and like Hendrick, has the licence to get forward.
His deliveries were on point with several near chances over the last two games coming from Hourihane set pieces. Broke up play well by pressing forward higher up the pitch and looked in so much comfort on the ball which has been a massive issue for Irish midfielders.
His free-kick was the icing on the cake for what was two assured performances by the Aston Villa man who could be the key player of this campaign.
Despite a criticised start, it seems Mick McCarthy has finally brought back structure to the Irish team. The lack of personnel in the final third was addressed by allowing the midfielders to occupy the space and unlike the end of the O’Neill era, players were playing in their preferred position.
Ireland played with purpose and an evident system. There was a game plan going forward with the midfield and overlapping fullbacks with a masterstroke selection in David McGoldrick as a false 9 to hold the ball up and link up.
The press was also higher, against Georgia, Hourihane and Hendrick could press in the opposition half with Glenn Whelan playing his preferred sitting role if the ball found its way through. Two 1-0 victories may not appear as overwhelming but it is the nature of the performances that have been telling.
On other nights and if the chances were put away, Ireland could have put 4 past Gibraltar and 3 past Georgia. The next thing to address for McCarthy is how to take those chances.
It has come to a point where popularity among fans can no longer make James McClean immune to criticism. Despite his important goals and crunching tackles in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, McClean has failed to iron out poor aspects of his game for the guts of two years.
His energy is welcome but Ireland in danger on several occasions in the last two games with rash challenges. On one occasion when the ball was available, he kicked it right at the Georgian player.
Despite some good runs, his basic passing to the overlapping Enda Stevens was poor and his decision making in attack left a lot to be desired. His decision to cross rather than take it into the corner with seconds left could have cost Ireland the win.
It is worrying that his productivity is still lacking with David McGoldrick who has 58 caps less than McClean, already inferior in terms of international assists than the Derryman. A role of impact sub could serve Ireland better with Callum O’Dowda and Callum Robinson better all-rounder wide options who are also full of energy.
Our heart goes out to Sean Maguire who has been plagued with injury since his move to Preston. Despite these struggles, the Kilkenny man has been one of the club’s best players when he has managed to get minutes under him.
However, and admittedly by Maguire himself, the pacey attacker is struggling to come to terms with the international game. His body language against Gibraltar after losing some one on one battles suggested that his injuries have not quite cleared up fully with the lone role not suiting his style or height.
The conditions in Gibraltar did not help but his positioning was poor at times. He showed glimpses of technical quality on the ball but did not threaten from the central position and struggled with the physicality against a light Gibraltar side. Could serve Ireland best a bit wider on the pitch where he can drive at players and cut in but not as a lone striker.
Perhaps unfair to put Doherty into this category but as one of the Premier League’s best players this season he will be disappointed to be hauled off early against Gibraltar and not to start against Georgia.
Doherty has benefited from playing wing back and having the pacey Helder Costa or Jota ahead of him but finds himself the most advanced wide man for Ireland.
Mick McCarthy seems to have settled on a back four meaning that Doherty’s future could be on the wing. Doherty showed terrific link-up play with Coleman in the latter stages of the Georgia game and perhaps as the two get more used to the system, it could be a double selection that works terrifically.
Again, perhaps a harsh selection for this category but thankfully, we are stuck for too many negatives.
Those who wrote off Ireland after Gibraltar
Saturday night was a frustrating affair with Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Gibraltar hardly anything to get excited about. At the end of the day, the conditions were not that of an international match.
The horrific wind was evident as was the poor condition of the dated pitch. Despite this, many doubters forgot that Mick McCarthy only had 4 full days to prepare his team for the game which included adopting a new system and style and getting used to the new training routine.
Another aspect many forget will be some of the chances Ireland did not put away. There was some fantastic defending from Gibraltar with Richard Keoghs shot from 10 yards restricted, David McGoldrick’s flick cleared from the line and a near own goal terrifically saved by the goalkeeper.
Overall, Ireland looked like they finally had some kind of shape and given the unusual circumstances of the game did well to come away with a point and carried that structure into last night’s fantastic win and performance against the Georgians.
It seems that we cannot escape an international break without some kind of fiasco regarding Ireland’s football supremo’s.
It is unfortunate that the events of last week overshadowed the return of Mick McCarthy and hopefully, all can be resolved.
The tennis ball situation was unfortunate with Damien Duff claiming that it contributed to the added time in which Georgia nearly scored. Richie Sadlier made the point that it only delayed the restart and perhaps helped settle things before Conor Hourihane found the net.
Whatever way things pan out, all fans want is what’s best for Irish football.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena