*** Originally published on July 20.
It’s been almost three years since James McCarthy’s last cap for the Republic of Ireland in a 3-1 victory over Moldova in Chisinau.
The Everton man started in midfield and was a calming figure in his usual holding role as a brace from James McClean and another from Shane Long gave Martin O’Neill’s side a comfortable victory.
In the 1015 days since the win in Moldova, McCarthy has only managed ten first-team starts, all coming for Everton, thanks to his frankly rotten luck with injury.
Groin and hamstring injuries plagued him before a shocking leg break sustained while trying to block a Salomon Rondon shot in January 2018 kept him out of action for almost two full seasons.
Fully fit for the first time in a very long time, returning to first-team action and getting vital minutes under his belt are the next steps for McCarthy as he looks to build his way back to the quality player he had been before his injury issues.
A return to match fitness sooner rather than later for the Everton man will also be key for McCarthy’s namesake Mick who, with Declan Rice gone and Glenn Whelan on his last legs, is in desperate need of a holder in his midfield, especially given the nature of the upcoming games.
A move for McCarthy this transfer window could be the most important piece of summer business from an Irish perspective.
From the very start of his second spell in charge of Ireland, Mick McCarthy outlined that his side would be playing with a holding midfielder just ahead of the defence.
Aside from the two wins over Gibraltar, which were far and away Ireland’s worst performances under McCarthy, the former Ipswich boss has deployed a three-man midfield with one player sitting.
McCarthy opted to bring Aston Villa’s Whelan out of retirement in his first squad announcement to fill the role such was the lack of depth in the position for the Boys in Green.
A certain Declan Rice would have been perfect sitting in front of the Irish back four but McCarthy could not convince him to stay as he departed for the greener (ironic) pastures of the English national team.
Credit to Whelan, he performed excellently against Georgia and for the most part looked relatively up to standard against Denmark. But with Switzerland twice, Georgia away and the Danes once again to come in the space of two and a half months, you’d fear for the 35-year old’s fitness and ability against high-level opposition.
McCarthy’s only other holding options in the previous squad were West Ham’s Josh Cullen who, without a cap for the senior side is vastly inexperienced at international level, Conor Hourihane who has struggled in a more defensive role in the past and, at a stretch, Jack Byrne who is much more suited to an attacking style and position.
The clear fix for McCarthy is his namesake, given his high-level experience and ability and knowledge of the position. The former Ipswich boss, however, has previously explained that McCarthy needs “a fresh start” to find a place in his squad. That’s why a move away from Goodison is so crucial.
The midfielder had previously outlined that he’d been fit for while and that he had wanted to go out on loan in January but Everton boss Marco Silva urged him to stay and fight for his place.
“There was a couple of options to go on loan and obviously with not playing here I spoke to [Silva] and said to him I would like to go on loan and play some games because I’ve been finding it hard to get into this team.
With just one appearance during the last campaign, as a sub in the 4-0 win over Manchester United, Silva’s insistence on keeping McCarthy at the club may have been a foolish one.
Had he moved out on loan the 28-year old, you’d like to think, would at least have some form of match fitness and sharpness back and could be ready for a return to international football.
That wasn’t the case however and that’s why it’s crucial that he leaves Goodison this summer and begins the season at a team where he is guaranteed strong minutes.
Sky Sports had reported that McCarthy was the subject of an £8 million bid from Crystal Palace, while 90min outlined that the midfielder was a target for new Newcastle boss Steve Bruce.
Staying in the top flight will likely be the priority for McCarthy. But if a high-level Championship team like a West Brom or a Fulham offer him guaranteed minutes then there’d be very little shame in dropping down a level.
The most important thing now is building himself back up to the level all Ireland and Everton fans know he can play at with strong minutes, regardless of whether that’s in the top flight or not.
Ireland and Mick McCarthy need James McCarthy sooner rather than later. The Boys in Green face immense challenges over the next four months. Challenges which could be eased by the presence of the experienced McCarthy.
Whether the September, October and November internationals are too soon for his return remains to be seen, but a move away from Goodison for McCarthy is a vital first step in the Irish cause.