He avoided the Group of Death and will start his second tenure as Ireland manager with a soft landing. But Mick McCarthy has been around the block for long enough to know there is nothing straightforward about the Euro 2020 qualifying task facing Ireland.
For a brief second in the Convention Centre, the returning boss feared that Germany and Holland would be Ireland’s obstacles in a must-qualify campaign.
However, a UEFA rule stating that no more than two of the 12 co-hosts can be drawn in the same group gave Ireland a pass.
It landed them a kinder passage, albeit one that brings with it an awkward trip down memory lane. Some time soon, there will be a time where Ireland don’t play Denmark, or speak of the perils of a forthcoming trip to Tbilisi.
At least McCarthy will have time to build up towards those dates with an opening date away to Gibraltar – with the venue yet to be decided – and a home match with the Georgians presenting a welcoming double header in March, although the flip side of that is the pressure will be on from the outset.
There will be no free-shot bonus territory with the bounce off a new management team.
Switzerland are the top dog in the group, and both encounters with Vladimir Petkovic’s team are pencilled in for the autumn.
The Swiss have qualified for seven out of the past eight major tournaments, with Euro 2012 the exception, and they topped their group in League A of the UEFA Nations League after taking nine points from twelve with a concluding 5-2 win over Belgium.
The flip side of that is that a pair of games with a flagging Iceland team helped their tally, while they were deeply fortunate to qualify for the World Cup with a dubious refereeing decision helping them past Northern Ireland.
A functional Swedish team then knocked them out in the round of 16 in Russia. Put simply, there were sterner alternatives available.
“There was a sigh of relief,” said McCarthy, with a nod to the Holland-Germany miss, “But it was a bit premature. It’s hardly made it easy.”
Ireland are at such a low ebb right now that most of the combinations available above them would have looked challenging. Yet the absence of a real heavyweight is encouraging, even if it may not help the FAI commercially.
Nor will the fact that all of Ireland’s home matches will take place midweek with no plum weekend date.
But with group games in Dublin as the prize for progression, this group really is about the destination rather than the journey.
There will be subplots, even if there’s a repetitive nature to some of them. McCarthy’s first tenure as manager ended after a miserable defeat at the hands of the Swiss in front of an irate Dublin crowd.
He admitted on several occasions yesterday that revenge was very much on the mind. “I’m not joking,” he said, “Every game I’ve ever lost rankles. And funnily enough, I remember those better than the ones I won.”
He will be hoping that his players are configured with the same desire to right wrongs. Another double header with Denmark offers the chance to gain some form of meaningful compensation for the pain of the World Cup playoff defeat; the group ends with another November visit from the Danes.
It was hard to really build up that angle for the UEFA Nations League meetings and a pair of scoreless draws removed any lingering enthusiasm for a rematch with Age Hareide’s charges. But that was the tradeoff for avoiding Germany as second seeds so, in that context, it could have been much worse.
There’s a bit of previous with Georgia too as a draw in Tbilisi was a factor in Ireland’s hopes of automatic qualification for last summer’s tournament fading.
“It’s time to win against Ireland for the first time in our history, I hope,” said Georgia coach Vladimir Weiss who declared Switzerland and Denmark as favourites.
Georgia do already have a League D playoff secured off the back of strong UEFA Nations League displays and one of the quirks of the new format is they probably have a better chance of making it to the finals via that route – Kosovo, Belarus and Macedonia are the other sides that are set to participate in that mini competition in March 2020.
Gibraltar are the massive underdogs here, although the Nations League concept gave them the opportunity to punch at a similar weight and they succeeded in landing some blows. When they last met Ireland – in September 2015 – they were forced to play in Faro in Portugal due to the absence of a suitable venue.
They have since managed to host competitive fixtures in the tiny Victoria Stadium which has a 2,000 capacity, with plans in motion to upgrade it to 8,000 in order to fulfil UEFA criteria.
They could still grant a dispensation – and Gibraltar officials have indicated they will look for it – but it’s up in the air at this stage, which isn’t ideal for travelling fans ahead of the March 23 kick-off.
“Which country doesn’t want to play its games in its own country?” said their Uruguayan coach Julio Cesar Ribas.
It would be a major surprise, however, if they remained competitive at the business end of this group, much as their shock win in Armenia – which was followed up by a home victory over Liechtenstein – was one of the stories of the autumn and lifted them into fifth-seed status.
After all, Armenia did win the return match in Gibraltar 6-2. It would be unforgivable to drop points against them.
Ireland do have a bit of a margin for errors when it comes to their own broader qualification picture.
When they get their head around the various permutations, management know there’s a fair chance they will be in a playoff if Group D goes badly.
However, the convoluted format – and the fact they finished bottom of their Nations League pool – means there is no certainty about the level of opposition they would face in that backdoor scenario.
And if six teams ranked as third seeds or lower somehow manage to qualify automatically then there will be no backdoor route for Ireland at all.
Saturday March 23 Gibraltar (A) 5.0
Tuesday March 26 Georgia (H) 7.45
Friday June 7 Denmark (A) 7.45
Monday June 10 Gibraltar (H) 7.45
Thursday Sept 5 Switzerland (H) 7.45
Saturday Oct 12 Georgia (A) 2.0
Tuesday Oct 15 Switzerland (A) 7.45
Monday Nov 18 Denmark (H) 7.45
GROUP A: England, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo.
GROUP B: Portugal, Ukraine, Serbia, Lithuania, Luxembourg.
GROUP C: Holland, Germany, Northern Ireland, Estonia, Belarus.
GROUP D: Switzerland, Denmark, Republic of Ireland, Georgia, Gibraltar.
GROUP E: Croatia, Wales, Slovakia, Hungary, Azerbaijan.
GROUP F: Spain, Sweden, Norway, Romania, Faroe Islands, Malta.
GROUP G: Poland, Austria, Israel, Slovenia, Macedonia, Latvia.
GROUP H: France, Iceland, Turkey, Albania, Moldova, Andorra.
GROUP I: Belgium, Russia, Scotland, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, San Marino.
GROUP J: Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Greece, Armenia, Liechtenstein.
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