Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy dismisses plastic pitch concerns ahead of Gibraltar opener
European 2020 Qualifying Group D: Gibraltar v Republic of Ireland (tomorrow, Victoria Stadium, Gibraltar, 5pm kick-off Irish time)
APPARENTLY, there is no such thing as a soft landing on Gibraltar’s narrow and perilously short runway. The Irish fans on yesterday’s 4.30pm British Airways flight can testify to that as the notorious cross winds that sweep down from the Rock prompted the packed aeroplane to take a dramatic jolt on its approach.
Initially, there were a few screams on board but as soon as the pilot tightened his grip and made a flawless landing, those screams were soon drowned out by the merry band of Irish fans.
Applause rang out once the humongous air-bus ground to a halt.
A couple of corner-kicks away, the extremely modest Victoria Stadium is where Mick McCarthy gets his second managerial stint with the Republic of Ireland up and running.
The last time the Irish travelled to face one of Europe’s unashamed minnows was in Faro, Portugal in September 2015 in a comfortable 4-0 win in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
Due to on-going political tensions, the Spanish refused them permission to play on their territory.
Since then, Gibraltar – who were formally recognised by Uefa in 2013 - have won the right to stage their games on home soil after upgrading their artificial surface to meet pitch criteria.
Dwarfed by the sharp-edged Rock, it would be hard to find a more picturesque venue in European football.
McCarthy, whose squad touched down on the two-and-a-half square mile peninsula yesterday, is hoping to open up Ireland’s Euro 2020 account with a win before hosting Georgia in Dublin on Tuesday night.
Clearly, though, the former Republic of Ireland captain isn’t too enamoured with the prospect of playing on a plastic pitch.
“It only affects you if you allow it to affect you,” said McCarthy, who added Millwall striker Aiden O’Brien to the travelling party.
“It’s about your mental approach going into the game. We know it’s a plastic pitch. We know there are going to be 2,300 people there. You’ve just got to go and adapt to your surroundings and make the best of it.”
Remarkably, Ireland’s hosts recorded back-to-back wins in the Nations League late last year beating Armenia (0-1) and Liechtenstein (2-1) but giddy hopes of gaining promotion proved to be just that.
“In the last games that they played they got a couple of good results. They make it really tough to play against, just pack in and defend and try to catch you on the break.
“They are a threat at free-kicks and corners. They will just make it exceptionally hard to play against them. They can get on the ball and play a bit - if we allow them to they will.”
Gibraltar still relies heavily on their old guard with many of them plying their trade in the part-time domestic league on the peninsula.
A population of around 35,000, Gibraltar are sandwiched between Bangladesh and Brunei Darrusalam at number 194 in the Fifa rankings.
Meanwhile, Preston North End striker Sean Maguire is fancied to lead the Irish attack tomorrow night alongside Sheffield United’s in-form front man David McGoldrick as the visitors go in search of an early goal.
Asked if he would prefer a poor grass pitch or artificial surface, McCarthy said: “That’s like being asked would I sooner be burnt or scolded? Do you know, I’m not bothered.
“I don’t whinge about what we have to do, there’s no point. It is what it is.
“If it was a bad pitch, I’d have gone and looked at it but we would still have had to deal with it and that’s just what we have to do: deal with it.
“Whatever it is, we have to make the best of it. But the pitch is fine. I was on it and it’s fine. It’s just a different bounce, the ball rolls differently.”
McCarthy is hoping the only turbulence felt during their fleeting visit to Gibraltar was in the air and not on the plastic surface at the Victoria Stadium tomorrow night.