McCarthy is knocking on O'Neill's door for Whelan's role
INITIALLY, everyone was sceptical about Glenn Whelan.
The holding midfielder first appeared on Ireland's radar when Giovanni Trapattoni became manager in 2008. The veteran Italian coach saw something in Whelan that wasn't immediately apparent to the rest of us.
In his first few press conferences, reporters quickly gathered that Trapattoni's ego was massive. It didn't make him any less likeable. But he was prone to reminding everyone that he was a managerial great, a legend of the game.
He would tell us over and over and over about the great players he'd coached at Juventus back in the day: Boniek, Platini, Cabrini and Tardelli. When he shoehorned such illustrious references into his press conferences, it actually didn't do him any favours. It cast him in an unfavourable light; here was a fading giant of the game regaling us of his past glories.
Everyone knew Trapattoni's pedigree; we just didn't need reminding of it at every press conference. A common trait of many vastly experienced managers is their penchant for self-indulgent experiments. To persist with Whelan as one of his first choice midfielders from the start of his tenure was, we all guessed, a misguided decision.
Sometimes you find that many veteran coaches have an inarticulate desire to prove a point to the media and, indeed, the wider public that football is a deeply complex game and that only the chosen few really understand it. In 2008, I believed Glenn Whelan's selection was a self-indulgent experiment inspired by Trapattoni's ego as much as anything else.
Facing into a doubting public, 'Trap' could make an international player out of him. Moreover, the fact that 'Trap' likened him to Italy's 2006 World Cup winner Gennaro Gattuso added a bit more pressure onto the shoulders of the low-profile Whelan. But to Whelan's eternal credit, he performed better than anyone expected in the holding midfielder's role. After a handful of caps, the Stoke City man was an integral part of the Ireland team.
Whelan wasn't the most mobile. He didn't have a great engine. He never hit many defence-splitting passes, but he was technically sound and a fine reader of the game. He had his limitations, but the fact he was aware of what he could and couldn't do were key to his steady performances at international level.
If Trapattoni hadn't come along, Whelan might never have emerged onto the international stage. Under Trap, he was the first name on the Italian's team-sheet. Sitting in the team's Euro 2012 finals base in Gydnia on the eve of the tournament, Whelan expressed his gratitude to Trap.
Asked what the Italian had given him, Whelan said: "Thirty-eight caps. He was the only manager who believed in me to come into international football.
"There was one or two before him who I thought I might have had a squeak to get into a couple of squads, but it never happened. For what he has done for me, I'm grateful for. If he didn't come along, I quite possibly might not be sitting here today."
Since Trapattoni gave him his international break Whelan has clocked up 67 caps in seven years. When Martin O'Neill took over, he saw no reason to dispense with Whelan. After all, he was playing regularly for an English Premiership side and the Republic didn't have a heap of options either. But it's only since the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers against Germany and Poland that Whelan's role in the team has come under more scrutiny.
In fact, it probably took Whelan's absence from the team against the Germans, due to suspension, to realise there might be a better-calibrated midfield at O'Neill's disposal than the one he's put his faith in over the last two years. Against Germany, James McCarthy played in Whelan's holding midfield role and, not only seemed much more at home there, but more effective.
Up until last week, McCarthy has been a major disappointment at international level. In the vast majority of his 31 appearances, he's been tentative, lacking in personality and doesn't look nearly as confident as he appears in an Everton jersey. And yet, there isn't a great deal of difference between his roles for Ireland and Everton.
Gareth Barry is the deepest lying midfielder for Everton, while McCarthy plays slightly higher up the field and presses the ball. Likewise, Whelan anchors the midfield for Ireland and McCarthy presses higher, although he is probably responsible for a bigger zone of the pitch for Ireland than he is for Everton.
Playing slightly higher up the field clearly doesn't suit McCarthy and it's probably an indictment on his ability that he struggles to adapt. For a highly rated English Premiership player, his positional sense is poor. Playing in a slightly higher midfield position, he struggles to find the right spaces to accept the ball and, therefore, isn't as involved as much as he should be when his team attacks.
What emerged from the Germany and Poland games was Ireland's midfield issues. With Whelan in the side, the Irish midfield probably plays a couple of yards too deep. Consequently, a disconnect can emerge between the midfield unit and the forwards. With McCarthy in the deep-lying role, there are more advantages for the team.
McCarthy's greater mobility and energy means that Ireland's midfield won't play as deep and, therefore, there won't be that disconnection between the midfield and the forward players. He'll get on the ball more. And the midfield unit can press the opposition more effectively. In short, Ireland's midfield looked more alive with McCarthy playing as the team's pivot.
McCarthy has a greater passing range than Whelan does too - but he can also be more erratic in possession than the Stoke City man. When everything is weighed up, McCarthy is increasingly looking a better bet in the deep-lying midfield role for Ireland.
Pressing high up the field has become such a big part of the modern game and Ireland can execute this much better with McCarthy calling the shots in Whelan's role.
Regardless of who the Irish are paired with in Sunday morning's Euro 2016 play-off draw, you need to roll the dice in sudden-death scenarios.