James McCarthy’s ears pricked up when he heard Gordon Strachan’s claim that Scotland were better than some of the teams at Euro 2016.
Because the assumption was that Strachan was including Republic of Ireland among these sides. Scotland were unbeaten against Martin O’Neill’s side in two qualifying fixtures, winning once and drawing once.
But Ireland’s ability to pull out significant results against major opposition, drawing and winning against Germany, helped them edge into a play-off place ahead of Scotland.
This ability was to the fore again on Wednesday night when Republic of Ireland did what they had to do by beating Italy to qualify for the last 16.
Ireland move on to Lyon, where they play hosts France, for a place in the quarter-finals. So Strachan’s comments were poorly timed. Many question whether Scotland, even if they had made it to France, could secure such a famous result in these high-pressure circumstances.
But Glasgow-born McCarthy, booed by Scottish fans when Republic of Ireland lost to Scotland at Celtic Park in November 2014, actually agrees with Strachan. Scotland are good enough to be in France.
They were just badly served by a highly competitive qualifying group, which has left them on the outside as the party continues in France. McCarthy wasn’t of a mind to mock Strachan’s contention in Ireland’s hour of glory.
“Scotland beat us and got a draw but the most important thing was getting here and we did that,” said McCarthy. “Look, I don’t want to get into a war or words with Scotland and Ireland here but maybe Gordon Strachan is right in what he says.
“Scotland were a good side when we played against them, don’t get me wrong. Maybe they did deserve to be here. Our group was just so tough with Germany Poland, Georgia, us and Scotland.
“There were upsets in there so it was always going to be difficult. Maybe if Scotland had been in another group they could be here. But, as I say, I’m just delighted that we’re here and now into the last 16. But we’re not settling for that.”
Neither did Ireland accept their qualifying chances were over when Scotland defeated them 1-0 at Celtic Park. “We didn’t think that,” said McCarthy, pictured below. “I took some stick that night, right enough. It felt a long time before we played again after that. But we got through, beating Germany helping us so much. We knew it would be tough for Scotland going away to Georgia and it proved to be. But we always believed in ourselves, even after drawing in Dublin. That night the boss said to us ‘trust me, it’s not over’. Within the dressing room we took belief from that.”
McCarthy, encouraged by friends and family, needed to draw on all his powers of self-belief after being heavily criticised for two of Belgium’s goals in Ireland’s penultimate group game, which ended in a 3-0 defeat.
“The days building up to the game were tough after the Belgium result,” he admitted. “For myself, I was at fault for a couple of the goals so I was just delighted to be involved against Italy. My performance against Belgium wasn’t acceptable and I knew that. It wasn’t good enough.
“Afterwards I felt completely gutted but I had people there for me. My family were constantly on the phone, making sure everything was fine. My team-mates were there for me along with the management. They all stuck by me.”
McCarthy credits former Hamilton Accies team-mate and best friend James McArthur for helping him cope with that disappointment, as did Brian Easton, another close friend from his Hamilton days. He spoke with McArthur, now at Crystal Palace, on the day of the Italy match as he fretted whether O’Neill would retain faith in him or not.
“I didn’t know I was playing until an hour and a half before kick-off,” he said. “I was nervous, wondering if I was going to play or not, after the Belgium match.
“Listen, it’s not about me, it’s about the team, but I’m just delighted I was able to help get this win and get us over the line. But when the manager named the team I was determined to repay that faith. I had been low, the lowest I’ve been in my career. But people picked me up and I went again.”
Wes Hoolahan also had to rediscover his poise. But he did not have to wait so long as McCarthy to earn redemption, curling in a wonderful cross from the right for Robbie Brady’s 85th-minute winner against Italy just moments after missing a clear opportunity to put Ireland ahead.
Now 34, Hoolahan is savouring the prospect of his biggest game on Sunday against France, and credits then Livingston manager Paul Lambert with getting the ball rolling ten years ago in a career that is peaking in his mid-30s.
“My game improved at Livingston, as did my fitness,” he said. “Paul was great for me and changed me from a winger into a No 10.
“That’s my best position now. I’m grateful to Paul for seeing that in me.”