Tuesday 10 September, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, 7.45pm
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A rare chance to tinker
Back during Mick's first stint as manager, he had a run of about eight months worth of friendlies - almost all of which Ireland lost - to trick about with his age-ravaged team, to inject young blood, and to decide which of the Charlton Era stalwarts he wished to keep about the place.
No such luxury this time. He was given a tight remit and an even tighter time-frame in which to operate. Given these constraints, he's coped admirably. Ireland have ground out the results as they did during the better part of the O'Neill era and are a healthy position in the Group D table, albeit with some of the toughest tests yet to come.
And now at last comes a chance to experiment and live a little. This is the first of only two friendlies Ireland will play in 2019. The next is a home game against New Zealand (the mighty All Whites) on 14 November, four days before Denmark arrive for the final Group D game.
The team won't be announced until close to kick-off but McCarthy has already signalled that changes will be made. The manager is satisfied that his standard starting XI is honed and cohesive enough that he doesn't need to give them another try-out ahead of the critical Autumn encounters.
A second booking has ruled Enda Stevens out of the Georgia game so McCarthy has disclosed there's no point in picking him for Tuesday. David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson are also out with minor injuries and have returned to Sheffield.
"We don't look like a team that is not cohesive, they understand each other," McCarthy told reporters. "The lads who travel around and never get a game, that's not right either. What happens if we need them? We already need a left-back for the next game so it's important that some of them get a game."
The manager, however, remains typically coy about the starting team other than to say there'll be changes. An attempt to wrestle some names out of the manager in Monday's press conference foundered in familiar style.
Tony O'Donoghue: Because you've lost your two strikers, we'll take it then that James Collins and Scott Hogan will both start?
MM: James and Scott will both play... (silence, followed by suppressed laughter).
Confirmation at least that 28-year old Collins, who qualifies to play for Ireland through his parents, will make his senior international debut.
The Luton Town striker hit 25 goals in the club's League One campaign last season and has made a bright start to life in the Championship, already notching three goals in six games.
One assumes that John Egan, who can't be far off the first choice starting team in any event, will appear from the beginning on Tuesday.
Josh Cullen, Ronan Curtis and Mark Travers may get a runout, while there will be considerable excitement domestically at the thought of Jack Byrne featuring for the first time.
Not giving youth a chance yet
Regardless of his intention to experiment, the Ireland manager will not be plundering Stephen Kenny's U21 squad for players on Tuesday.
McCarthy wasn't long fast-tracking Robbie Keane and Damien Duff to the senior team during his first stint but he's no intention of alienating the U21 manager by plucking his brightest talents on the eve of a key U21 qualifier away in Sweden.
Irish football fans are hungry for any hint of optimism and the U21 squad have generated a modest buzz following another exciting and attractive display against Armenia on Friday, albeit one only decorated by a single goal.
The senior boss was in the crowd at Tallaght on Friday to see Aaron Connolly, recently featuring for Brighton in the Premier League, run riot down the wing against the Armenians.
The manager also cited Connolly's Brighton teammate Jason Molumby and centre-halves Conor Masterson and Dara O'Shea as players who impressed him on the night.
"Have they got a qualifier tomorrow? Well, then why on earth would I call them? I just think that'd be wrong of me. The 21s want to qualify for a competition.
"I'm not sure that if I play them in a friendly against Bulgaria, it'll tell me that they can compete in a game against Georgia away or Switzerland away and Denmark at home."
If Irish people are inclined to fret about the relative decline in our football in the last 20 years, then a glance at Bulgaria's fortunes should make us feel better.
The 1994 World Cup semi-finalists could show everyone a thing or two about plumbing depths.
They haven't reached a major tournament since Euro 2004 - where they made Ireland's Euro 2012 efforts look respectable - and are currently bottom of their Euro 2020 group. They were smashed 4-0 by England on Sunday and before that lost at home to Kosovo.
So, they were long ago shunted into a ditch in this qualifying campaign and recent ones weren't much better.
They were miles away in the qualification campaigns for World Cup 2018 and Euro 2016. Standout results there included a 1-1 draw away to Luxembourg and another 1-1 draw at home to Malta. They did beat Holland 2-0 at home in March 2017 but that merely highlights how far the Dutch had fallen.
More relevant to Tuesday, their away form is especially bad. They haven't won an away qualifier since a 1-0 win over Malta in October 2014. The aforementioned draw with Luxembourg was the only away match in the 2018 campaign that they didn't lose.
The nation who shocked the world in '94 are currently ranked 60th in the world.
Where once they had Hristo Stoichkov and latterly Dimitar Berbatov to call upon, now they're relying on naturalised Brazilians to deliver the goods up front, Marcelhino and Wanderson, both of play in the Bulgarian domestic league.
Seven of the starting team on Sunday play their club football in Bulgaria, mainly for the likes of CSKA Sofia and Ludogorets Razgrad. The rest play in Turkey (Strahil Popov), Slovakia (Vasil Bozhikov), Russia (Ivelin Popov) and the German third tier (Georgi Sarmov).
Bozhikov has recent experience of playing in Ireland, having featured for Slovan Bratislava in their 3-1 away win against Dundalk in Tallaght.
Bulgaria feature prominently in the Irish football story.
They are closely associated with Ireland's luckless run in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the international association of referees apparently decided that these people were to be screwed at every opportunity. (Eoin Hand has suggested that Ireland's comically bad run of calls from officials was down to the FAI putting them in rubbish digs whenever they came to Dublin).
Ireland lost 2-1 in Sofia in 1977 with John Giles having a goal disallowed at 1-1 for reasons that remain obscure. One theory is that Steve Heighway, who'd crossed the ball into the box which was then nodded down for Giles to smash home, had strayed into an offside position by the time Gilesy hit the shot. This was a gross and wholly unreasonable violation of the 'not interfering with play' directive but maybe linesmen had no interest in that then.
The Bulgarians, however, are also associated with the moment our luck began to turn. Lansdowne Road was only half full when Ireland dispatched the table-topping Bulgarians 2-0 in our final qualifying game for Euro 88. Liam Brady was in scintillating form, McGrath and Moran got the goals and all the talk afterwards was that Ireland were in fine fettle for a tilt at Italia 90 qualifying.
No one counted on Scotland actually going and beating Bulgaria in Sofia - then a dastardly tricky assignment - one month later. Jackie Charlton was watching the highlights later on and seemingly thought he was watching a live feed when someone rang to tell him Ireland had already qualified.
Ireland won't be near full strength but then Bulgaria, as has been made clear, are in a mess and at the lowest of ebbs. On that basis, we suspect the makeshift home side to win this one.
Ireland 1-0 Bulgaria
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