So on reflection, a 1-1 draw in his inaugural Ireland match and an injury time nod from Shane Duffy was probably more likely for Stephen Kenny than the 4-0 barnstormer we had all dreamed about, but it was hard to come away from the game from Sofia without some reasons for optimism as we embark on a huge few months of international football.
While the usual caveats apply, not least the fact that the players have trained minimally, if at all, with their clubs over the past few weeks after an extended summer of football, the gears are clearly in motion towards changes for the better.
For a side that had only two major training sessions with their new boss, elements of the style of play Kenny wants to instil were there early on. The passing stats – which outnumbered Bulgaria by over 100 passes at the half-time mark – suggest Ireland are now being encouraged to keep the ball, play through the phases and work it into the forward line. Although this often led to strayed balls and breakdowns in build-up, it was far better than the hit-and-hope tactics we had come to expect.
As debuts go, Idam Idah did well in a number nine role. Although it wasn’t too dissimilar to a David McGoldrick performance under Mick McCarthy, it was reassuring to see he wasn’t completely abandoned up front, miles from a friendly face in a green shirt. There were lay-offs and runs to work with and at just 19-years of age, he did well with what we had to work with and put in a fine shift for his debut.
Our midfield play is generally full of running, but it was nice to see it used in a more positive manner, with Hourihane and Hendrick driving forward, linking up with the lively Aaron Connolly and Callum O’Dowda, who started well but faded away in the second half. To be ultra-critical, James McCarthy’s long awaited return to the fold didn’t yield an exciting result, but again it’s difficult to read too much into the circumstances. There’ll be questions asked of him going into the Finland game and less someone like Jayson Molumby comes in and plays brilliantly, it’s difficult not to see McCarthy starting against Slovakia in a month’s time.
In Connolly, Ireland have a player who should realistically be starting every game he is available for. With better decision making and a team more comfortable with the system they are being asked to play in, he could have an impactful role to play coming in off the left hand side onto his right boot.
Matt Doherty had a poor game by his standards but his season with Wolves ended just a couple of weeks ago. He has an extremely hectic start to his career at Spurs, with league and Europa League commitments in September. His nod against Bulgaria suggests the right back role is his to lose, but Seamus Coleman is a more than able replacement if his form continues to unimpress.
Overall, it was a step in the direction we want to see. How often do we see club managers take months to initiate their ideas and implement the style of play they want to see? And they’re with their players every day on the training ground. It’s going to take time. Kenny has the advantage of potentially seven more games between now and the end of the year, which is more than what most managers would get in a full calendar year.
And don’t forget, there are players still yet to come into the mix. David McGoldrick is back on Sunday evening against Finland while the likes of Jack Byrne, Josh Cullen, Troy Parrott and Michael Obafemi are hugely talented options on the sideline.
Last night’s 1-1 draw with a headed equaliser may hark back to times we want to move on from, but the type of football played showed a vision towards a new frontier for Irish football.