Stephen Kenny has started his reign as senior Republic of Ireland manager with more hope than any Irish manager in the last 20 years or so that the style of play would be more entertaining than what has gone before it.
Certainly the clubs Kenny has previously managed and the manner he has spoken in have suggested that he aims to play an attractive brand of football.
Ireland struggled for large periods in Kenny’s first game against Bulgaria last month and even more so against Finland in Dublin a few days later. Bizarrely, the knives were already out for the Dubliner in some quarters following those games.
The old cliché “Rome wasn’t built in a day” certainly applies here. If an attractive brand of football is to be developed for the senior international team, it’ll take time. I feel that for Thursday’s game against Slovakia and with so much at stake, Kenny should briefly abandon the “pretty” football outlook, revert to a diamond formation and make use of big men like Shane Duffy and Adam Idah.
With that in mind, this is my Ireland starting XI for Thursday night against Slovakia:
GOALKEEPER – Darren Randolph
Randolph is a banker to start, barring injury. This is despite the fact that the Wicklow native has played just one Carabao Cup game this season and had only three club appearances all of last season. He has however been an ever-present for Ireland since 2015. A calm presence as the last line of defence, his distribution is also of very good quality. Unlikely to let anybody down.
RIGHT BACK – Matt Doherty
The weekend injury to Séamus Coleman has made the decision for the right-back slot decision a lot easier and removed the debate as to whether Coleman and Doherty can play in the same Ireland team. Doherty has been widely viewed as the best performing Irish international at club level over the last season or two. It’s form which has earned him a four-year contract at Tottenham following ten stellar years with Wolves.
Doherty has featured and performed well in three of Spurs’ four Premier League games this season. He missed Sunday’s 1-6 demolition of Manchester United but had played the full 90 minutes of the Europa League game against Maccabi Haifa on Thursday night. Ironically, Coleman was himself returning to top form before Saturday’s injury incurred playing in Everton’s 4-2 win over Brighton.
CENTRE BACK -Shane Duffy
Duffy has enjoyed an excellent start to his loan spell at Celtic and is getting the crucial commodity he hadn’t been getting at Brighton, that is game time. He has played at the heart of Neil Lennon’s defence in all seven of Celtic’s games (five SPL and two Europa League), scoring twice, since he signed for the Scottish champions on September 2nd . The 6’4” Derry man remains a colossus in both boxes for club and country. Attacking setpieces tend invariably to be aimed at his head.
CENTRE BACK – John Egan
Following an outstanding 2019-’20 season that included captaining his country and almost guiding Sheffield United to European qualification, this season hasn’t started nearly as well for the Cork man or his club.
Harshly sent off early in the defeat to Aston Villa, he has played in three of Sheffield
United’s four games (suspended for the defeat to Leeds.) The Blades have lost all four Premier League games this season, however Egan has performed consistently nonetheless and should start against Slovakia.
LEFT BACK – Enda Stevens
A rather late bloomer, Stevens only played in the Premier League for the first time last year, aged 29. He has now established himself as one of Sheffield United’s most consistent performers having played in all 38 of the club’s Premier League games last season as well as all four of the club’s league games this season. Also now very much established as Ireland’s first choice left-back.
RIGHT MIDFIELD – Jeff Hendrick
I would put Hendrick on the right side of midfield. Moving to Newcastle has given him something of a new lease of life. He’s played in all of the Toon Army’s four Premier League games this season – and scored once (in an opening day 2-0 win at West Ham.)
He hasn’t really shown excellent form for Ireland since 2016 but his form for a Newcastle side who are ninth in the Premier League means he merits a start.
CENTRAL/HOLDING MIDFIELD – James McCarthy
Slovakia are likely to have the majority of the ball and a workhorse such as McCarthy will be important so as to protect the back four/five. Having come back from a broken leg in 2018 which ruled him out of action for over a year, he is now, at 29-years-old playing some of the best football of his career. He is one of Ireland’s more experienced performers with 260 Premier League appearances
to his name. Having played all four of Crystal Palace’s Premier League games this season, if Ireland manage to overcome Slovakia, McCarthy is likely to play a significant role.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD – Conor Hourihane
Hourihane is vital to this Ireland setup for his precise left foot delivery from setpieces and his ability to take/convert free-kicks.
The midfielder likes to get on the ball, pass and move. While not quite a box-to-box midfielder, he does plenty work in both boxes and has scored once in two Premier League games for Aston Villa this season.
LEFT WING – Aaron Connolly
The Galway native has played all four Premier League games for Brighton (just one from the bench), is playing with confidence and in good form having already scored once this Premier League season (in a 3-0 win at Newcastle.) He has scored four Premier League goals in total (three last season) for Brighton. He possesses plenty of attacking threat and is capable of delivering good balls into the box from the left flank.
FORWARD – David McGoldrick
McGoldrick is not a prolific goalscorer (though he scored a cracker for Sheffield United in a 2-1 defeat at Arsenal on Sunday) but he works tirelessly for the team.
His runs are always with the team in mind, he constantly harasses opposition defenders for the ball and is not afraid to drop back into his own half in search of the ball. For these reasons the 32-year-old is a real fans’ favourite for both club and country. He is currently in good form having played in all four of The Blades’ Premier League
games this season.
FORWARD – Adam Idah
This is a big game to start such a young player up front (the Corkonian is still 19- years-old) but the style of play that I envisage being played by Ireland against Slovakia will be ideally suited to a target man who is almost 6’4” tall. Having scored five goals in 12 Under-21 internationals, Idah played both of Ireland’s last two senior internationals and didn’t look out of place. He has played all four of Norwich City’s Championship matches from the bench this season and has scored once (that the only goal in a win over Huddersfield Town three weeks ago.)
If the game is level or Ireland are losing narrowly with 20-ish minutes left to play, I would like to see Jack Byrne come on. The Shamrock Rovers’ playmaker is in the form of his life right now and is capable of producing a defence splitting pass or even weighing in with a goal himself. Byrne would likely be replacing a tiring David McGoldrick.
Callum Robinson is also in good form, has scored twice for West Brom (both goals versus Chelsea in a 3-3 draw) two weekends ago and would be a useful option possibly in place of Connolly.
Another useful substitution at that stage of the game (if level/losing) would be to
bring on Shane Long, possibly for Idah. The Tipperary native is still a pacey operator and his runs are capable of punishing tiring defences.
Alan Browne could also come on a bit later in the game (if Ireland are winning that
is) in place of McGoldrick.