In the past week, Ireland played their first two games of their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign against Serbia and Luxembourg. Those games, in addition to the ‘practice’ match against Qatar yielded zero wins and zero points. But what have we learned about the ‘Kenny era’?
Before the Serbia game people weren’t sure what team Stephen Kenny would go with for this game, with the former under-21 coach opting for a back three for this match, with Seamus Coleman playing as extra centre half, and also deciding to go with youth by playing Dara O’ Shea, Jayson Molumby and Aaron Connolly instead of playing experienced players such as Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean.
Ireland started the match well against Serbia and went one up after 18 minutes with a brilliant header by Alan Browne. Defensive mistakes ultimately cost Ireland from getting a result against Serbia. But there was plenty of positives to take from this match with Ireland passing the ball well at times and also scoring two goals, breaking a duck of seven games.
One of the biggest talking points from the Serbia game was Ireland being denied a penalty in the second half when the match was evenly balanced at 1-1. Assuming said penalty had been awarded and converted it would have changed the entire complexion of the tie, and added extra credence to the questions as to why VAR is not been used in the World Cup qualifiers.
Despite the result here was plenty of hope and optimism going into Ireland’s second game against Luxembourg on Saturday. Stephen Kenny made another brave decision in his team selection as he picked nineteen year-old Gavin Bazumu as his starting goalkeeper.
Ireland again tried to pass the ball around in the first half against the visitors, but some of their passing was sloppy at times and the hosts found it hard to break a stubborn and dogged Luxembourg. Ireland’s lack of a creative midfielder that can create passes for attacking players was telling.
The theme of the first half continued in the second half as Ireland started to get frustrated and Luxembourg grew in confidence. With an air of inevitability, the visitors scored the game’s only goal in the 85th minute.
Ireland played their third match of this International window with a ‘friendly’ against Qatar on Tuesday evening in Hungary. Kenny continued to play young players in the starting line up such as Bazunu and Molomby, but also brought back some of the experienced players such as Shane Duffy, James McClean and Shane Long. Ireland started the match well and went ahead after just four minutes thanks to a well worked move finished by James McClean. The ‘hosts’ grew into the game after this bright start and Ireland were fortunate to go in at half time leading.
However Qatar got a dream start to the second half scoring after just 30 seconds. The game lost it’s spark in the second half with fatigue creeping in. Ireland had a chance to take the victory late on through Josh Cullen, but the draw meant that Ireland finished winless in Stephen Kenny’s eleven games as head coach.
There has a been a lot of debate since, in particular after Ireland’s defeat in Dublin, but the fact of the matter is these kind of results has been coming for years. The manager’s tactics and team selection aside, Ireland just don’t have enough players playing at a sufficiently high level. Most of the players currently available play with either bottom-half Premier League clubs or in the Championship, and the amount of playing time enjoyed by these players varies greatly.
Seamus Coleman is an outstanding servant for Irish football, but has been in and out of the Everton team this season; whilst his supposed rival for the right-back role, Matt Doherty is having similar problems at Tottenham Hotspur. Up front, Aaron Connolly came off injured against Serbia as he is not playing regular football for Brighton & Hove Albion this season.
Stephen Kenny could have the most talented footballers in the world available to him, but if they are not playing club football on a regular basis any team will struggle at international level. In the short-term, it would be great if Irish players considered moving to another club in England or coming home to play in the Airtricity League to improve their match fitness.
In the long-term, however, Ireland’s footballing administration must look at the bigger picture and take a leaf out of the respective books of other footballing nations. England is a perfect example – after years of underperformance at International level a plan was put in place to develop a national footballing identity and player production system on a industrial level. They built the St. George’s Park campus, put a plan in place and now one only has to look at the overflowing talent at both full international and underage levels to see they are reaping the benefits.
The debate about who is to blame for Ireland not doing the same may continue, but it’s never too late to put the correct structures in place for Irish football both on and off the pitch, starting now.
And whilst Stephen Kenny is not winning matches, there is credence in the belief that Stephen Kenny should be given more time as Ireland manager because he represents that holistic approach to player development that Ireland has lacked. He is trying to get Ireland playing the right way and has committed to giving young players a chance.
The Summer camp is crucial for Ireland as Stephen Kenny tries to lift the confidence of the players for the massive game against Portugal in September. Ireland performed well against Serbia but didn’t win, produced a poor performance against Luxembourg and lost and a had a slight improvement against Qatar and drew.
None of these will provide instant solace for Ireland fans, but those fans also need to exercise patience, Ireland’s problems will not be solved overnight, much less over the course of a qualifying campaign, but in Stephen Kenny they have a manager who at the very least is willing to confront those problems.