Even though the death knell sounded on Ireland’s World Cup ambitions after last March’s 1-nil home defeat to Luxembourg, it would be foolish for Stephen Kenny to treat this final round of games as anything other than business as usual for his Ireland future.
The wave of public opinion has swayed heavily over the course of the last 18 months before a breakthrough in the October international break where Ireland won both of their games, smashing Azerbaijan 3-0 and putting Qatar to the sword in an impressive 4-0 win in Dublin in front of a roaring home fanbase.
Kenny’s Ireland career has been the topic of near public referendum after each set of games, as people pushed and pulled from either side of the fence that the former Dundalk manager was trying to build, all the while dealing with COVID-19 related withdrawals, inexperienced youth, backroom reshuffling, injuries, retirements and most recently, the topic of unvaccinated team members. It’s been a tumultuous period to say the least.
This has all made for a revolving door of starting elevens and pieced-together squads. The below graphic by Goal’s Ronan Murphy (as of the Serbia draw on September 7th) shows an interesting breakdown of what Kenny has had to juggle over the course of his time in charge. From David McGoldrick retiring so soon into his reign, to October’s hero Callum Robinson being mostly unavailable until last month’s window, it’s been near-on impossible to settle on something consistent.
You’ll have to click into it to see it, but I made a chart of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland selections and the number of caps each player had at the time.
Throws up some interesting points:
-The XI changes so much from game to game, thanks to injury, Covid, etc.
— Ronan Murphy (@swearimnotpaul) September 8, 2021
That was until last month when Kenny landed on a system that seemed to flick the switch with the players. More pragmatic and versatile than what had been paraded in the earlier days of his reign, Kenny has shown a willingness to change and this latest system appears to suit the team’s strengths and provided a depth to Ireland’s most willing performers. The fingerprints of Chelsea’s Anthony Barry are all over this and the mood music within the camp is that they have been invigorated by his arrival and the quality of the environment.
With Callum Robinson afforded a freer role, the set-up was platformed by an increasingly solid looking back three with a goalkeeper who looks more comfortable with his expectations. The ball is now played out where realistic, but also sent long when necessary.
The midfield pairing seemed to get the best performance out of Jeff Hendrick for quite some time, while Josh Cullen has become a mainstay, helped in part by his starting role at Anderlecht.
It even suited James McClean at left wing back, although there was frustration at times in the link-in with Daryl Horgan down the left-hand side against Azerbaijan. On the other side Matt Doherty has turned around early struggles under Kenny to now being one of his most consistent performers.
The changes have also brought to the fore the talents of James McGrath, who looks like one of Ireland’s best finds in quite some time. In addition, Rotherham’s Chiedozie Ogbene was a revelation in October and has had an enormous impact in his cameos thus far. You would have to wonder if any of Kenny’s predecessors would have trusted the Corkman with such a role.
One nugget from Ronan’s graphic that was dispelled in October was the role of Aaron Connolly. An awful run of club form means Connolly has shifted from regular starter – when available – to now being completely out of the squad. It’s a hard fall to earth for the player who once looked like Ireland’s most shining star amongst a few names. While Troy Parrott has grasped his time at MK Dons, Connolly has struggled to take advantage of his early explosion onto the scene. A loan deal may be needed in January or else he’ll be left behind by the aforementioned McGrath and Ogbene, who although are a lower club level have been taking their moments in the green shirt.
Another change to October’s internationals is the return of Jayson Molumby. The Waterford man is a good example of a player struggling at a higher level and searching out a loan that has benefitted his career. West Brom seemed like a tough nut to crack early on, but he’s been involved in seven of the last eight games and deserves credit for breaking into a team with promotion aspirations.
Jason Knight is another returnee after injury blighted his early season. It’s important to note that he’s still only 20 but has taken on a lead role at Derby County and should expand on his eight caps this week.
If Faro is anything to go by, Ireland shouldn’t have a huge fear of Portugal on Thursday night, but caution is still warranted given their envious talent. Robinson may have less time on the ball and more responsibility should fall on the attackers to track back, the midfield to work harder and the defensive to be on high alert at all times – even deep into injury time.
But with a full house expected at the Aviva, the team should be buoyed by a support that seems increasingly invested in Stephen Kenny’s Ireland.
At the very least, Ireland should pinpoint Luxembourg as a game we should win. The defeat in March was sour, but things have sweetened since then and the latest soundings from the camp is one of unity, keenness to work under Stephen Kenny and is capable of winning these types of games.
Ultimately, there should be no temptation to tinker with October’s winning formulae. Dead rubber games or not, this week should be business as usual to springbroad from last month and take Kenny and this young group of players into the next campaign with momentum, rather than rewrite the drawing board even more.