After a tough start, Ireland seem to be heading in the right direction under Stephen Kenny.
The Ghosts of Lansdowne Road
As the final whistle blew on that cold spring evening, The Republic of Ireland’s World Cup dreams lay in tatters. Gerson Rodrigues’ late strike secured Luxembourg an infamous 1-0 victory at the Aviva Stadium. After just two games of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, football fans up and down the country were resigned to the fact that yet another major tournament was set to pass Ireland by.
With COVID-19 restrictions in full swing, Stephen Kenny likely rejoiced at the ghostly silence that greeted his side from the empty stands. Had there been a full house of 52,000 people witnessing the debacle, it is likely Kenny would not have managed another game for the Boys in Green. While the empty stadium benefited Kenny when the final whistle blew, it certainly had a debilitating effect on the team while the game was taking place.
“The lack of fans had an enormous, almost unquantifiable impact on football in general”, says Nathan Murphy of Newstalk’s Off The Ball.
“It was a less pressurised environment for away teams. It almost felt as if some of these games didn’t even matter, while I’d say the players felt as though the matches weren’t even real games”.
Kenny took over the job amidst a turbulent time for Irish football. The John Delaney era of excess and financial recklessness was coming to an end, as was Mick McCarthy’s second reign as Irish manager. With a clear-out of the FAI needed from top to bottom, nobody was particularly envious of the situation Kenny walked into.
In the Dubliner’s first press conference as the new boss, he set out his stall and explained the philosophy in which he wished to instil into his team. Bemoaning the lack of creativity and invention in previous Irish sides, Kenny aimed to take the squad in an entirely different direction. Invention and innovation were to be the cornerstones of this new style of play.
A results business
When Kenny’s reign got off to a disastrous start, little sympathy was forthcoming from former stars that were slighted by Kenny’s comments about the past. Months went by without any victories and barely a single goal. While performances were not too bad, the dreadful results heaped unimaginable pressure on both the players and Kenny’s shoulders. A huge divide was forming between Irish football fans.
It must be noted that there were severe extenuating circumstances facing the Irish side at this time. Camp after camp, COVID-19 ran through the side.
“I believe COVID was a big factor in the disappointing results at the start of the Kenny era”, says Paul Fennessy of The42.ie.
“It got so bad at one point that you could make an entire team that was unavailable to Kenny because of Covid among other issues.”
Continuity of selection was almost non-existent. Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly’s inability to play against Slovakia in the Euro 2020 playoff semi-final due to being a close contact of someone with covid (Who ended up being a false positive), summed up Kenny’s luck.
However, there was a feeling that perhaps the covid situation was being used as a way to excuse poor performances. Speaking about the Covid issues, Malachy Clerkin of the Irish Times says:
I think everyone was very well aware of them. They were reported widely in the press and Kenny never shied from the fact that they were a factor.
I would say what was probably understated, if anything, was the fact that other countries had these issues as well.
By the time the Luxembourg defeat left Ireland rooted to the foot of the table, sympathy (And patience) had nearly run out for the manager. Kenny cut a severely dejected figure in the Luxembourg post-match press conference. This night was one of the most disastrous performances in Irish history.
It seemed as though the end was nigh for Kenny. Surely, there would be no way out of this nightmare.
The wretched start to the world cup qualifying campaign meant that Ireland needed a miracle to qualify for the tournament. And after following the Luxembourg embarrassment with a dour 1-1 draw against minnows Qatar in a friendly, the mood in the camp was low.
The three-month break that followed will in time perhaps come to be seen as a water-shed moment for the Stephen Kenny era. With no competitive games until September, this cooling-off period allowed Kenny to analyse his performance as manager so far and make the adequate adjustments that he deemed necessary.
Ireland headed into the June friendly against Andorra with Stephen Kenny still searching for a first win of any description as Ireland manager. To say confidence in the team was low would be a massive understatement. For the first time ever, Ireland headed into a game with such traditionally inferior opponents, with a genuine fear that defeat was possible.
When Marc Vales headed home to put Andorra in front, these fears seemed destined to come to fruition.
Ireland battled back to save their manager’s job. Goals from Jason Knight, Daryl Horgan and a double from Troy Parrott finally gave Stephen Kenny what turned out to be a relatively comfortable first victory in charge. Three days later, Ireland followed up this victory with a spirited draw away to a Hungary side that was preparing for the Euros.
“The nil-nil draw against Hungary was a good performance”, says Gavin Cooney of The42.ie.
“Hungary are a very decent team. We saw in the summer at the Euros how they almost got out of the group of death including Germany, France and Portugal. And this was with their main man Dominik Szoboszlai out injured.”
Since this training camp in Portugal, Ireland’s form has drastically improved. Prior to the camp, Kenny’s managerial record stood at zero wins, four draws and seven defeats. Since the camp, Ireland have had four wins, four draws and one defeat, with that sole defeat coming at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Kenny deserves credit for turning things around for Ireland. Not only for the work that he has done, but also for the coaching staff that he has assembled. Keith Andrews has grown into his role as assistant manager, with players praising his communication skills. Dean Kiely has done an excellent job as goalkeeping coach, helping Gavin Bazunu settle remarkably well into the number one shirt.
All of this has occurred during a hectic period of staff departures around the squad, such as Damien Duff and Alan Kelly’s shock resignation after the defeat to England at Wembley the previous winter.
Perhaps Kenny’s best move was to bring in Anthony Barry. Barry, a coach at Chelsea, has been massively influential in Ireland’s improvement on the field. Many feel as though the role that Barry has played in Ireland’s resurgence should not be understated.
“Anthony Barry met Frank Lampard when they were both doing their coaching courses, and when Lampard got the Chelsea job, he brought Barry on board”, says Gavin Cooney.
“When Thomas Tuchel came in after Lampard got sacked, Barry was one of the few staff members he kept on. For Ireland, Barry has a great reputation, has brought in a new system that has been successful, and is credited with making Ireland better on set pieces”.
Barry has been credited with bringing in the 3-4-2-1 formation which propelled Chelsea to Champions League glory. Since the introduction of this system Ireland have looked a far more cohesive unit and have only lost once.
Despite improved form, Kenny remains a divisive figure in Irish football
Ireland rounded out the year in style by winning three of their last four games. 3-0 victories away from home over Azerbaijan and Luxembourg helped banish the ghosts of those dreadful results in Lansdowne Road. Despite this obvious improvement in both the players and managers performance, many people, such as Brian Kerr, Richard Dunne and Liam Brady, have not yet been fully won over.
“Maybe Brian Kerr feels hard done by considering he was badly treated when he was the Ireland manager”, suggests David Donnelly, chief sports reporter for Dublin Live.
“Dunne and Brady I just think have allegiances to past managers who, while very impressive and did great things, lacked the courage Kenny has shown to change things.”
According to Malachy Clerkin, the reason for this hesitancy is much less complex. “Because we lost to Luxembourg. Kerr was sacked as Ireland manager without ever having a result like that hanging around his neck.”
Learning from the past
Previous managers like O’Neill and Trapattoni always seemed hesitant to give youngsters a chance in the first team. Trapattoni infamously left Seamus Coleman out of Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad, reasoning that he was too young and inexperienced. This is despite the fact he was 25 and a mainstay in the Everton team that punched well above their weight under David Moyes.
So, why were these managers unwilling to give youth a chance?
“They were being paid very well to qualify for tournaments and money corrupts everyone”, says David Donnelly.
“Previous managers very much saw short-term results as the be all and end all”, states Paul Fennessy.
“Their brief was to deliver instant results. The best way to achieve such success, past managers felt, was to rely on experienced players who are ostensibly less likely to make mistakes.”
Looking to the future
Kenny has placed much more faith in young players than many of his predecessors. Comparing Irish squads selected by previous managers with the squad selected for the most recent November internationals, it is clear that this Irish squad is far more youthful than in the past.
While the Kenny question is undoubtedly divisive, one thing that can’t be argued is that Ireland appears to be heading on an upward trajectory. Results have improved, performances have improved and some of the young players that Kenny showed faith in have blossomed into important players for the National side.
The Revolution will be televised
The sheer number of new caps handed to young players this campaign has been simply staggering. This trust and faith shown in these young players should reward Kenny in the long run. While Ireland still need an Adam Idah or an Aaron Connolly to blossom as a goal scorer at the highest level, for the first time in what feels like forever, Ireland actually have options all over the park.
An area of significant strength in the Irish side is at goalkeeper, with both Caoimhín Kelleher and Gavin Bazunu set to battle for the jersey for the next decade.
“The team is coming together. There won’t be a goalkeeper issue for the next 15 years”, believes Malachy Clerkin.
After an initial difficult period, the future appears to be bright for Ireland under Stephen Kenny. The infusion of youth and diversity through the likes of Andrew Omobamidele, Chiedozie Ogbene and the aforementioned Bazunu, ensure that this Ireland side is a team that represents the nation, and is one we can all get behind.
“It is a more diverse squad and representative of Ireland” says Gavin Cooney. “The team is in a much more optimistic position than there has been in the past few years”.
Nathan Murphy echoes this optimism, “We now play a much more modern style of play, with a high tempo and people will be much more entertained”.
Reports suggest that the FAI is expected to offer Stephen Kenny a new contract, one which runs until the end of the qualification campaign for Euro 2024. Perhaps this campaign is where Kenny will be judged. The European Championships are a much easier tournament to qualify for than the World Cup, with Ireland having qualified for two of the last three iterations.
While no-one knows how Ireland will fare in Euro 2024 qualification, one thing that’s guaranteed is that Stephen Kenny has started a revolution in Irish football.