”You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” was a saying popularized by Abraham Lincoln. The FAI top brass was fooling most of us for almost two decades and nearly got away with it.
In the last few years, Irish football fans have begun to understand the depth and breadth of their deceit. Much like a sticky plaster that has been slowly pulled off, Irish fans have endured one disappointing result after another. Financial bombshell after financial bombshell. Misplaced pass after misplaced pass. International defection after international defection.
After missing out on Euro 2020, Stephen Kenny is now tasked with creating a vibrant and youthful team. His first and most prominent task is to reshape an ageing international squad. Stalwarts of the squad such as Glenn Whelan have been phased out of the national pool and replaced with younger starlets like Jason Knight and Jayson Molumby.
But, there still remain seasoned internationals in the squad who despite belonging to the 30-plus age club are seen as key first team players. Team captain Seamus Coleman is 32-years-old. Enda Stevens turns 31 next month. Between the sticks, Darren Randolph is 34. James McCarthy, seen by Kenny as a vital cog in his midfield, is 30. James McClean’s constant pressing of opponents masks his 32-year-old body. Perhaps international retirement is still a few seasons away for these players but it highlights the importance of refreshing the squad now. Kenny, I imagine, sees this as short-term pain for long term pain.
Although this current pain is intensified by what Kenny termed as the ‘lost generation of Irish international footballers’, most outfield players hit the peak of their playing prowess by their mid to late 20s. However, Ireland’s strongest starting eleven have few players in their prime. Only in the past season or two have players like Josh Cullen, Alan Browne and Callum Robinson cemented their place on the team sheet.
Due to covid, the last winner of the young international player of the year was Alan Browne in 2019, who was 24 at the time. Hardly old but not a whippersnapper either. It captures in a nutshell the lack of young players coming through our system and the enormous gap between the aforementioned 30-plus group and the current era beginning to come through.
An ageing squad has been accompanied with an outdated playing style. Aimless long balls, hoping for a flick on and praying for a goal. These tactics were once useful in the 1990s but only make older fans nostalgic. Previous managers such as Mick McCarthy, Martin O’Neill and even going as far back as Giovanni Trapattoni offered the same defence of these tactics: a lack of quality players. Instead of blooding younger players and improving the system, these managers would praise Irish players’ fight and team spirit which felt like a back handed compliment.
Meanwhile, international football tactics continued to change and evolve. Due to the influence of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola in the past decade, teams now aim to dominate and recycle possession when attacking and press high if they lose the ball. Nowadays, attacking play in international football is fluid and involves players interchanging positions during complex patterns of play. In essence, attacking players are expected to defend as much as they attack. This is particularly true for centre forwards who are seen as the trigger of the press.
Unfortunately, the legacy of previous Irish managers was to persist with long ball football and deep defensive blocks instead of embracing more modern football tactics such as the press and attacking patterns of play. Ignoring these tactical evolutions leads to lower ranked football nations like Georgia and more recently Luxembourg out playing us on home turf. Furthermore, it might explain why we struggle to score against weaker opposition. Generally, international teams are better prepared and better organized than ever; long balls into the box are easier to defend than intricate attacking play.
Implementing these tactical tweaks and bringing through new international players has and will take time. As Kenny continues to implement a possession-based game plan, mistakes have and will continue to happen such as Luxembourg. Nevertheless, some of our younger stars are already flourishing in this system. Troy Parrot’s two goals and performance against Andorra demonstrated his comfort in the system. Goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu’s ability with his feet is as impressive as his shot stopping.
Given enough time younger players will flourish in this system. But Stephen Kenny needs time to modernize Irish tactics. He needs time to rejuvenate our squad. If Kenny is sacked, the cries for a nostalgic return of long ball football will only get louder. We would be fooling ourselves if we think that is the future.