There were more than just Covid surprises as Stephen Kenny tries to pick up the pieces

Ireland's best performance in 2020 came in their penalty shoot-out defeat to Slovakia in Bratislava

THERE is never – absolutely never - a dull moment following the Republic of Ireland – and 2020 was certainly no different.

As soon as the deposed FAI chief John Delaney reluctantly left the stage in disgrace and Irish football folk came to terms with the eye-watering and decidedly gaping ‘black hole’ of debt the Association found itself in, it was hoped there would at least be some cheer by the end of the year.

Perhaps the senior team could nick one of the last remaining berths at the delayed European Championships before the end of the year.

It’s fair to say the Republic of Ireland has had better years. The global pandemic merely added a tumultuous year.

The international season for the Irish began with the Euro semi-final play-off with Slovakia being postponed to later in the year because of Covid. Mick McCarthy saw the writing on the wall and made way for U21 boss Stephen Kenny to move into the senior role while pocketing £1m pay-off for his work.

What followed was a new world of zoom calls and empty stadia. Both had a demoralising impact.

In July, the legendary Jack Charlton also passed away.

The impact of Covid, meanwhile, was only getting going for new boss Stephen Kenny.

By the turn of the year and eight games later, the new regime was still winless and the Euros were gone in miserable Bratislava.

Still, despite everything, there was hope on the horizon. There were quite a few shafts of light amid the Covid minefield that did a good good in destabilising their Euro and Nations League efforts.

And we all could cope with the fall-out from Wembley’s video-gate and concentrate on the 2022 World Cup qualifiers that grouped the Irish with Serbia, Portugal, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

Or so we hoped.

A bit like Covid itself, just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always can. As the R rate rocketed, Stephen Kenny had to absorb losing two parts of his backroom team.

Last Friday night, Damian Duff dropped an almighty bombshell he’d quit the set-up. Four days later, experienced goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was gone too.

Stabs at black humour abounded that the new manager had lost more of his backroom team than his team scored goals - one in eight games - a stoppage-time set-piece header from Shane Duffy in Kenny’s first game in charge out in Sofia.

There were footnotes along the way too. Promising Northern Ireland international Mark Sykes had announced his intentions to play for the south.

In one of his first in-person press conferences, Kenny said there was no prospect of an immediate call-up – but the fact Sykes was pushing for a starting place under Ian Baraclough showed that simply playing on the international stage wasn’t enough for the Oxford United player.

There had to be an emotional pull for him - and it lay with the south.

“It’s something that’s only in its infancy,” Kenny remarked.

“Mark is someone who has expressed an interest in playing for Ireland and obviously he is a fluent Irish speaker and he has had a good season with Oxford, and there’s a capacity for improvement there because it’s his first season in professional football.”

While Baraclough expressed his disappointment at losing a player he knew well from his U21 days, everything seemed to be submerged by Covid.

Undoubtedly, Kenny’s arrival was preceded by quite a drum-roll. He couldn’t have been any more different to Mick McCarthy.

Deeply pragmatic and more familiar with the international terrain, McCarthy hadn’t a great deal of interest in investing in tomorrow’s stars – evidenced by his recall of veteran midfielder Glenn Whelan. His singular objective was to qualify for the Euros.

That was still his successor’s number one priority, but Kenny wanted more for Irish football.

He wanted to forge a new, more enterprising identity for the Irish game, an idealistic philosophy that turned its nose up at the prevailing image of the national team - hard running, hard to beat, but not very exciting.

He also wanted to see a more expansive style of play to trickle down to the grassroots.

“It makes complete sense,” said Republic of Ireland underage coach Paul Osam.

“If I have an U16 player, he’s going to be educated through that year that will help him when he goes to the 17s, 18s up the 21s, that it’s a continuous pathway.

“And if he goes into the senior team and Stephen is asking him to do certain things it’s not going to be that alien to him. There’s no point in us doing one thing and the senior team doing something different."

Right from the start, Kenny didn’t shy away from his vision for Irish football, but in doing so he didn’t afford himself much wriggle room either.

By the time Ireland’s Euro play-off with Slovakia came around, the team barely had trained together 10 times.

And yet, expectations were raised significantly, primarily by the manager insofar as those players who had largely struggled on the international stage could be transformed.

He would encourage them to pass through the lines, keep possession of the ball better, there’d be less chasing of lost causes by their front men and the team would generally assert more control.

Asked at one of his later press briefings via Zoom did he raise expectations too high in terms of what this set of players could deliver given their desperately short preparation time, he replied: “Sometimes I answer questions too honestly but it’s not a deliberate strategy. Maybe it's not wise, maybe other people are wiser than me.”

The opening fixtures against Bulgaria (a) and Finland (h) didn’t set pulses racing and yielded a draw and a defeat, but by the time of the Slovakia game came around – the only game that really mattered in 2020 – Kenny had plugged the leaks in midfield and the team produced their best performance, only to lose on penalties.

There were bright moments too against Wales (h) and Finland (a) but not a lot of creating of chances, which remained the team's biggest worry.

The 3-0 defeat against England was desperately meek, with Matt Doherty admitting he felt the Irish had given up during the game.

At the time of those condensed set of fixtures there was a very large asterisk beside each performance.

Covid had played a major role and at one point they were shorn of seven players between the Slovakia and Wales games in October.

Few international teams of Ireland’s ability can afford to absorb that many losses. But, as time has tumbled on, that very large asterisk beside those results has gotten smaller and the winless and goal-scoring record magnified.

Put simply, there were too many surprises in 2020 for Stephen Kenny’s liking, especially the way in which he trumpeted the ability of players and how he believed he could transform the team, perhaps in an unrealistic timeframe.

But, of course, the defenders of the new manager would argue that it is a manager’s obligation to inject his players with as much confidence as he possibly can in order for them to realise their potential, whatever that may be.

As the clock ticks down on their World Cup qualifying opener away to Serbia on March 24, Kenny has the unwelcome distraction of having to replace two members of his backroom team.

Nothing is ever dull following the Republic of Ireland. Ever.

2020 results:

Sept 3 (Nations League): Bulgaria 1-1 Republic of Ireland

Sept 6 (Nations League): Republic of Ireland 0-1 Finland

Oct 8 (Euro semi-final play-off) Slovakia 0-0 Republic of Ireland (Slovakia won 4-2 on penalties)

Oct 11 (Nations League): Republic of Ireland 0-0 Wales

Oct 14 (Nations League): Finland 1-0 Republic of Ireland

Nov 12 (friendly): England 3-0 Republic of Ireland

Nov 15 (Nations League): Wales 1-0 Republic of Ireland

Nov 18 (Nations League): Republic of Ireland 0-0 Bulgaria

2021 fixtures:

March 24 (World Cup qualifier): Serbia v Republic of Ireland

March 27 (World Cup qualifier): Republic of Ireland v Luxembourg

March 30 (friendly): Republic of Ireland v Qatar

Sept 1 (World Cup qualifier): Portugal v Republic of Ireland

Sept 4 (World Cup qualifier): Republic of Ireland v Azerbaijan

Sept 27 (World Cup qualifier): Republic of Ireland v Serbia

Oct 9 (World Cup qualifier): Azerbaijan v Republic of Ireland

Oct 12 (friendly): Qatar v Republic of Ireland

Damien Duff leaving the managerial set-up last week was a huge blow to manager Stephen Kenny

What they said…

“I said when I took the job in 2018 that I’d be leaving on July 31 [2020] - and that’s still the case, albeit it’s been brought forward because of what’s been happening worldwide. Stephen is contracted to take over in August and good luck to him; he’ll get the chance now to qualify… And I’m back on the market.” – Mick McCarthy finishes up his second managerial stint with Ireland, pocketing an agreed £1m

“You look at the front-line workers – the doctors and nurses, the paramedics – everyone really – their self-sacrifices are heroic. At the moment we’ve got to stay safe, we’ve got to look after each other and, you know, there’s a lot of tragedy throughout Europe and in Ireland.” – New senior manager Stephen Kenny has perspective upon his appointment

“It’s very important that in every game we have the ambition to control the game. My whole ideology is based on controlling the game. This is not a soundbite, I mean it, it’s something I strongly believe in – I would like schoolboy teams and academy teams throughout the country to look at the senior international team and think that’s how we want to play. That is my dream.” – Stephen Kenny outlines his lofty philosophy for not only the senior team but grassroots football in Ireland

‘Hey Mr Dream-seller, where have you been? Tell me have you dreams I can see? I came along just to bring you this song. Can you spare one dream for me?’ – Meet me on the Corner, by Lindisfarne folk band, 1971 - RTE commentator pays the most apt song on his RTE Lyric radio show to mark the passing of the legendary Jack Charlton

“I remember getting in the car and he didn’t realise I was coming. He turned round and said: ‘Oh, the laird with the book.’

“I loved the fact that he couldn’t remember my name, which I didn’t see as any part of his long-term illness, because he’d always been crap with names and mixing people up. So I was happy to be identified as the ‘laird with the book’.” – Journalist and biographer Colin Young fondly recalls spending time with big Jack in his latter days

“The new manager has shown great confidence in me and has reassured me of my own ability. It just made me happy to know the detail he spoke about.” – Robbie Brady has got the feel-good factor from the new manager

Stephen Kenny faced questions over the video he showed his players prior to their friendly game against England in November

“Sometimes I answer questions too honestly but it’s not a deliberate strategy. Maybe it's not wise, maybe other people are wiser than me.” – Stephen Kenny on raising expectations before a ball has been kicked under his leadership

“You look at the bench – Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, Callum Robinson and Robbie Brady - all Premier League footballers. Yes, we’re maybe missing that Gareth Bale for Wales at the top, top level but there are some very, very good footballers here and I think that has been recognised by this manager." – Speaking before Ireland’s first home game against Finland, Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane echoes the sentiments of his manager

“I will remain close to Irish football and I wish all of my colleagues the very best of luck.” - Niall Quinn leaves the FAI in September with some regrets and hopes for the future

“The players didn’t deserve to lose the game. They gave absolutely everything of themselves.” – Stephen Kenny laments Ireland’s heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat to Slovakia which ended their interest in the Euros. Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah were sensationally ruled out by a matter of inches due to being deemed close contacts of what turned out to be a false-positive Covid case of an FAI employee on the plane journey to Bratislava

“There were some differences [on the flight] but again that would be the [FAI] operations director who would have planned that. I spoke to him in relation to the flight plans and we did change some things but everyone is learning.” – Stephen Kenny leaves nothing to chance as they embarked on a flight to Finland for a Nations League tie

“I had this idea when I took over — I’d loads of ideas — that I’d bring in musicians, really good musicians, because there is a lot of downtime. There is an interactive museum in Dublin, bring them into that, a sense of identity, all of that. Link all that in. That’s what I was thinking, those sort of things. But we just had to forget all of that really. You have to live your existence, you’ve got to wear masks, you’ve got to social distance. The players are in their rooms a lot. Your meetings have to be less time and so forth.” – Not to be out-done by Covid, Stephen Kenny brought the Irish players a bit of native culture to them with a compilation video of big moments in Anglo-Irish history that caused a bit of a stir after their 3-0 loss to England in November

“I am now absolutely furious and disgusted with the narrative and innuendo being created that this decision is somehow linked with stories leaked to the press out of OUR dressing room.

“The narrative is wholly and totally wrong and it should beg the question, who is spreading and benefitting from this? What I can say is it’s not me.” – Goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly expresses his anger at suspicions it was him who leaked the video-gate story to a newspaper

“It’s obviously up to us staff not to make any motivational videos, because even if they’re based on true historic events – Irish events that you should be proud of – they can be very offensive to some people.” – Damien Duff’s attempt at satire following video-gate

“I want to thank Stephen Kenny for the opportunity he gave me to coach with the senior Ireland team and I wish Stephen, Keith [Andrews] and the players all the very best for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.” – Damien Duff announces his departure, giving little away as to why he quit after eight games

“With Covid19 still viciously circulating in our communities, it is with a heavy heart that I have decided the time is right to step down from my role with the Republic of Ireland senior international team.” – Four days after Damien Duff’s departure, goalkeeping Alan Kelly also walks away

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