Sport

Andy Watters: Dreams and songs to sing? Stephen Kenny's time is up but I'll cheer on his team in Amsterdam

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

Passion play. Robbie Brady scores a crucial goal for the Republic in the middle of nowhere
Passion play. Robbie Brady scores a crucial goal for the Republic in the middle of nowhere Passion play. Robbie Brady scores a crucial goal for the Republic in the middle of nowhere

CAAWWWWWW-MON-YOU-BOYS-IN-GREEN…

In Poznan town square before the Republic of Ireland played Croatia in their opening game of Euro 2012 the noise was incredible.

The singing was so loud, the air was distorted.

You could actually see it.

That truly unforgettable experience was (well, that and Kevin Farrell’s balancing act with a pint of beer on his head in a packed nightclub) the highlight of the tournament.

After the singing we went to the match and Ireland got played off the park. Sean St Ledger scored in a 3-1 loss and it turned out to be our only goal of the tournament.

4-0 against Spain, 2-0 against Italy… It was awful.

Giovanni Trapattoni stepped down after that. Poland hadn’t gone well but at least he’d got us there so, well done Gio mate: ‘Arrivederci’.

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Martin O’Neill came in. What a legend. He’d been living in England or Scotland for many years but his county Derry accent remained rock solid.

The confidence of winning two European Cups, playing at the World Cup and managing at the highest level meant he had a presence about him. You didn’t mess with him.

The Republic beat Germany in the group stages of Euro 2016 but then had to go to Bosnia for a qualification play-off in a weird and wonderful town called Zenica, way out in the mountains, miles from anywhere.

The pre-match press conference room was absolutely packed and there was a lot of chatter when Martin started to speak. He wasn’t having it.

“Right, I’ll just wait for you to finish and then I’ll start,” he says in those Kilrea tones and, when there was silence, he said his bit and everyone listened.

Ireland went out the following night and got a battling 1-1 draw.

The team was: Randolph, Coleman, Clark, Keogh, Ward, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady, Hoolahan, Murphy.

No Galacticos there, but they got the job done.

Afterwards I sat in the back, eyes closed, picturing Kevin Farrell with that pint on his head to take my mind off the terror, as Thomas Kane drove with his neck out the car window through a thick fog that was three-quarters factory smog all the way to Sarajevo.  

Somehow we made it home and a 2-0 win in Dublin meant Ireland qualified for the finals in France and at that tournament they played the best football I’ve ever seen from a Republic team.

There was energy and flair about them. Jeff Hendrick almost scored worldies in three of the games and Robbie Brady’s late winner against Italy is up there among the greatest moments in Irish football history.  

We had dreams and songs to sing then.

In international football it’s all about results – once the team does the spadework and qualifies for a tournament then you’ll see its true worth. We haven’t got near one since France.

A dejected Matt Doherty after a disappointing result for the Republic of Ireland
A dejected Matt Doherty after a disappointing result for the Republic of Ireland A dejected Matt Doherty after a disappointing result for the Republic of Ireland

BY the time you’re reading this I’ll be on my way to Amsterdam to watch the Republic play Holland. And if you are reading, then thank you, because the very mention of the Republic is a bit of a turn off these days.  

I’d be delighted to see Ireland win on Saturday night. Stephen Kenny deserves that for his wholehearted effort but the Dubliner just hasn’t been up to the task of managing at international level.   

Maybe you don’t have to have played at the highest level to be a successful manager, but we’ve learned over the last three years that it doesn’t hurt. In the face of mediocre results, Kenny hasn't got that experience as a player or manager to fall back on and so he increasingly lacks the presence and confidence of a Trapattoni or an O’Neill.

Kenny took over from Mick McCarthy with the promise of bringing in football that would delight the purists. We were gonna pass the ball, we were gonna beat the best by playing better than them, we were gonna…

It all sounded great but saying ain’t doing. Yes, Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews have their ideals about how the game should be played but show me some evidence – outside the League of Ireland or U21 level - of where that philosophy has been successful for them?

There isn’t any. We all wanted it to work out but it was always a long shot.

Kenny is obviously someone who studies the game intensely and he felt he could bring in players from his relatively-successful U21 teams and modernise how the Republic played.

Did he deliver? The football has been better and you saw glimpses of imagination in how he set his teams up but ultimately it didn’t get results. The systems he plays might bring success at club level where he can bring in players for specific roles but you don’t get to do that at international level. You’ve got to use what you’ve got and get results.

It’s a manager’s job to find a system that gets the best out of his players and Kenny took tactics off the peg when they needed to be tailormade.

Yes, the Republic got a tough group for Euro 2024 but if you go back through qualifying groups we’ve had worse and, whatever you say about France and Holland, Greece aren’t world-beaters and the Republic lost home and away to them.

The only wins have been against Gibraltar and Matt Doherty’s joyless reaction when he scored against them was difficult to comprehend. Ok, it’s ‘only’ Gibraltar, you don’t exactly expect somersaults, but still, cheer up Matt, you’ve just scored for Ireland, at least give us a smile.

That summed up this whole forgettable era.

Is the absence of passion the manager’s fault? Well, ultimately the buck stops with him.

When he took the job, Kenny must have hoped that Doherty would be established as an international player by now but he isn’t and many of the other hopefuls – Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrot etc - haven’t had any real impact.

I watched Kenny at the press conference last week when he announced his squad. He looked uncomfortable, he was defensive, offering excuses and grabbing at straws like attendance figures, plucky defeats and the amount of senior debuts he’s given out.

The FAI Board still haven’t told him what his future is. A proud Irishman, he wants to stay on and hopes maybe a miracle in Amsterdam will save his job.

He deserves better than to be kept hanging on like this. His time is up but, although I don’t expect it, I hope he signs off with a win in Amsterdam.    

CAAWWWWWW-MON-YOU-BOYS-IN-GREEN…