James McClean sets about Irish media and Stephen Kenny remains defiant
2022 World Cup Qualifying Group A: Republic of Ireland v Serbia (tonight, Aviva Stadium, 7.45pm)
JUST when you thought you’d had enough of zoom calls – the preferred soul-sapping communication during this global pandemic and the absolute bane of a journalist’s existence – James McClean and Stephen Kenny breathed new life into them yesterday morning.
First up at 11am was McClean followed by under-pressure Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny a half an hour later.
Both men, to varying degrees, came out with all guns blazing – giving stout defences of the disappointing qualification campaign, now at the halfway point, that has witnessed the faltering Irish fall at home to modest Luxembourg and scrape a 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan in Dublin on Saturday evening.
McClean, not untypically, fired a broadside at the media for their perceived criticism of the Irish team – even though the manager has enjoyed strong support in difficult times.
When it was put to McClean that the chief sources of criticism directed at the manager and the team weren’t necessarily coming from the mass of “working journalists” but ex-players – notably Richard Dunne, Paul McGrath and Stephen Elliott – the Derryman responded: “Richard Dunne and Paul McGrath were unbelievable in the Irish shirt so I respect their opinion.
“I don’t remember Stephen Elliott pulling up too many trees in an Ireland shirt, so I wouldn’t pay too much heed to what he says, to be honest.
“But Richard Dunne and Paul McGrath, I have massive respect for their opinion. They have been there, done it. Look, obviously it’s disappointing to hear because it’s a new manager, his first time as an international manager and there a lot of young players experiencing international football for the first time – so hopefully we start winning games again.
“I respect Richard and Paul but I hope the younger players aren’t seeing that because it’s not going to do anything for their confidence, especially at this moment in time.”
McClean’s cumbersome attempt to accuse the media for being too harsh on Ireland’s fresh young team floundered, well, basically on the grounds of a lack of merit.
The dozen or so reporters were probably still reeling from the first zoom call when Kenny appeared and gave a more considered and defiant defence of his tenure that has been pockmarked by COVID, injuries, retirements, inexperience, inconsistency, a lack of a proven goal-scorer and bad luck.
“I think there is real progress overall, to be honest,” said Kenny, who cut a completely different figure from the deflated one after the Azerbaijan draw.
“That’s the way I see it. That’s the way my staff see it and the coaches see it. There’s a lot of people who don’t see it [that way] and say: ‘That’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is to win the next game.’
“That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything. You might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat. You’re trying to build something over a period of time that is tangible, and that can be successful. And that’s the way I see it.”
With some media reports suggesting Kenny’s position would be under serious threat should the Republic lose at home to Serbia this evening, the Dubliner batted the questions away with a fair degree of confidence.
“That has not been communicated to me,” said the manager, who has won just one game [a friendly against Andorra] in 15 outings.
“You know, the people behind the scenes have been very supportive and, you know, I doubt that is very much the case.”
Kenny is without Seamus Coleman and Dara O’Shea – two automatic starters in defence – which may force Kenny to revert to a flat back four.
Midfielder Josh Cullen has emerged with plenty of credit from the Portugal defeat and the draw with Azerbaijan over the past few days while Alan Browne and Daryl Horgan will be pushing for starting places.
With World Cup qualification virtually extinguished, for the first time Kenny has mentioned aiming for Euro 2024 in Germany.
“I think the FAI knew when I was appointed that they had good players coming through the system and would have been realistic that we hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in more than 20 years and the difficulty qualifying now with just one group winner qualifying, they knew that would be difficult,” he said.
“We discussed it but I am not really going to go into internal discussions between myself and everybody else within the FAI.
“[But] We would have expected to beat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at home.”