Brendan Crossan: Stephen Kenny taking the road less travelled is the right one for Ireland
I LIKE Stephen Kenny. I like him for a number of reasons. I like that he’s not afraid to speak about things other than football.
Upon accepting yet another soccer writers’ Manager of the Year award a few seasons ago, he used the platform to highlight the homelessness crisis in Ireland.
I like the Dubliner for refusing to be stereotyped as merely a football manager. His match-day programme notes are always worth reading.
Prior to Dundalk’s Champions League Qualifier against FH Hafnarfjordur in 2016 he wrote about the ramifications of the Chilcot Report and whether or not former Prime Minister Tony Blair should face war crimes following the invasion of Iraq.
In his programme notes ahead of the Serbia game on Tuesday night he talked about the implications of 'Brexit' and the changing dynamics for the pathway of young Irish players to make it in England.
I like what he created at Derry City and Dundalk and how he captured the imagination of the people there by winning big football matches on the European stage.
He’s an inspirer of people – and a brilliant football manager, and he'll make mistakes.
He believes there’s a better way forward for Irish football than what we’ve become accustomed to.
Given the tumbling numbers competing in the higher echelons of English football, the time was now to turn to Ireland’s youthful underbelly and while doing so understanding that pain, inexperience, inconsistency, frustration, one-step-forward-two-steps-back scenarios were going to be part of the process.
Not because I like him or because he writes thought-provoking programme notes or the way he engages in social issues of the day - but Stephen Kenny is the right man at the right time for Irish football because he knows the terrain he's operating in better than anyone.
The whole managerial handover between Mick McCarthy and Kenny was a bizarre one from the outset and served merely to stunt the natural growth of the national team.
Mick’s singular objective was to qualify for Euro 2020 – not necessarily dig foundations for the next 10 years. And so veteran midfielder Glenn Whelan was recalled from exile.
Whelan did well upon his recall but it was the kind of selection that summed up where Ireland was at.
Given the talent coming off the U21 conveyor belt and the dearth of top quality players plying their trade in England, it was time to give youth a chance.
Would Josh Cullen, Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Adam Idah or Jamie McGrath have been given senior international caps under a different manager?
Of course, when a manager has won just one game – against Andorra in a friendly – in 16 attempts and has drawn a blank in nine of those games he is going to be heavily criticised.
But as time ebbs, the COVID catastrophes (the team lost 15 players in total at different times to COVID-related issues) are conveniently airbrushed from the picture and the scoreboard is presented with a lack of context.
Shane Keegan, a highly respected coach and football analyst, said of Kenny’s reign: “The man must have broken every mirror he's ever come across. The amount of bad luck he’s got has been absolutely incredible - both on and off the pitch.
“The COVID stuff has been beyond belief and on the pitch they have played well enough in at least half a dozen of the games where they should have got a different result than they ended up getting.”
He added: “I hate scoreboard journalism. I just hate it. I understand it’s inevitable but I hate it - I'd rather look at what happened in the game rather than what the scoreboard says at the end. I understand professional football. It is what the scoreboard says at the end of the day.
“But there has to be some level of assessment of what's happening in these games. The Luxembourg game is the only one I'd say where the performance was quite poor. In every other performance I thought it was either good or better. I realise the results haven’t been good but I’m just trying to look at the performances.”
There is no denying Stephen Kenny is like marmite and sharply divides opinion.
So many people put store in how a manager projects himself through the media.
Some can’t get past his oft-times awkward delivery in answering questions and therefore reject him outright as soon as there is some on-field turbulence – but you strip away his eccentricities and there lies a footballing IQ that would rival anyone’s.
In his briefing via zoom, after the 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan, Kenny cut a dejected figure. He was asked about this the day before the Serbia game – again on zoom – where he presented a more defiant, articulate image.
“I need to have a look at myself in that regard,” said the manager.
“You’re deflated after the game from a bad result. Maybe that’s something I need to be better at. I find the zoom more difficult than a real-life conference. You don’t project as well in zoom than in a normal conference.”
Ex-players Richard Dunne, Paul McGrath and Jonathan Walters have all been critical of Kenny’s regime, although it’s slightly surprising that someone like Brian Kerr has also ran out of patience with him.
But is it really the right moment to rip it up the script and start again?
Kerr also felt Kenny’s pre-match press conference to the Serbia game was lamentable. It depends on which camp you’re in, really – but I felt the manager’s impassioned defence of his approach was compelling.
“I think there is real progress overall, to be honest,” he said. “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.”
It's probably the ego in all of us where we make a judgement on a manager and we want to be proved right – that he’s either not up to the job or he’s the man to lead the team.
That can commit us to dogma.
But when you see young men such as Bazunu and Omobamidele rise to the challenge as they did against Serbia on Tuesday night, we should allow our opinions to evolve and consider that perhaps the less travelled road is the braver and the right one to take.