Ireland boss Stephen Kenny lifts the anchor and sets sail into 2022
WAS there a tougher gig in football in 2021 than the Republic of Ireland senior job? As the dust settles on the year, it’s hard to think of one.
With the spine of the team ripped out – which probably needed replacing anyway – a new backroom team that seemed to collapse as quickly as it was assembled, COVID still playing havoc with player availability, still winless six months into the calendar while trying to fast-track a host of young and willing apprentices, you’d think a manager would be cut some slack.
In fairness, he was cut some slack from the general football public – but media opinion remained sharply divided throughout the year on Stephen Kenny’s suitability for the job.
Among supporters – mostly League of Ireland followers – Kenny’s project received firm backing. The pity was they couldn’t attend any home games until September to voice their support for the 50-year-old Dubliner and the philosophy he was trying to promote at the top end of Irish football.
Up until the return of the Green Army, conversations surrounding his managerial abilities were almost exclusively conducted and debated on umpteen zoom platforms with reporters, while some ex-international players doubted Kenny’s credentials.
Those zoom calls with reporters had many awkward moments.
When asked was the World Cup Qualifier at home to Luxembourg in March a must-win game, Kenny replied: “A ‘must-win’? Is that an adjective?”
Of course, the criticism of the manager crystalized after they suffered an ignominious 1-0 defeat to the minnows – one performance in 2021 that didn’t have any redeeming features in it and, as it turned out, was definitely a ‘must-not-lose’ Qualifier.
Still without a win in nine attempts as senior manager, the pressure mounted on Kenny after Gerson Rodrigues’s shock 85th winner in an empty Aviva Stadium.
The team finally broke their duck with a 4-1 friendly win over Andorra a few months later, which wasn't without its stressful moments as the hosts took the lead early in the second half.
Richard Dunne, Tony Cascarino and Paul McGrath played the role of chief prosecutor.
“With Stephen Kenny,” Cascarino mused, “I just see an idea and the idea is so perfect that there is no debate. I don’t like that idea. You can win in many different ways but you have to look at who you have and how you go about it.
“If you know the opposition can’t handle headers then get the ball in the box.”
The criticisms written and aired by Cascarino, Dunne and McGrath were all heavily doused in nostalgia when playing route one football got results for Ireland.
This was romanticism versus pragmatism; the past wrestling with the future.
Nevertheless, it was hard to escape the conclusion that there was some football snobbery at play.
How dare Stephen Kenny mess with Irish football’s DNA and the trusted philosophies moulded by the late Jack Charlton, Giovanni Trapattoni and Mick McCarthy.
Kenny steadfastly believed there was another way of winning football matches – only his Ireland team weren’t winning any.
While trying to unearth a new goalkeeper and replenishing the midfield and attack with a host of rookie internationals, Kenny showed enough articulacy and defiance in those various zoom calls to convince the floating voter, especially in the aftermath of their home loss to Luxembourg at the end of March and the salvaging of a point at home to Azerbaijan in September, that better days lay ahead.
In one of his most impassioned appeals, days after drawing with Azerbaijan, the former U21 manager said: “I think there is real progress overall, to be honest. 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 was the kind of address that had the League of Ireland constituency in the stalls howling for more – while at the same time drowning out the bubbling disenchantment from the more expensive seats.
For the vast majority of Republic of Ireland supporters, Stephen Kenny represents the future, a purifying renewal of Irish football after the wild, extravagant and desperately mismanaged days of the FAI under John Delaney.
Dunne and Cascarino’s decidedly mean-spirited observations were falling on deaf ears.
But there was also the brilliant recruitment drive, post-Damien Duff and Alan Kelly, that yielded undoubtedly a stronger managerial team.
Anthony Barry of Chelsea was weaving his magic on the training field to such a degree that prompted central defender John Egan to say: “What I’ve learned from him in a week is unreal.”
And there always seemed a bit more dynamism and personality about Dean Kiely who replaced Alan Kelly as goalkeeping coach.
Throw in the tactical tweak of playing three at the back which got the best out of Norwich City defender Andrew Omobamidele, the incredible ascension of goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, the return to form of Shane Duffy, Josh Cullen’s impassive displays in the heart of midfield and the goal-scoring exploits of Callum Robinson and the tide began to turn for the team, and the manager.
Of course, long before their two gallant home draws with Serbia and Portugal in September and November, respectively, World Cup qualification had crashed and burned.
The prospect of eclipsing either the Serbs or Portuguese in Group A was probably never realistic given Stephen Kenny’s starting point and the lack of international experience among many of his new regulars.
Whether it was the loosening of COVID restrictions and the sense of liberation supporters felt when returning to games or simply the affection Irish people hold for the manager, never before has the Aviva Stadium been so alive for what were effectively dead rubbers against Serbia and Portugal.
They wanted to see evidence of a football rebirth in the country.
In Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Josh Cullen, Jamie McGrath, Adam Idah, Chiedozie Ogbene and Jayson Molumby the evidence is compelling enough heading into this summer’s Nation League.
Stephen Kenny has overcome more hurdles than he could ever have imagined. After a stuttering start, by the end of 2021, it felt like the boat’s anchor had been lifted and this summer's UEFA Nations League can now be approached with a bit more swagger in Ireland's step.
March 24: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Serbia 3 Republic of Ireland 2
March 27: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 0 Luxembourg 1
March 30: Friendly: Qatar 1 Republic of Ireland 1
June 3: Friendly: Andorra 1 Republic of Ireland 4
June 8: Friendly: Hungary 0 Republic of Ireland 0
September 1: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Portugal 2 Republic of Ireland 1
September 4: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1
September 7: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 1 Serbia 1
October 3: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Azerbaijan 0 Republic of Ireland 3
October 12: Friendly: Republic of Ireland 4 Qatar 0
November 11: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 0 Portugal 0
November 14: 2022 World Cup Qualifier: Luxembourg 0 Republic of Ireland 3
Saturday June 4: Nations League: Republic of Ireland v Ukraine (7.45pm)
Tuesday June 7: Nations League: Armenia v Republic of Ireland (5pm)
Saturday June 11: Nations League: Republic of Ireland v Scotland (5pm)
Tuesday June 14: Nations League: Ukraine v Republic of Ireland (5pm)
Friday Sept 23: Nations League: Scotland v Republic of Ireland (7.45pm)
Monday Sept 26: Nations League: Republic of Ireland v Armenia (7.45pm)
What they said…
"A ‘must-win’? Is that an adjective?” – Manager Stephen Kenny resists indulging a reporter’s ‘must-win’ question ahead of Ireland’s World Cup qualifier at home to Luxembourg
“You can reflect after a game and analyse it and say, if we’d taken one of the chances would that question need to be asked? “[But] I have to accept criticism, it's not a system that I always play. I traditionally play with a back four the majority of the time, but I just felt with the wide players that were unavailable or not fit recently at all, to expect them to start was a bit too ambitious.” - Manager Stephen Kenny explains the reasons why he stuck with a 3-5-2 system at home to Luxembourg where they suffered a 1-0 defeat
“In the past, people criticised the Irish team – they were boring, not good to watch. This, right now, is boring, just another way of being boring. There’s nothing to suggest we have progressed.“Building up from the back is fine, but you need to then move it into midfield and then forward, and Ireland don’t do that. We roll the ball out, play a few passes across the back. Now, it’s possession for possession’s sake. And it’s frustrating to watch.” – Ex-international Richard Dunne not buying into Stephen Kenny’s philosophy
“I need to have a look at myself in that regard. 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. Yeah, for sure, it’s something I’ve to get better in.” – Manager Stephen Kenny reflects on his downbeat vibe he gave off after Ireland’s disappointing 1-1 home draw with Azerbaijan
“With Stephen Kenny, I just see an idea and the idea is so perfect that there is no debate. I don’t like that idea. You can win in many different ways but you have to look at who you have and how you go about it. If you know the opposition can’t handle headers then get the ball in the box.” – Ex-Ireland international Tony Cascarino echoes Richard Dunne’s sentiments about Stephen Kenny’s approach
“We were calm on the ball, we were calm out of possession, we didn't lose control, we didn’t lose our heads or lose our shape. That is progression over the games, we seem to be looking better, looking more of a threat going forward every time we play. Even though we lost the game, a lot of confidence is taken from that performance.” – Never shy to air his opinions, Matt Doherty is well pleased with the direction of the team despite suffering a late 2-1 defeat to Portugal in a World Cup Qualifier
“He is a great manager and a great tactician and I think he’s just been unlucky.” – WBA defender Dara O’Shea heaps praise on Stephen Kenny following their scoreless draw with Euro-bound Hungary
“I’ve no regrets at all. I made the decision because this is what I want to do. If I was to stay with Northern Ireland would I have been happy with my decision? Probably not because I want to represent the south.” – former Northern Ireland U21 international Mark Sykes explains his decision to declare for the Republic
“I’d definitely encourage anyone who has the opportunity to do what I have done. I wouldn’t say to anyone to go abroad just for the sake of it. You have to look at it as a package as opposed to just the manager and the club. To play for a massive club that is held in high regard around Europe, historically, and has a lot of ambitions to get back to the top of Belgian football as well. All parts of the jigsaw fit together really nicely. Things are going really well at the minute but I have to keep my foot on the pedal and make sure that continues.” – Josh Cullen making his mark at Anderlecht and evolving into one of Ireland’s best performers under Stephen Kenny
“This is obviously my first camp working with him and the ideas I’ve learned from him have been unreal in a week already. I can see why he is at a club like Chelsea and it’s fantastic that we have him here.” – Central defender John Egan is blown away by the coaching techniques of Anthony Barry who was recruited by Stephen Kenny following Damien Duff’s exit
“That's why I went on loan to Rochdale and now Portsmouth [for game-time]. I'm 100 per cent sure that I wouldn't be anywhere near the position I am now without having that backing of games.” – Already Ireland’s undisputed number one, Gavin Bazunu says going out on loan rather than playing for Man City reserves has got him to where he is on the international stage
“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.” – James McClean aims a broadside at those in the media criticising Stephen Kenny and didn’t take too kindly to former Ireland player Stephen Elliott lending his dissenting voice
“It’s my belief that Stephen might not be the person to take us on to the that where we are starting to win things again. Maybe some of the players aren’t as good as players we have had in the past… but it would be nice to get a couple of wins, and I hope Stephen does. Maybe he will prove me wrong.” – Irish legend Paul McGrath remains to be convinced of Stephen Kenny
“Listen, Paul McGrath is an Irish legend. I don’t think he was overly critical. I think he said also he hoped I prove him or wrong or I may prove him wrong and that’s certainly the intention in that regard.” – Stephen Kenny responds to Paul McGrath’s lack of faith in him
“Ideally, you’d want everyone vaccinated. That’s what we want. Everyone has a choice to make based on what they believe in and you have to respect it.” – Stephen Kenny on COVID19 vaccinations
“Everyone has their choice and what they want to do. I wouldn’t force people to do it, it’s your choice and your body.” – Striker Callum Robinson, who contracted COVID twice, explains why he’s not vaccinated
“I was quite disappointed to see how many people jumped down his throat.” – John Egan not happy with the criticism levelled at Callum Robinson for deciding against being vaccinated
“Take a bow sir. Brilliant display from this kid. The future looks a little brighter.” – Ex-international Paul McGrath hails the performances of Andrew Omobamidele
“No, it was a bit before my time.” - Andrew Omobamidele’s reply to being asked had he watched any footage of the great Paul McGrath
“There needs to be a balance on where we've come from. Back in March we were at rock bottom, the initial spike in performance from a new manager didn't happen for Ireland and we went straight downhill. We have recovered now and we're back in a position where we're probably at a similar level to when he took over.” - By the end of the international season and some encouraging displays, Richard Dunne still isn’t convinced
“He had a tough start with the whole COVID and players dropping out and that resulted in results not going our way. But if you don’t think we’re going in a positive way, you’re writing the wrong stuff.” - Defender Shane Duffy backs Stephen Kenny as they grab a scoreless draw at home to Portugal