Football/Soccer

Brendan Crossan: Stephen Kenny fully merits contract extension as future looks green

Stephen Kenny will remain as Republic of Ireland manager until Euro 2024
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (brendancrossan@yahoo.com)

AS they are inclined to do from time to time, one of Pep Guardiola’s life-affirming quotes resurfaced on social media earlier this week. It illustrated one of his guiding managerial principles that has served him well.

“I only ask this of you,” he said to his players. “I won’t tell you off if you misplace a pass, or miss a header that costs us a goal, as long as I know you are giving 100 per cent. I could forgive you any mistake, but I won’t forgive you if you don’t give your heart and soul.”

There have been many occasions when Guardiola’s lack of pragmatism in big games has cost his side dearly. Times when they could have shut up shop to protect a lead or played with an extra defender, and didn’t.

It was in these times his football philosophy seemed desperately flawed and romanticised. The street-wise would occasionally pick-pocket his teams and laugh in the face of this purist ideology.

After big losses, Guardiola would always defend his players, defend the ideology and move on to the next game.

In today’s edition, sports analyst Shane Keegan references Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Stephen Kenny and draws similarities between them and how they create a “psychologically safe environment” for players to flourish.

“It basically means you’re in an environment where people try things without being terrified of the repercussions from their manager if that thing goes wrong,” Keegan explains.

It’s creating “freedoms within an agreed structure”.

So if a team is deemed to be overplaying in defence and the opposition rob them of the ball and score, the manager will resolutely defend the philosophy and his players for carrying out his instructions. The instructions, of course, are never full-proof.

Mistakes will occur; but it doesn’t necessarily mean a playing style should be ditched.

It’s about persistence, not being easily deflected and encouraging players to be unafraid of making mistakes.

“If Jurgen Klopp hadn’t created a psychologically safe environment,” Keegan says, “there is no way on this earth a young man like Trent Alexander Arnold would have taken that corner [against Barcelona, Champions League 2018] in the manner that he did. That’s because of the culture of psychological safety – it’s encouraged and lads aren’t terrified to try things.”

Of course, it’s easier for world managerial stars such as Guardiola and Klopp to think outside the box and be lateral thinkers. After all, their weighty CVs certainly allow them plenty of latitude.

But it’s a little different when someone like Stephen Kenny tries to think outside the box.

League of Ireland manager. Dreamer. Not fit for the big time. Thinks he can turn water into wine with a bunch of Championship and League One players just because Dundalk had a daft run in the Europa League.

But intellect is intellect. It shouldn’t be seen as a restricted preserve of proven elite managers.

Throughout his tenure as Republic of Ireland senior manager, Kenny has endured some fierce criticism.

Several ex-pros were only too eager to hammer the Dubliner for his naivety and yearned for the days of Mick McCarthy, when the limitations of the players were emphasized forever and a day and that, as a nation, we should understand our modest footballing DNA and cut our cloth to suit.

In other words, be a pragmatist. Don’t be another romantic. Be real. Continue down the path of all the managers that went before you because they know something that you don't.

As confidence ebbed in places during Kenny’s 11-match winless streak, he defended the path he was taking.

“I think there’s real progress overall to be honest. That’s the way I see it, the way my staff and all the coaches see it and there are a lot of people behind us.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t (behind them) who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just 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 tangible over a period of time and that can be successful.”

Right up until the last couple of World Cup Qualifiers, Kenny was constantly asked about his future as manager and whether he would get a contract extension.

But there never seemed to be any great willingness on behalf of the FAI, still recovering from financial catastrophe, to go in search of a new manager.

So the conditions for a new contract always looked fertile for Kenny – and one was duly delivered on Wednesday that takes the 50-year-old to the end of Euro 2024.

With strong performances against Serbia and Portugal, it quickly became unthinkable that Kenny wouldn’t be retained.

You only have to consider the trajectory of Gavin Bazunu, Josh Cullen, Jason Knight, Jamie McGrath, Chiedozie Ogbene and Andrew Omobamidele and the return to form of Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy in the green jersey to see where Stephen Kenny’s success lies.

It's rare to feel the kind of giddy momentum in a squad that suffered a heartbreaking Euro 2020 semi-final play-off defeat and missed out on World Cup qualification, and yet the future looks bright.

Finally in Irish football there is a vision worth getting excited about.

And it doesn't matter if you've practised your footballing faith in the modest parishes of the League of Ireland or the Spanish La Liga.

Intellect is intellect.

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Football/Soccer