By: Aidan Crowley
Ireland’s recent world cup qualifying campaign bodes well for the future of Irish football.
The Republic of Ireland’s recent World Cup qualifying campaign proved to be a mixed bag, with some deplorable results at the start, combined with a dramatic resurgence and some positive performances, at the finish. However, the campaign was never boring. Each match opened Irish football to a different dimension with a cast of cameos, ranging from Wayne Rooney to Liam Brady. Cristiano Ronaldo to Gianni Infantino.
Republic of Ireland manager, Stephen Kenny, remained the central figure throughout, rarely fluffing his lines, even when Luxembourg manager, Luc Holtz, called Ireland “British” opponents, reverting to “one hundred years” of long-ball tactics.
Such crass mind games were instantly rebuffed by Kenny, who transformed the comments into a kind of motivation for a squad that has openly developed their possession-based style throughout the past year. He even pointed out that the branding of Irish footballers as “second ball, cavemen” – which were Kenny’s words – is deeply insulting to a string of legendary players that he proceeded to list, enthusiastically.
The fact that he included former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy in the pantheon of greats, along with Brady, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, wasn’t lost on anyone in the Stade de Luxembourg media room, as travelling fans breached flimsy security to bang on the windows.
Kenny’s remarks were delivered in the same tone as he had used, earlier in the campaign, when he emphasised the fact that Ireland have not qualified for a World cup since 2002. He pointed out that operating off the same failed tactics, employed by previous managers, was the “very definition of insanity”, before revealing a medium term goal of winning next year’s Nations League B. Kenny was aware that he would be out of contract, before this could be achieved, revealing a depth of intelligence that the Irish player, based in the UK for the past twenty years, may not have known that he possessed.
This became evident throughout the failed effort to qualify for Qatar 2022, which was initially impacted by Duff and Alan Kelly resigning as assistant coaches. Is the clearly defined roles of every staff member and how that allows the players to achieve their full potential (16 received their first capa in the last 14 months).
It transpires that Duff was “spot on” when he stated on RTE last February that the immediate benefit of his departure from the Irish set-up, just weeks before the home defeat to Luxembourg, was that “a better coach than me” could be recruited. Since the FAI recruited Chelsea first team coach, Anthony Barry, Ireland’s fortunes and formation tactics have been a revelation.
Irish teams, at all age levels, are now embracing the 3-4-2-1 system that encourages latent talent like Matt Doherty and Jeff Hendrick, to rise above uninspiring club careers in the Premier League, with hugely influential displays, especially Azerbaijan in Baku and against Portugal in Faro. Keith Andrews, who is effectively the assistant manager, is a prime example of someone who understands his range of duties on match day. The 41-year-old’s voice tends to be the last player hears before entering the pitch, or the first leaving it.
Take, for example, the tactical switch he executed, that comprehensively delivered a third place finish in Group A. This was opposed to what would have been a dismal fourth place finish behind a Luxembourg side that were subsequently demolished by Serbia and Portugal. “He was just wishing me luck ,” said Jason Knight of his 62nd minute arrival into the fray, which yielded three direct contributions to the 3-0 victory. “I have known Keith a long while and he was just wishing me the best for the game.”
Perhaps that is all a player of Knight’s enormous energy needs to hear after an injury struck season, caused directly by Derby County manager, Wayne Rooney’s training ground tackle. “Just be brilliant,” Kenny told Knight. “He was coming on with two shifts; in possession on the left hand side of attack and out of possession, he defensively had to mark Martins, their holding midfield player. So we pressed with the front two (Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene) and Jason was our number 10 in behind that.” Despite Jamie McGrath’s emergence in the same position, this looks like the attacking trio Kenny needs to settle upon, if Ireland are to maintain their goals tally.
Andrews also had some well-chosen words for the replaced Adam Idah, another gifted 20-year-old, who has struggled of late. Along with Andrew Omobamidele, Hendrick and Nathan Collins, whose respective clubs, Burnley, Newcastle United and Norwich City have been relegated from the Premier League, Idah’s ability to re-discover his goal scoring touch is well within his compass. Goalkeeper, Gavin Bazunu, has also been a revelation during this qualifying campaign and should automatically be the first name on the team sheet, followed by Robinson and Ogbene, going forward.
From the lowest point of the 0-1 defeat against a buoyant Luxembourg side, at the Aviva, last March, to the “high” of the 0-0 draw against Portugal, at the same venue, last month, the qualifying campaign has been a roller-coaster affair, in every sense. From the goalkeeper(s) to the young strike-force, there was a defiant obstinacy throughout the squad and also no small amount of measure and movement. The emergence of a new cohort of nine midfield options shows the strength in depth available to the manager. But the Kenny project cannot afford to falter, while new talent is unearthed and nurtured. The manager’s tenure is no longer going backwards and no longer looks hapless. There have been modest gains, but enough to offer a clear window into a bright future.
The board of the FAI met last Monday to conduct a comprehensive review of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign and also to discuss Kenny’s position, regarding a new contract. Following a thorough evaluation by the board, CEO, Jonathan Hill, was given the green light to provide complete feedback to Kenny. It is understood that Hill will communicate to Kenny points of concern raised by the FAI board and speak with the manager, regarding his plans for 2022.
However, it appears that an agreement between the FAI and Kenny on any new deal as Republic of Ireland manager, is unlikely to be reached until the new year. While Kenny would favour an extension to be in place, as soon as possible, ideally to cover the 2024 European Championships, the FAI are in no rush. With Kenny under contract until next July and most unlikely to leave for another job before then, the FAI have time on their side.