Ireland’s Evan Ferguson celebrates scoring their second goal against Gibraltar. James Crombie/INPHO

3 winners and losers from Ireland's latest international window

It’s been a mixed couple of days for Stephen Kenny’s side.

The winners

Jason Knight

AS THE saying goes, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ and that was perhaps the case with Jason Knight on Friday. Having started at home to France, the Derby man was a somewhat surprising omission from the starting XI in Athens. A player considered more attacking and creative, Will Smallbone, was preferred, but the 23-year-old Southampton midfielder struggled to impact the game going forward and also looked overstretched defensively as he attempted to protect Matt Doherty against Greece’s raiding wide players down their left flank. Knight’s work rate and energy were badly missed and by the time the former Cabinteely player was introduced for Smallbone in the 53rd minute, the visitors were 2-1 down and chasing the game. Knight has proved versatile in the past, particularly at club level with Derby. And against Gibraltar, he was recalled to the starting XI, only not in a position many would have been expecting. The 22-year-old came in for Matt Doherty at right wing-back. It may have been against inferior opposition, but Knight impressed in this unfamiliar role, posing a threat down the right and coming away with the man-of-the-match award. Kenny may think twice about dropping him in future.

James McClean

100 caps is a testament to McClean’s attitude, professionalism and sheer dedication to the Irish cause. He was a fiery presence from the outset, such as a Twitter controversy when he criticised the Irish team’s performance against Kazakhstan while watching from the bench, but this unabashed passion is partially the reason for his durability as he has consistently shown up for international duty, even when carrying injuries and occasionally, against the wishes of his club. And the Derry native certainly did not disappoint amid a landmark appearance. Per Stats Perform journalist Andrew Cunneen, it was just the second time in his Ireland career that he registered multiple assists in a game, having previously done so against Georgia in 2013. With the benefit of hindsight, Kenny might also have started McClean in Athens, with the man preferred to him, Callum O’Dowda, partially responsible for the concession of both goals.

Evan Ferguson

Like the entire Irish team, Evan Ferguson had a tough time on Friday evening. Yet even with scraps to feed on, he still managed to make an impact, creating the assist for Nathan Collins’ equalising goal against Greece. The first half against Gibraltar was similarly frustrating, with very little space afforded and the visitors getting numbers behind the ball. However, Ferguson grew into the game and looked more comfortable once Ireland switched to a 4-3-3 formation in the second half and the 18-year-old proceeded to take his goal really well, emphatically heading home James McClean’s pinpoint cross, with the team on their way to a deserved 3-0 win. It caps a wonderful season for the teenager in which he established himself in the Brighton first-team squad. As recently as last November, he was playing U21 football, but his career has taken off since the World Cup, scoring 12 senior goals in all competitions from 31 appearances.

The losers

giorgos-masouras-with-callum-odowda Greece's Giorgos Masouras with Ireland's Callum O'Dowda. Nikola Kristic / INPHO Nikola Kristic / INPHO / INPHO

Callum O’Dowda

It was a gamble for Kenny to put in O’Dowda as left wing-back against Greece, with the player relatively inexperienced in the position at international level, despite impressing in this role in the Championship with Cardiff. And unfortunately, you can’t say he repaid the manager’s faith, as he was partially responsible for the concession for both goals in Athens — his handball led to Greece taking the lead from the penalty spot, while he failed to adequately track his man for the second goal as O’Dowda seemingly switched off for a split second. Kenny has long been a big fan of the star, recently suggesting the 28-year-old had been Cardiff’s player of the season. However, he was dropped for the Gibraltar game after Friday’s indifferent display and he may find it hard to get back into the team subsequently, particularly if the reportedly in-demand Ryan Manning continues to excel at club level.

Stephen Kenny

Kenny has said in recent days that he fully expects to see out the current Euro 2024 campaign. However, that outcome is not certain by any means, and managers will nearly always take an optimistic outlook in press-conference settings. Tactically, there is no doubt he made mistakes — such as playing two up front — amid the costly defeat to Greece. Monday’s face-saving win over Gibraltar is unlikely to sway the sceptics, with some members of the media and fans now openly calling for a new manager to be put in place. The Boys in Green’s hopes of automatic qualification are currently hanging by a thread, but perhaps the most worrying aspect of this week was a couple of bad results for Ireland elsewhere, with positive outcomes for sides like Turkey and Kazakhstan lessening Kenny’s side’s chances of being afforded the opportunity to qualify via the backdoor playoff route. At the very least, a significant improvement in performance will be needed if the manager is to survive in the long term. Euros failure would mean it will be 10 years at least since Ireland last reached a major tournament, and it’s hard to envisage the former Dundalk boss recovering from such a setback.

Matt Doherty

No player in the Ireland squad has been used during Stephen Kenny’s reign more than Matt Doherty, but the Dubliner appears to be experiencing his stickiest spell in quite some time. During the crucial Nations League game last September, he allowed Ryan Christie to go past him all too easily for the equalising goal and Friday’s similarly big game against Greece was another night to forget. The 31-year-old has not started a fixture at club level since Spurs’ FA Cup tie against Preston back in January, and it showed. He struggled to cope with wave after wave of Greek attack down their left, with Will Smallbone not able to offer enough protection ahead of him. After an ostensibly wasted spell with Atletico Madrid, the former Spurs man needs to choose his next move carefully, as with match sharpness under his belt, he can be a real asset for club and country alike. However, this was not the case on Friday, when his frustration boiled over, leading to a needless red card for a momentary show of ill-discipline for an off-the-ball incident in the dying stages. As a consequence, he missed the Gibraltar game through suspension, with Jason Knight impressing in his stead. 

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