Contrasting treatment of Kenny and Southgate shows football is more than just a results business

The reactions to the two managers are a window into their respective national team’s psyches, writes Paul Fennessy.

Stephen Kenny and Gareth Southgate.
Stephen Kenny and Gareth Southgate.

“FOOTBALL IS a results business.” This is a sentence Ireland fans who have been paying any attention to the media coverage around the team have been hearing quite often for the last two years.

The overriding point invariably being made in relation to Stephen Kenny is that while it’s all well and good playing a different brand of football compared with past managers and blooding an abundance of promising young players, ultimately, the only thing that really matters is the scoreline and how often it’s in your team’s favour.

And these sentiments are true on one level. Generally, in football, managers who lose often get sacked and coaches who win regularly are awarded new contracts.

But if anything, what Stephen Kenny’s reign proves is that it’s far too simplistic to blanketly describe football as a ‘results business’. Context always is crucial.

A draw is a better result than a loss, but Irish people were far happier following the 2-1 defeat to Portugal compared with the 1-1 debacle against Azerbaijan a few days later.

A win is also a better outcome than a loss, but Irish people were seemingly far more content after the 2-1 defeat to Scotland compared with last night’s 3-2 victory over Armenia.

Suggesting the result is all that matters ignores the level of nuance that is always required in analysing teams and managers.

There have been strong critics, notably ex-international Damien Delaney on Virgin Media of late, but it seems the vast majority of Irish football fans and media have been broadly supportive of Kenny since his reign began and backed the decision to award him a new contract.

‘Football is a results business’ also implies an almost scientific detachment, but few businesses are as influenced by emotion as football and sport in general.

Kenny is now set for his third attempt at trying to qualify for a major tournament, with the caveat that the Slovakia playoff was an awkward one-off with a team that had been managed by Mick McCarthy up to that point.

Nonetheless, Ireland managers aren’t always afforded this type of leeway. Brian Kerr only was given two attempts at qualifying (again coming off the back of a Mick McCarthy reign the first time around), while Steve Staunton only had one.

If football were purely about results, Kenny would not have been treated any better than those two aforementioned coaches. But context matters and the majority of Irish supporters and critics understand this point.

The young players the coach has introduced need time to adapt to this level. There is an oft-overlooked degree of pragmatism to Kenny’s style, even if it was not exactly conspicuous in last night’s performance, but there is still a recognition that changes the manager has implemented have gone further than ever from the Jack Charlton blueprint that successive managers before him had only tweaked with diminishing returns. Moreover, while the team’s potential is clear, they do not currently have attacking players available at the level of Robbie Keane or Damien Duff among others.

While the scepticism was palpable after an error-ridden display against Armenia last night, time is necessary and inconsistency inevitable given the scope of the changes that have taken place in the past two years.

Kenny deserves at least until the end of the Euros campaign to justify his project — any sudden u-turn from the FAI hierarchy would be completely irrational following the two-year contract extension back in March.

There may be some people who disagree but they are surely very much in the minority.

A curious contrast with Kenny, however, is the challenge faced by Gareth Southgate currently.

If football were simply a results business, Southgate would essentially be lionised at present.

He inherited an England team in dire straits. Sam Allardyce’s short-lived stint as manager had ended controversially and almost by accident, the Three Lions stumbled upon this accomplished new coach. Shortly before then, the team had suffered a humiliating Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland.

It looked like an unenviable job to be undertaking, and one that has often been described as a ‘poisoned chalice’. Yet Southgate defied the doubters and exceeded expectations.

The former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough player matched the achievement of Bobby Robson by getting England as far as the semi-finals of the World Cup. They were then just a penalty shootout away from glory at Euro 2020 amid a tightly contested final with Italy.

He is therefore indisputably England’s most successful national team manager since legendary World Cup winner Alf Ramsey.

Yet remarkably, following a couple of disappointing results in the Nations League, Southgate has come under significant pressure in recent times.

He was booed by fans following the loss to Italy last Friday, while he was met with a similarly hostile reaction after a 4-0 home defeat to Hungary in June.

The pressure was such that Southgate was recently moved to launch an impassioned defence of his position.

“I’m the right person to take the team into the tournament,” he said. “I think it’s more stable that way, without a doubt.”

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Southgate in recent days has been arguably under more pressure than Kenny ever faced during his Ireland tenure, despite the English boss performing better than almost any other national coach at the past two major tournaments. The atmosphere around the Three Lions squad has even been described as “toxic”.

It would not be the case if football were just a results business.

So how do you explain it? Why is there ostensibly more disillusionment with Southgate than Kenny? Again, context is key.

While the Irish boss is often lauded for his style of football, Southgate is frequently derided for what is perceived as an ultra-defensive approach. The English team have been seen as too negative under his watch, scoring only twice in the group stages at Euro 2020 for instance.

What’s also key to understanding the scenario is fans’ expectations. England supporters and elements of the media have long been criticised for overhyping their team and setting them up for a fall at major tournaments.

This bad habit actually initially appeared to change under Southgate. Perhaps the infamous Iceland defeat forced a reassessment of expectation levels, to the point where English supporters were no longer going into every tournament with a sense of entitlement and the feeling that anything other than a triumph amounted to a failure.

Yet Southgate’s success amid this more moderate and humble environment appears to have had the unfortunate effect of raising hopes unreasonably high once again, to the point where any setback is greeted with a chorus of invective.

Contrast that situation with Irish fans’ current predicament. For years, they had watched a largely uninspired style of football that saw them scrape into major tournaments only sporadically.

Kenny’s initiation has not yet led the team to become any more successful than they were previously, so the only explanation for the relatively generous reception he has been afforded overall is that the public is willing to embrace an individual willing to try something a bit different than what has preceded him.

The results, at least in the short term, are not all that matters.

So if Kenny and Southgate’s respective tenures prove anything, it’s the futility of the phrase ‘football is a results business’ — the reality is far more complex and nuanced than can be conveyed with this inept cliché.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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