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England a daunting test as Ireland look to prove the progress made thus far

Stephen Kenny takes his side to Wembley, still searching for a win and even a goal from open play.

Stephen Kenny at Irish training earlier this week.
Stephen Kenny at Irish training earlier this week.
Image: PA

Updated Nov 12th 2020, 8:32 AM

IN TERMS OF Stephen Kenny’s expectation of work as Irish manager versus the reality, it’s all gone a bit Four Seasons Total Landscaping. 

When he first agreed a deal with the FAI back in an ancient age known as 2018, he couldn’t have imagined it being like this: the echoing, empty grounds; the hermetic squad bubble; and the plan-shredding chaos of Covid-19.

He spoke yesterday of some of other plans gone awry, which included bringing in musicians and visiting Dublin museums to better foster an Irish identity within the squad. 

The latest abnormality is a friendly with England at an empty Wembley stadium, a ground at which Ireland have never won. 

Ireland have beaten England twice in history, with the first at Goodison Park in 1949, when Ireland became the first foreign international side to beat England at home, an achievement often wrongly attributed to Hungary.  

The other win over England came in Stuttgart, when…well, you can finish that one. 

Darren Randolph is the only member of the Irish squad alive for that game, while Stephen Kenny watched it the day before an English paper of his Leaving Cert. (Doing the Leaving during Euro ‘88 being the kind of poor timing that has followed Kenny to the international job.) 

Winning at Wembley for the first time is a source of motivation for Ireland tonight, but there are earthier concerns too. World Cup seeding is one: Ireland are currently ranked among the top 20 sides in Europe and on course to be second seeds in next month’s qualifier draw.

The gap to the third seeds is as slender as cigarette paper, however, so Ireland need to win games over this window to give themselves the best possible chance of clinging to the edges of pot two.  

This game might also reckon with the bottom line of the Kenny reign so far. Five games in, Ireland are showing more conviction in possession and are fashioning better goal scoring chances, but have yet to take them. 

Ireland need some goals and at least one win in this window to mint the progress made thus far. That Ireland are voluntarily facing England within that context has raised eyebrows in some quarters, but Kenny isn’t outwardly concerned. 

Kenny seems less outwardly concerned by that need tonight, pointing out Ireland could have picked an easier friendly opponent than England tonight. 

katie-taylor-meets-jeff-hendrick-darren-randolph-seamus-coleman-james-mcclean-and-shane-duffy-in-the-hotel-where-the-are-both-staying Members of the Irish squad meet Katie Taylor with whom they are sharing a London hotel this week. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Tonight’s task is further complicated, as ever, by Covid and injury. Callum Robinson has tested positive for the virus and has left the squad, while Aaron Connolly has been ruled out with a hamstring strain picked up in training. 

Kenny sought the silver lining of their absences yesterday, stressing it offers a chance to Adam Idah, Ronan Curtis and James Collins. Curtis impressed off the bench in Finland, while this is Collins first inclusion under Kenny thanks to a decent run of goalscoring form with Luton Town. 

Ireland have been weakened defensively too, with Enda Stevens missing out with a knee injury. The infernal Doherty/Coleman discourse will likely be stilled by Doherty switching to left-back, though Kenny floated the possibility both could play down the right in a more traditional 4-2-3-1, a formation Ireland played for much of the last window.

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Elsewhere, Kenny made a point of talking up Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher ahead of the game, so he may be in line for an appearance.

England, meanwhile, arrive into the game shadowed by our old friend, Administrative Chaos.

Chairman Greg Clarke resigned on Tuesday, having managed to offend just about everybody at a Parliamentary hearing by using a series of outdated, hurtful tropes.

Clarke referred to black footballers as “coloured”, said the FA’s IT Department employed more South Asians than Afro-Caribbeans because of differing “career interests”, implied being gay is a lifestyle choice and relayed an anecdote in which a coach supposedly told him schoolgirls don’t like playing as ‘keepers as they “just don’t like having the ball kicked hard at them.” 

He resigned before supper. 

Gareth Southgate told the media Clarke’s words were unacceptable, and he stressed the same message to his players. 

Like Kenny, Southgate stepped up from the U21s to take the senior gig, albeit in unforeseen circumstances after controversy engulfed Sam Allardyce and a pint of wine. 

Southgate is amid a slightly tricky run of form at the moment. A 2-1 Wembley win over Belgium has been leavened by defeat at home to Denmark, a dire draw in Copenhagen and an unconvincing win away to Iceland. 

england-v-denmark-uefa-nations-league-group-2-league-a-wembley-stadium Gareth Southgate. Source: PA

His team are struggling for the rhythm that comes with a definitive identity and style of play, which served them so well at the 2018 World Cup. 

That they do look slightly out of joint is perhaps a consequence of Southgate’s selection policy over the last three months, which has seen him call up 10 uncapped players across three squads. 

There are, of course, a few familiar faces in the England squad, including the 2018 FAI Young Player of the Year Declan Rice and the 2014 FAI U21 Player of the Year, Jack Grealish. Michael Keane, who played for Ireland up to U19 level, is also in the squad. 

They are the most notable ‘What Ifs’ in the English squad, though Reece James, Harry Kane, and Bellingham were technically eligible to declare for Ireland once upon a time. 

Kenny says he won’t dwell on the players unavailable to him, and he can’t afford to as he prepares to meet the strongest opposition of his brief but anarchic international management career thus far. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Caoimhin Kelleher; Seamus Coleman (captain), Shane Duffy, John Egan, Matt Doherty; James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane; Daryl Horgan, Alan Browne, Robbie Brady; Adam Idah

On TV: RTE Two; KO 8pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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