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The Stephen Kenny debate was never really about Stephen Kenny

The Ireland manager is beginning to silence even the most ardent sceptics with a series of improved displays from the team.

Stephen Kenny pictured before last night's match.
Stephen Kenny pictured before last night's match.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IN MANY WAYS, the criticism of Stephen Kenny over the past year and a bit was never really about Stephen Kenny.

It was about what he stood for, and a debate that has been ongoing since before many of the people reading this article were born.

Just like healthcare and housing on a societal level, it’s a problem that feels modern but has actually been a big part of the Irish cultural discourse for decades.

It boils down to a simple question: can Ireland play adventurous football with the personnel at their disposal?

The idea that Irish football could and should evolve under Kenny was doubted by many, as it was under most of his recent predecessors.

Style of play has been a regular bone of contention with regard to the Irish team for at least 35 years.

Interestingly, it was the same person, Liam Brady, who effectively fell out with Jack Charlton over his rigid long-ball game (and later somewhat reluctantly accepted it) that has been one of the more vocal Kenny sceptics of late, with the RTÉ analyst suggesting the FAI should be in no rush to hand the manager a new contract despite the team’s obvious recent improvement.

Charlton’s style was actually quite innovative for its time and significantly different from the more continental approach favoured by previous bosses such as John Giles and Eoin Hand.

The Englishman, of course, brought unprecedented success to the country, and while Ireland did play football that was good to watch in subsequent years on occasion, it seemed as if for the most part, every successive manager after Charlton pre-Kenny adopted a variation of his style, with diminishing returns — it is now 20 years since Ireland last qualified for the World Cup and the qualification for the 2016 Euros was significantly aided by the decision to expand that tournament to 24 teams.

In the intervening years, managers were increasingly forced to defend a style of play that was looking increasingly outdated, particularly when the Boys in Green came up against the top footballing nations.

For instance, in 2010, when it was suggested that Ireland might be better off ditching a 4-4-2 formation. After a 3-2 home loss against Russia, Giovanni Trapattoni told reporters:

“For two years our system worked very well. I am not sure we have the potential, technically, to play one striker.

“We need to use our mentality, our performance, our application. But I am very confident for Slovakia. Our team is not bad. We don’t have as many creative players but we have solid players.”

Contrast those remarks with Kenny, who regularly talks up Irish players, including last night, when he bristled at the Luxembourg coach’s suggestion that Ireland were reliant on a “British” style of football.

“Roy Keane, John Giles, Liam Brady, Mick McCarthy, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff. It is wrong to say they just fight for second balls and played caveman football for a hundred years. It’s wrong to suggest that, we thought he denigrated a lot of players and that was unacceptable.”

Kenny’s League of Ireland background didn’t help either when it came to his critics in recent months — people who obviously had little knowledge or interest in the domestic game often tended to be among the loudest sceptics. And conversely, those invested in the league seemingly were almost cheering for the reputation of club football on this island as much as the man himself.

Of course, as has so often been said during the Kenny era, results are what a manager lives and dies by, and for a while, it seemed as if the detractors might have a point, with Ireland winning none of their first 11 matches in the manager’s reign.

The 1-0 loss to Luxembourg at home last March was undoubtedly the nadir, and at that point, even Kenny’s most passionate supporters would have been forgiven for suspecting the whole project could be doomed to spectacular failure.

Since then though, both the performances and the results have clearly improved.

In the 10 subsequent matches, Ireland have lost just once, and it was arguably one of their best performances, where they were minutes away from a famous victory against Portugal in Faro.

The style of play, meanwhile, is as good as it’s been in a very long time. The 3-0 win last night meant Ireland scored three or more goals in back-to-back competitive away fixtures for the first time since 2001 when a Mick McCarthy-managed team secured victories against Cyprus (4-0) and Andorra (3-0).

Ireland have played plenty of low-ranked countries since then, but they have had a habit of making these types of games more difficult than they should be, which tends to happen against the smaller teams when sides choose to embrace sheer pragmatism for so many years in the big games.

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And while the Boys in Green are still not the most potent of outfits — as was evident in last week’s 0-0 draw with Portugal — there has still been noticeable progress when it comes to final third play, especially when you consider the team managed just one goal in Kenny’s first eight matches in charge. Now, they have 10 in their last four as well as zero conceded within that period.

During the Martin O’Neill era, the reliance on experienced campaigners at the expense of youngsters was epitomised in 2018 by a 25-year-old Cyrus Christie being deemed the most suitable candidate for Young Player of the Year. In the current Ireland squad, by contrast, nine of the 19 players are aged 23 or under, and that number would surely be higher were it not for an injured Dara O’Shea and an out-of-sorts Aaron Connolly. Some, such as 20-year-old Jason Knight, are already capable of changing games at international level — the Derby youngster had a hand in all three goals against Luxembourg after being introduced on the hour mark last night.

‘Fearlessness’ and ‘vibrancy’ are words you would seldom associate with the often deeply conservative Ireland sides of the past 20 years, yet both qualities have been starkly apparent in recent matches.

And while Kenny has been hailed for handing international debuts to no fewer than 12 players during his tenure, it is one of the most experienced heads who is perhaps the aptest symbol for the upturn in fortune.

Shane Duffy’s form was so poor last March that he was an unused sub during that infamous home defeat to Luxembourg.

After some unspecified lifestyle changes and plenty of hard work during the summer, the 29-year-old centre-back has looked like a different player this season, regaining his place in the Brighton team and his status as Ireland’s talisman.

Once again, his leadership qualities shone through last night, as he popped up with the all-important first goal that served as the catalyst for the Irish team to play in a much more assured and effective manner.

Yet this was never really about individuals. Kenny deserves credit for encouraging Ireland to play in this new style, but really, it is a collective effort, and whether Irish football is successful or not in the long term is dependent on a variety of factors far deeper than simply having a good manager in charge of the national team.

As Kenny said in his post-match RTÉ interview last night in response to a question about the Irish fans singing his name: “I’d rather they were singing about the players, to be honest. I’m a bit embarrassed.  

“I do appreciate it. But at the end of the day, it’s about players, it’s always about players. The game is all about players. And our players have been magnificent over the last few months.” 

- Originally published at 06.30

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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