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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021
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Impossible to make definitive judgements on Kenny and Ireland amid freak set of circumstances

The team’s winless run continued last night against Bulgaria.

Ireland's Ronan Curtis shows his frustration.
Ireland's Ronan Curtis shows his frustration.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

1. Impossible to make definitive judgements on Kenny and Ireland amid freak set of circumstances

IF YOU WERE to focus purely at the results for Ireland since Stephen Kenny took charge, the outlook would be far from encouraging.

In eight games since the Dubliner took over, the Irish team have drawn four and lost four. In that period, they have scored just once — all the way back in the coach’s first game in charge away to Bulgaria on 3 September.

Perhaps the most damning statistic of all is the fact that it is now approximately 11 hours since the side’s last goal.

Yet the context should also be taken into account of any criticism of the team.

Prior to last night’s game, the Irish team were without 13 players who had been picked in the original squad. You can literally make an entire team out of missing individuals who could potentially have been included.

Kenny spoke last night with frustration at how many of his grand plans for this team, in terms of preparation, had been ruined owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

Conor Hourihane talked prior to the game about his considerable worries in relation to potentially contracting Covid-19, and it is hard to believe he is the only player holding these significant concerns.

Predictably, the Kenny era has already attracted substantial criticism from a certain portion of people who believe the manager is ‘out of his depth’ — many of whom likely felt someone with a League of Ireland background should not have been given the job in the first place.

Yet such criticism is unfair, as it fails to take into account that the deeply unusual circumstances in which the players and management team are being forced to operate. Indeed, in each window, Kenny has had to cope with issues that no Irish manager before him has faced.

The plane debacle involving Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly ahead of the vital Slovakia qualifier alone felt like a cruel blow, but as it turned out, that was only the start of a series of unfortunate events.

We are living in extraordinary times and the manager as well as his squad deserve to be cut some slack as a result.

2. Inexperienced players catch the eye

Aside from avoiding relegation to the third tier of the Nations League, perhaps the biggest positive Kenny can take from the game is the performances of some of Ireland’s less experienced players.

19-year-old Derby midfielder Jason Knight was arguably the hosts’ most impressive performer on the night, with his penetrating runs and intelligent passing causing problems for their opponents.

Asked to do a job at right back, having operated centrally against England and Wales, Dara O’Shea produced another solid performance that belied his 21 years.

Though he missed a few decent chances, admitting as much afterwards, Luton’s James Collins showed good movement off the ball and looked a genuine goal threat.

Ronan Curtis also was sharp, particularly in the first half, while despite only playing once at club level this season, Ryan Manning did not look out of place on the international stage before perhaps unsurprisingly having to come off with cramp towards the end. 

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The substitutes also had an impact. In particular, Jack Byrne and Josh Cullen made the most of what little time they had on the field, frequently demanding the ball and attempting positive, incisive passes.

While the result was again underwhelming, it was certainly not a wasted night from Kenny’s perspective.

3. Marcus Harness makes a surprise appearance

marcus-harness-looks-on Marcus Harness looks on during last night's game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Marcus Harness made an appearance on the sidelines at the Aviva Stadium last night, though he was not an official part of the squad for the game.

Back in June 2019, it was confirmed by Mick McCarthy that the 24-year-old Portsmouth winger was declaring for the Republic of Ireland.

So far this season, the Coventry-born player has seven goals in 16 appearances, with Pompey currently trailing League One leaders Peterborough by four points.

The fact that he would take the trouble to link up with the Irish squad in the middle of a pandemic, two days after lining out for his club, certainly suggests he is committed to the cause.

It would also seemingly indicate that Kenny feels he could be a significant addition to the squad, who is worth integrating, even in these awkward circumstances.

4. World Cup qualification likely to be a formidable task

With Ireland now confirmed as being in Pot 3 for the upcoming World Cup qualification draw, an already extremely difficult task appears to have been made slightly harder.

Of course, the luck of the draw will still have a substantial say in terms of just how daunting a task it will be for Ireland to reach Qatar in 2022.

The full list of permutations are outlined here, with France and Switzerland seemingly the nightmare prospect, and the familiar duo of Denmark coupled with Slovakia the ostensible best-case scenario in terms of teams placed in pots above the Boys in Green.

Yet it seems regardless of who Kenny’s side are paired with, qualification represents a formidable task.

Qualifying is almost twice as difficult as it is for the Euros. Whereas for the latter, there are 24 spots available, there are just 13 places available for European sides at the World Cup.

So essentially, Ireland must either win their group, which could among others include England, Germany, Spain, or Belgium, or be one of the three teams that qualifies via a convoluted play-off process not dissimilar to the one for the Euros, with one-off semi-finals and a final taking place.

Even allowing for all the caveats with regard to Kenny’s reign so far, on current form, Ireland’s World Cup qualification chances appear slim.

The former Dundalk boss has already overcome the odds plenty of times already in his managerial career, of course. And taking this Irish team to a first World Cup since 2002, given their current predicament, would surely be as improbable a feat as anything he has achieved thus far in the game.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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