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Preview: Ireland honour their history and begin long road to Euro 2024 against the world's top-ranked side

Belgium are in town for Ireland’s first game of 2022.

SOON AFTER STEPHEN Kenny signed the contract to formalise John Delaney’s succession plan in 2018, he met Belgium manager Roberto Martinez in a Dublin hotel ahead of the qualifier draw for Euro 2020.

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny at Ireland's pre-game training session at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

The pair share an agent and Kenny met him to seek advice on how to transition to international management, and among the things Kenny tapped Martinez for advice on how to maximise what little time is available on the training ground, how to bring together a team of very different foreign-based players (the differences in Kenny’s squad proved largely generational, rather than cultural) and how to make international football a top priority for a player making a lucrative living from the cut and thrust of club football. 

Martinez came away impressed, not least by the amount of preparation Kenny put into what was a fairly short meeting. That level of detail has become one of Kenny’s signatures, and while it was parodied by the early stages of the pandemic, it helped smooth the course of 2021 and earn him another stint in charge. 

Now Kenny has signed another contract with the FAI and he meets Martinez again, this time on the Aviva Stadium touchline as the centre-piece event of the FAI’s centenary. 

Martinez showered Kenny with praise at his press conference, describing his eschewing of the short-term to inculcate a style of play and obvious philosophy with Ireland as “one of the great stories in international football.” 

Kenny may now wish the Belgian boss had paid slightly less attention to his work, given Martinez has now prised Anthony Barry away from the Irish set-up. 

“You say it like you’re a little sad to miss him!”, grinned Martinez when asked why he recruited Barry. 

Kenny has recruited QPR coach John Eustace in Barry’s stead. While the contract renewal has mercifully ended the year-long referendum on Kenny’s position, a string of poor results this year will rightly or wrongly give rise to a narrative that he departed Barry was the brains of the operation.

To that end, it was interesting to hear Kenny this month say unprompted that it was he who decided to switch to a back three after the monstering by England in November 2020. Less notable than the claim – it’s true, Kenny did make the call prior to Barry’s arrival – is the fact he decided to put it out there. 

The system didn’t instantly work – see Ireland 0-1 Luxembourg for your proof there – but familiarity with it has bred a kind of success. They have lost just once in the 10 games played since the loss to Luxembourg – that was to The Ronaldo Show in Faro – and scored a near-unprecedented 18 goals in those games. More telling is the fact that they improved on their results every time they met an opponent for a second time: losses to Serbia and Portugal became home draws; draws against Qatar and Azerbaijan became wins; and the loss to Luxembourg was avenged with victory away.

Kenny hasn’t yet delivered qualification but he has delivered a slicker style of play, better squad depth and, above all, a clear identity. Gavin Bazunu is out with illness so Caoimhín Kelleher will start in goal, with a chance to stake a claim for the number one jersey full-time. 

It’s anticipated that Kenny will pick his strongest team, so the back three will likely be unchanged: Coleman, Duffy, and Egan. Dara O’Shea is fit again and he may be accommodated by pushing Coleman to right wing-back and Matt Doherty to the left. Otherwise Doherty will start on the right with James McClean the most likely selection on the left amid Enda Stevens’ ongoing injury absence. 

Josh Cullen and Jeff Hendrick are likely to continue in midfield with the greatest doubt surrounding the front three. Callum Robinson is Ireland’s best goalscorer and will start either up front or as one of the two number 10s: Kenny says his best position depends on the combinations with the players around him.

He name-checked Chiedozie Ogbene as one player with whom Robinson links effectively, meaning Robinson may start as the central striker with Adam Idah’s absent with Ogbene as one of the slightly deeper forwards. 

Jason Knight’s game-turning show in Luxembourg may earn him a starting spot, though Will Keane is in excellent form for Wigan and is an alternative to Idah if Robinson starts deeper. Connor Ronan and Mark Sykes have been called up to the squad for the first time and Kenny wants to see what they can offer in those No.10 positions, but their auditions may have to wait for Lithuania on Tuesday. 

callum-robinson-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal-with-john-egan Callum Robinson celebrating a goal against Qatar last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Evasive on personnel selections, the manager offered more much more clarity on his approach. 

“We’re not playing the game to contain and nick something on the break, or try and get a set-piece, or play a low block. I’m just not going to do that. We’ve got good enough players to go and take the game to Belgium.” 

The task is made easier by the fact Martinez has taken a more experimental squad with him, consisting of players with 50 caps or fewer.

That’s not to say they are callow: Youri Tielemans and Divock Origi have scored in the biggest club finals they’ve played in; Thorgan Hazard, Simon Mignolet, Adnan Januzaj, and Alexis Saelemaekers all have top-level experience; Leandro Trossard, Christian Benteke and Leander Dendoncker are Premier League regulars; while Jeremy Doku is one of the most talented teenage footballers on the planet. 

This squad is partly picked with an eye on future tournaments, with the likes of De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard, Mertens and Courtois given a week off with the World Cup yet to come. 

Ireland’s squad is selected with a sharper focus: the Nations League group campaign in June, which Shane Duffy this week spoke of winning. It would be a substantial prize, with a guaranteed Euro 2024 play-off along with promotion to League A, and a seat alongside Belgium’s frontline stars and their peers. 

Though the A-listers aren’t in town, Belgium are fitting opponents to mark the FAI’s centenary.

Belgium were our Denmark of the interwar years, given they were the only team the Irish Free State played between 1928 and 1931. It was against Belgium that Paddy Moore became the first Irish player to score four goals in a single game – a daft 4-4 draw at Dalymount in 1934 – while Belgium have also been privvy to the Irish football condition of outrageous injustice, the opponents when the referee Raul Nazare helped deny Eoin Hand’s side a place at the ’82 World Cup. 

Oh, and did we mention their assistant manager is Thierry Henry? 

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Fitting that a centenary game would summon a couple of old ghosts. 

europe-news-november-16-2021 Martinez with assistant Thierry Henry. Source: Dirk Waem

The game isn’t quite a sell-out, but the FAI are expecting a very healthy crowd of 48,000, with the premium tickets seemingly  a tougher sell. Nonetheless, the size of that crowd underlines the public’s connection with its football team and their support for the manager.

That support had a didactic quality when Kenny’s contract extension was still in doubt, but with that part of the future resolved, perhaps this afternoon will be more exuberant than defiant. With contract signed, Kenny will now be judged against qualification for Euro 2024. Qualification will be a success and non-qualification a failure: the same as it ever was. 

That path begins today with a friendly game inflected with a hundred years of history. 

And if the game has any loyalty to the history it celebrates, it will finish 1-1. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Kelleher; Coleman, Duffy, Egan; Doherty; Cullen, Hendrick; McClean; Ogbene, Knight; Robinson 

Belgium (Possible XI): Mignolet; Boyata, Denayer, Theate; Saelemaekers;  Tielemans, Vanaken T Hazard; Trossard, De Ketelaere; Batshuayi

On TV: Sky Sports Premier League; KO: 5pm



About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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