Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates scoring his side's first goal.
# Analysis
Why Stephen Kenny's Ireland are making a mockery of football's conventional wisdom
The Boys in Green’s deserved draw with Belgium shows they are capable of exceeding expectations.

ON SATURDAY EVENING at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland, the team ranked 49th by Fifa, drew 2-2 with Belgium, the team currently first in the world.

Granted, it was not the Belgians’ strongest XI. However, in a game that featured Youri Tielemans — who Man United and Arsenal are reportedly both vying to sign — Thorgan Hazard of Borussia Dortmund and Lyon’s Jason Denayer (rumoured to be a target of newly mega-rich Newcastle), the man-of-the-match was Chiedozie Ogbene, a player who has spent this season operating at wing-back in League One with Rotherham but has been deployed as a forward by Stephen Kenny and who two and a half years ago was deemed surplus to requirements by then-Championship outfit Brentford.

For Ireland’s second goal, Alan Browne, a midfielder who has spent the past seven seasons playing in the Championship with Preston, won a duel with Orel Mangala, whose current club Stuttgart reportedly value him at €30 million amid talk he could soon move on to a higher level.

Even with most of their top stars missing, the Belgian squad that arrived in Dublin this week possessed far bigger profiles than their Irish counterparts.

It is safe to assume that if you were to compare the combined valuation of the players in each of the two groups, the visitors would come out on top by a significant margin.

Yet Ireland deserved a draw. While Roberto Martinez’s men were unquestionably the dominant side in the opening half an hour, the hosts enjoyed good spells thereafter and more than matched their opponents for the majority of the contest.

As Kenny observed in his post-match press conference: “To win the game would not have flattered us at all.”

You could downplay the significance of the game by saying it was ‘only a friendly,’ or dismiss the result as some sort of fluke. However, Ireland were also recently able to perform well twice against the side ranked eighth in the world, Portugal. Like Saturday, on both occasions, they could have secured a win with better fortune.

What those recent results would suggest is that in football, there is too much of an obsession with labels.

There are just three players in the current Ireland squad who could be described as anything like Premier League regulars — Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy and Matt Doherty — and each of them has had their issues this season, with both Duffy and Doherty enduring spells out of their respective sides.

This figure is as low as it ever has been in recent memory. Even looking back to the not-too-distant past, when a Martin O’Neill-managed Ireland faced Austria in a June 2017 World Cup qualifier, 10 of the 11 players who started that day were on the books at Premier League clubs.

Yet the improvement in form under Kenny and the exciting football he has instilled suggests who you play for or what your estimated valuation is can be somewhat overrated when it comes to assessing international football.

Of course, Kenny himself knows a thing or two about defying labels and not being solely defined by perceived status — for much of the 1990s and 2000s, the idea of a manager going straight from the League of Ireland to the Irish national team would have seemed inconceivable. And even when this actually happened, it took the Dubliner a long time to win over the sceptics, while it is surely a battle he is still fighting to a degree.

Moreover, recent previous Irish managers frequently bemoaned the lack of quality at their disposal, whereas Kenny has regularly talked up the current crop of players.

Perhaps it is therefore no coincidence that Ireland have suddenly started playing some of the most exuberant football fans at the Aviva have been treated to in years.

In the past, Kenny has also spoken in detail of having to overcome this inveterate and widespread inferiority complex associated with Irish football.

Consider this quote from when he was U21s boss: “As someone who managed in the League [of Ireland] for a long number of years, initially, when I started, you couldn’t get a game on TV, you didn’t have any interest, self-esteem was non-existent. And then to the way we achieved, the way that was achieved, progressing to Europe, getting great results in Europe and going on to great domestic cup finals and pivotal league games.”

This recurring theme was also detectable from his time as Dundalk boss. He was once asked about Patrick McEleney, who had swiftly returned to the club after an unsuccessful stint at Oldham and the manager took exception to the inference that the player’s fate reflected poorly on the domestic league.

“It was, you know, ‘He couldn’t do it for Oldham so what does that say about the standard here?’ – that kind of thing. Now Patrick is probably the most creative player of his generation, you know? He’s a brilliant, brilliant natural talent.

“His career has been up and down, no question, but he did very well for us in the Europa League and in winning the league that year. At Oldham, a lot of stuff was going on behind the scenes and he wasn’t used properly. He was stuck out on the right of a 4-4-2 and his job was to get in there and compete for second balls.

“So when I’m asked about it and the implication is that Oldham is a step up from what we’re doing here, well to me, that’s far too simplistic. You’re not taking into account the environment the player is playing in.

“I made the point that when you went through the list of English coaches that had a name for playing a progressive way, you have Eddie Howe and then who comes after that? I’m not saying that all the other English coaches are wrong or anything like that. All I’m asking is why do we assume that if a fella goes to England and doesn’t set the world alight in League Two, it automatically says something about where he came from?”

Kenny did not say it in his press conference yesterday, but you could probably apply a similar point to Jamie McGrath or others who have thrived at international level while recently struggling to make an impact for their clubs.

So the Irish boss certainly does not look at his squad and essentially regard them as a bunch of largely limited Championship and League One players, as past managers ostensibly did. Instead, he sees opportunity. He sees them purely as footballers, with the potential to flourish in the right set of circumstances and if given the appropriate instructions and encouragement.

Kenny still, though, acknowledged the issue afterwards of certain individuals’ lesser status, saying on Saturday: “We asked some of the players to elevate their performances above their club form because playing Belgium, that’s what we need them to do.”

But there is, of course, often a sense of chaos in international football that is less commonplace in the club game.

It is rare, for example, to regularly see underdogs go very far in the Champions League, with the same 8-12 teams usually dominating the latter stages.

You would almost never see the club equivalent of North Macedonia knocking Italy out of a major competition because there is simply too much money and competence behind big teams to fail — the Man Citys and Real Madrids will nearly always eclipse their less well-resourced rivals.

But in the international game, when the uneven distribution of wealth is not so great a factor and the bigger nations simply cannot produce the same rhythm as the best club sides enjoy from endless hours of training ground practice, a country who are merely well-organised and possess a great deal of self-belief can go a long way. It is what Croatia demonstrated at the last World Cup, or Denmark highlighted at the Euros, and as an even less venerated team in Kenny’s Ireland are beginning to show now. Sometimes, having one or two world-class players is enough and even failing that, there can be scope for significant progress.

In this environment, a solid system that people are willing to embrace is invariably as important as a collection of highly talented individuals.

So to put it simply, teams with the right structure behind them punch above their weight all the time at international level, so why shouldn’t Ireland be any different?

An impressive 2-2 draw against a Belgium side who had less than three months earlier reached the semi-finals of the World Cup proved the catalyst for greater things in the Jack Charlton era, and so Kenny will now be hoping history can repeat itself in that regard.

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