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Dublin: 3°C Wednesday 12 May 2021

'I don't think you can make any realistic assessment' - Kenny's turbulent start reaches its end against Bulgaria

The new manager’s Nations League campaign has been hopelessly undermined by injury and Covid-19.

THUS WE REACH the end of Uefa’s Nations League, a production more turbulent and fraught than Apocalypse Now.

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny at Irish training yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Here’s a flavour of the chaos.

Ukraine’s game with Switzerland in Lucerne was cancelled hours before kick-off with the Ukraine squad quarantined with six Covid cases; Norway were banned by their government from travelling to a game in Romania, and so saw the game cancelled and had to pull together a completely different squad for tonight’s game with Austria; England had to get government approval to allow Iceland come to Wembley from Denmark, a nation currently culling their mink population to stop a mutation of Covid-19; while Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive and was forced to enter the best-paid quarantine period on the planet. 

Ireland, meanwhile, have been luckless if not the worst affected, with five positive cases and six close contacts among the squad across two windows.

Stephen Kenny’s run of misfortune does not end at the virus, either. Across his seven games to date he has lost a total of 14 players to injury, while a midfielder and a goalkeeper coach have withdrawn from this camp for different personal reasons and David McGoldrick has retired. 

Consistency of selection has therefore been a distant dream. The fewest number of team changes Kenny has made from game-to-game has been three; he’s twice had to make six. 

Tonight Ireland play Bulgaria in Dublin, and are without exactly half of the 26-man squad originally named for the game. Further to that, Kenny is without five starters from Sunday’s defeat to Wales as Matt Doherty and James McClean have Covid-19, Jayson Molumby and Jeff Hendrick are suspended and Adam Idah is injured. 

Not that Ireland’s plight is unique: Bulgaria will be missing nine players. 

“I don’t think anyone has”, said Stephen Kenny yesterday when asked if he had ever faced a challenge like this. 

Unprecedented streaks have become the theme of Kenny’s start in the job, and the side are currently on their worst goalscoring run in history having not scored in six games.

The only goal thus far came against Bulgaria in the group’s opening game, a Shane Duffy header from a corner. It’s exactly a year to the day since Ireland last scored a goal from open play. 

Ending that wretched run and avoiding relegation are the main targets tonight in a game that has become freighted with all the wrong kinds of meaning. 

Avoiding defeat tonight will dodge the relegation Ireland were supposed to be met with after last Nations League Campaign, but a re-jig of the competition structure by Uefa offered them a reprieve. They are unlikely to get so lucky again this time around, with the only silver lining to relegation the fact it would give Ireland an easier backdoor route to qualification for Euro 2024. But that’s not exactly the long-term vision Kenny’s appointment was supposed to bring. 

“I have to be honest, I would be”, said Kenny when asked if he would be disappointed with relegation. “So it’s important that doesn’t happen.”

Ireland might be able to give themselves a better chance of making the 2022 World Cup by climbing to second seeds in next month’s draw, but that will involve winning – and thus scoring – tonight, along with results going their way elsewhere: namely that Russia lose to Serbia and Northern Ireland beat Romania. 

The squad are undoubtedly weary at their reality at the moment, with a round of negative Covid tests yesterday morning met with a relief tinged with surprise.

On Sunday, Jack Byrne became the first domestic player to play competitively for Ireland since 1985, and he has since been joined in the squad by his Shamrock Rovers team-mates Graham Burke and Aaron McEneff. Burke is actually the joint most prolific international striker left in the squad – he has scored once, in a 2018 friendly with the United States – while McEneff has transferred from Northern Ireland. 

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jack-byrne Jack Byrne on his competitive international debut against Wales on Sunday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Dundalk’s Michael Duffy is trying to do the same but his paperwork still hasn’t cleared Fifa, and Kenny phoned him on Monday to explain he would otherwise have been included. Jack Taylor and Troy Parrott have been called up from the U21 squad, though the latter won’t start tonight after a lengthy injury lay-off. 

Initially, these Nations League games were seen as a chance for Kenny to inculcate his system and ideas ahead of the World Cup qualifiers, but those plans have been smithereened by injury and Covid-19. Instead, he has talked up the fact players have been blooded at senior level and so will give Ireland some depth next year, while hoping the established gang of Doherty, Stevens, Coleman, Egan, McCarthy, Robinson and Connolly will be fit and available from now.  

Elsewhere, the players and managers have talked of needing bit more luck in front of goal as they are creating chances, but that’s only true to a point. There were myriad spurned chances last month, but Ireland created little against Wales on Sunday and nothing against England. 

That needs to change tonight in a game Ireland perhaps need to win to avoid wintering with a wretched, winless early record under Kenny. But the extent to which we can pass judgement on the new manager’s early work is complicated by the absurd circumstances. 

“I don’t think you can make any realistic assessment”, said Kenny yesterday. “I think our performance against Slovakia showed what we want to do and how we want to play. That was very clear, and showed the potential that exists.” 

Regardless of tonight’s result, the circumstances mean that we have yet to see any kind of template for how Kenny’s Ireland might approach those World Cup qualifiers, and the extent of the transformation the new manager may be able to bring about. 

Everything has been undermined by this berserk reality, to the point where it’s questionable whether the games should have been played in the first place.

conor-hourihane Conor Hourihane. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Kenny said the latest Covid cases can be traced back to a player bringing it into the Irish bubble from outside, which merely emphasises the negatory effect of allowing players move between bubbles. The manager was instead keen to stress the traumatic impact a positive case can have on a player when asked about Jose Mourinho’s concerns yesterday, and Conor Hourihane offered an honest and eloquent insight into a player’s mindset amid a pandemic. 

“Lads are worried for loved ones at home. ‘Am I taking this home to people?’ People are dying, it’s terrible.

“We’re all worried about results, performances and goals and whatever – and yes that’s what we all want – but, listen, I’ve had a family issue with Covid, somebody unfortunately passing away.

“Not taking it home is hugely important to myself, with what has happened in the last few months in my family. My partner is pregnant as well, so I don’t want to be taking anything back to her. There are a lot of factors. But once I don’t get it and don’t take it home, that’s all the matters at the end of the day. Once everyone is safe around me, that’s all that matter.” 

Once again unto the breach tonight, then, for the last act of a campaign that was supposed to be about finding out how Ireland would play under their new manager but has instead raised questions about whether they should have been asked to play at all. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Randolph; Christie, Duffy, K Long, O’Shea; Hourihane, Cullen; Horgan, Knight, Brady; Curtis

On TV: Sky Sports Arena; KO 7.45pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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