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Dublin: 4°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

Kenny's kids looking to end turbulent week with win in Finland

After a week like no other, a much-changed Irish squad featuring seven players under the age of 22 seek a first win under the new manager.

Jayson Molumby in Irish training.
Jayson Molumby in Irish training.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ON SOME HAPPY day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, Stephen Kenny will sit down at a press conference and the opening question will be a yawned and murmured, ‘Any knocks, Stephen?” 

Though that day looks a long way from here. 

Ever since he was appointed U21s manager in 2018 – that age of innocence in which the FAI would be debt-free by 2020 – Kenny has been thrown big questions in front of the cameras and microphones. 

There have been innumerable awkward questions about the daft succession plan thrust upon him and, ever since he took the senior job, he’s been regularly quizzed about his plan to overhaul Irish football and to break from the “British style” to which we’ve been manacled for decades. 

An Irish revolution looks a trifling matter now, though, with his latest question concerning the future of international football itself, as it tries to beat on against the current of a pandemic. 

“I don’t think it will be”, said Kenny when asked if today’s game would be the last time his squad would gather for some time. 

“History has thrown up many challenges throughout the ages. We’ve always had to overcome obstacles. Sport is an important part of life, people need something to look forward to. The Irish national team are very important, it’s the pinnacle of sporting life in Ireland.” 

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny during his pre-match press conference at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Source: Matti Matikainen/INPHO

Kenny was also asked about whether he has faith in the FAI’s Covid-19 testing regime, and the man asking the questions was the Finland FA Press Officer, ventriloquising the questions of the absent Irish press pack. 

Oh, to be batting away questions about hamstring strains instead. To be honest, from where we are at the moment, Kenny might prefer to be dealing questions about an absent captain and where he told him to shove his copy of The Irish Times. 

There was a strain of thought that Kenny might struggle to deal with the pressure of the Irish job, but if he can make it to the end of this week, he will have answered that question. He is working in absurdity. 

It is, in fairness, a berserk situation for everyone. He has lost another player to Covid-19 (after a possible false positive proved to be a false negative) and is now down almost half of the 25-man squad he named a fortnight ago.

This is, of course, a reality of football in a time of Covid, though there are frustrations singular to the FAI, and the travel plans to Slovakia that ultimately cost him Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah on matchday.

The employee who was ultimately given a false positive result in Slovakia was deemed as “non-essential in a crisis situation” by Kenny, though he was mildly rebuked in public by outgoing interim CEO Gary Owens, who said everyone on the trip was important. Kenny clarified after the game he recognises everyone’s role as important, but that said employee “wasn’t taking the free-kicks.” 

The entire camp will be reviewed once it finally ends, and in spite of it all happening in a difficult and an utterly unprecedented situation, a classical FAI tale as to who deserves to go on trips may be played out. 

Nonetheless, there is a game tonight, and Ireland will be able to name a full, 23-man squad having had only 18 against Wales. Connolly and Idah are back in the squad, while Dara O’Shea and Jason Knight have been called up from the U21 squad. Ryan Manning and Ronan Curtis have been drafted in too. 

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It means Kenny has a pretty young squad to choose from, with seven of the squad 21 or younger. Tonight’s is a significant game, and effectively must-win if Ireland are going to make anything of their second Nations League campaign. 

The competition offers a backdoor to the World Cup playoffs, though it’s a slender one: the two best-rated Nations League group winners who don’t qualify for the playoffs through next year’s qualification groups will benefit. 

Today’s game also has ramifications for Ireland’s place in that draw. The seeding is based of Fifa’s world rankings, and were the draw tomorrow, Ireland would be in pot three. Climbing a few spots and settling in pot two is within Ireland’s grasp, however, if they win a few games. 

daryl-horgan The Irish squad train in Helsinki ahead of the game. Source: Matti Matikainen/INPHO

They will have to score a goal first, something they’ve effectively stopped doing. There’s only been one goal under Kenny so far – a Shane Duffy header – but it’s a problem that pre-dates the current manager. Since Euro 2016, Ireland have scored 22 goals in 24 competitive games. Take out the games against Moldova and Gibraltar, and that drops to 15 goals in 20 games. 

Kenny’s side have showed encouraging signs amid the chaos of the last week, but they still lack cutting edge. Aaron Connolly may remedy that tonight, all the while tinging the Slovakia game with even more regret. 

The manager will have to pick a largely untried team, though Kenny will be familiar with the players from U21 level. 

With John Egan missing, Dara O’Shea may make his international debut alongside Shane Duffy, though Kevin Long is fit to play having been forced off against Wales.

James McCarthy will miss out again with a hamstring issue, so Jayson Molumby, man of the match against Wales, looks likely to start again. 

Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane have played all 210 minutes of Ireland’s games thus far, so if Kenny chooses to rotate, Josh Cullen may benefit. Jason Knight is unlikely to start, and though only 19, he has played more than 30 games for Derby County. “He almost reminds me of myself when I was younger in terms of having no fear”, says Wayne Rooney of Knight. 

Connolly and Idah will likely get their belated starts in this international window, with Robbie Brady likely to retain his place having not started in Bratislava. 

The future of international football is uncertain, but Kenny’s young team can tonight show that it might yet be bright. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy (captain), Kevin Long, Enda Stevens; Conor Hourihane, Jayson Molumby; Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Aaron Connolly; Adam Idah

On TV: Sky Sports Football; KO 5pm


About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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