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Disgraceful booing of players taking the knee and more Hungary-Ireland talking points

Tuesday night’s match in Budapest finished scoreless.

Ireland's Adam Idah with Ádám Nagy of Hungary.
Ireland's Adam Idah with Ádám Nagy of Hungary.
Image: STR/INPHO

1. Disgraceful booing of Ireland players taking the knee 

AS REFRESHING as it was to see a packed crowd at a football match, the inexplicable booing of Irish players for taking the knee was enough to make you long for the days of empty stadiums again.

“It’s a difficult time for everyone,” said Shane Duffy afterwards. “We have our stances on it and we decided as a nation that we were going to do it, and we stand by that. Everyone’s got their opinions and hopefully, we made the right choice.”

Stephen Kenny was stronger in his condemnation of those who chose to boo: “I think it’s a very important message. The fact it was booed was incomprehensible, really.

“It must be damaging for Hungary, with the Euros in Hungary. It’s disappointing and it doesn’t reflect well on Hungary and the Hungarian support. Our players wanted to do it, it’s an important stance and I commend them for taking that stance.”

Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion and not everyone takes the knee. The Hungarian players opted instead to point to the words ‘respect’ on their badge, while Wilfried Zaha earlier this year became the first Premier League player to refrain from partaking in the gesture.

“There is no right or wrong decision, but for me personally, I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us continue to receive abuse,” the Crystal Palace star explained.

Zaha’s stance is an understandable one and there is a legitimate argument for not taking the knee.

However, just as those who opt-out should be shown respect, equally players who partake in the gesture deserve understanding rather than booing.

The way most reasonable people interpret taking a knee is as a gesture of solidarity with black people who have suffered endless abuse and as a show of support for equality in society. 

The fact that a considerable portion of a crowd would be so perturbed by this action that they would choose to aggressively jeer is perhaps the best illustration of why those who believe in the gesture need to persist with it.

If the action had lost all its relevance and impact, as some have suggested, then people surely wouldn’t care enough to boo.

More than anything, taking the knee creates conversations about issues such as racism, which sadly remains deeply ingrained in football, as we have been continually reminded in recent months.

As Kenny suggested afterwards, the crowd’s behaviour reflects poorly on Hungary while issues with English crowds have been well documented of late too.

With the Euros around the corner, it would be naïve not to expect further problems down the line, so it’s a saga that is unfortunately unlikely to end anytime soon.

2. The pros and cons of Kenny’s tactical flexibility

Having played four at the back against Andorra, Stephen Kenny opted for a three-man defence against Hungary on Tuesday night.

It is not the first time he has switched between the two — in the early days of his Ireland reign, he consistently opted for a four, before switching to a three ahead of the World Cup qualifiers last March.

Kenny explained at his press conference on Monday that he wanted his players to comfortably be able to change between the two, as which system he favoured would depend on the personnel available to him. 

There were some positives to the formation. Ireland looked well organised off the ball, defending solidly and reducing their opponents largely to half chances.

Down the other end, though, the Boys in Green were less impressive. They were pinned back into their own half for large portions of the game and they struggled when trying to play out from the back.

Troy Parrott and Jason Knight, so impressive against Andorra, were not as effective on Tuesday, partially due to the superior nature of the opposition, of course.

Parrott, along with his partner in attack Adam Idah, struggled to really influence the game and looked a little isolated at times.

Knight, meanwhile, was not as involved as he would have liked in an attacking midfield role.

It was only after the system was altered in the second half and the Derby youngster moved to the right-hand side that he began to have a bigger impact.

It’s now three matches unbeaten for Kenny’s side, and so he will take positives from this international window, but as was evident amid last night’s flawed performance, Ireland remain a work in progress and improvements must be made ahead of the crucial World Cup qualifiers in September.

3. A good night for Ireland’s goalkeepers

The race for Ireland’s goalkeeping jersey is probably as open as it’s been in a very long time.

For many years, Darren Randolph was the unquestioned number one, and before him, Shay Given had a firm stranglehold on the jersey for well over a decade.

Yet even if Randolph is fit come September, there is no guarantee he will be selected, with Kenny refusing to definitively identify a number one when asked the question on Monday.

Though the 34-year-old Bray native has seldom let Ireland down in the past, the fact that he is not playing regularly at West Ham could work against him.

Of course, the same could be said of all the goalkeepers at Kenny’s disposal. Caoimhín Kelleher and Mark Travers are both second-choice at Liverpool and Bournemouth respectively.

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Gavin Bazunu, meanwhile, made 35 appearances in all competitions this season, though he also fell out of favour towards the end of a loan spell at Rochdale, with his last appearance in League One coming on 2 April.

Kelleher replaced Bazunu at half-time for his senior international debut on Tuesday, and the Liverpool youngster is a player Kenny knows well, having capped him 10 times at U21 level.

Bazunu, though, has been very impressive, starting the last four consecutive Ireland matches, and unless Kelleher can have a really impressive start to next season, you would suspect it will come down to a battle between the Man City youngster and Randolph if both are available in September.

4. A landmark occasion for the first African-born player to represent Ireland

There was a special moment in the 88th-minute of Tuesday’s encounter.

Chiedozie Ogbene replaced Jason Knight for his international debut.

Players with an African heritage, such as Michael Obafemi and Gavin Bazunu, have represented Ireland previously, but Ogbene is the first African-born player to line out for the Boys in Green at senior level.

It’s an important landmark and an undoubtedly inspiring moment in particular for members of the African community in Ireland.

There have been other African-born players who lined out at underage level and helped pave the way for the success of future generations.

A little over 17 years ago, Emeka Onwubiko became the first Nigerian to represent Ireland at underage level, after an influx of African communities into the country in the early 2000s.

And as Onwubiko told The42 earlier this year, the increased prominence of players from different backgrounds and experiences is bound to have a positive effect on the national team.

“The cultures are different and it can help the national team,” he said. “England have a lot of black players, as do Germany and France. Variety is important if you want to make a nice dish. The coaching needs not just an Irish mentality, you need a coach with other ideas. You need to be open and let people try things.” 

Kenny certainly is an adventurous coach who is patently willing to give young players a chance, and though it was only a brief cameo, Ogbene, a 24-year-old former Cork City and Limerick player now on the books at Rotherham, made enough of an impression to suggest there could be much more to come from him at international level.

– First published 00.16, 9 June

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Paul Fennessy

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