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Ireland legends should not interpret Stephen Kenny's philosophy as a slight on them

There is a sharp contrast between how many journalists and ex-players perceive the current regime.

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny.
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IN FOOTBALL, ex-players-turned-pundits are often the last people to turn on an embattled manager.

A few years ago, one renowned former star regularly on our TV screens even told me he would never publicly call for a manager to be sacked — he seemed to consider it morally objectionable to suggest a coach should lose his job, no matter how badly they appeared to be performing.

You are also likely to get a more diplomatic answer if you, for example, ask a high-profile former Manchester United player whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right man to manage the club compared with the average print journalist.

Yet this rule does not appear to apply in Stephen Kenny’s case. If anything, it is the opposite, with the majority of journalists being somewhat sympathetic to the manager’s recent issues, while the loudest criticism has come from a coterie of ex-players.

Paul McGrath has openly stated he does not believe Kenny is the right man for the job.

Ahead of Saturday’s Azerbaijan match, writing in the Irish Independent, Richard Dunne suggested “it’s three points or bust,” while he previously claimed that the Kenny era was “failing”.

Speaking on Sky Sports, Phil Babb has also expressed considerable doubt as to whether Kenny is the best man for the job.

In a recent interview with Gary Neville on The Overlap, former Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane also seemingly aimed a dig at Kenny: “We lost our jobs because we weren’t winning enough matches towards the end, which is a disgrace really because they replaced Martin with Mick McCarthy and then Stephen Kenny, but that’s another story.”

Like every generalisation, of course, it is only partially true as there are obviously some ex-players who have expressed significant support for Kenny and a few journalists who haven’t.

And granted, there is some justification in the criticism — anyone who wins just two of their opening 17 matches is bound to receive serious scrutiny.

On the other hand, there is a case to be made that Kenny deserves more time as he attempts to rebuild a system that some people would argue has been broken for years.

But it’s worth asking why there seems to be quite a divide, with so many former Ireland footballers growing seriously impatient with the present regime.

Distance or lack thereof probably has something to do with it. Many of the journalists will have gotten to know Kenny very well during his time in the League of Ireland and followed his largely successful career in the domestic game very closely.

By contrast, a large number of the (often English-based) ex-pros would not have a great knowledge of the League of Ireland, nor would they have been especially familiar with Kenny before he became Ireland boss.

Yet having spoken to many ex-pros who hold serious reservations about Kenny, what seems to annoy them most in the majority of the cases is the subject of playing style and the perception that he is trying to revolutionise Irish football.

The idea that Ireland played awful football in previous eras is a source of irritation for some. 

As part of a fascinating interview with Paul Kimmage last year, for instance, former Ireland captain Andy Townsend was moved to defend Jack Charlton’s legacy.

“I’m fed up reading about this crude, prehistoric game we (apparently) played under Jack. Too many of the Irish journalists, in particular, continue to reference this, and I think it’s unfair. We were a tremendous team at times, and exceptionally difficult to play against, never mind beat.” 

He later added: “We had a back four that couldn’t run – Mick couldn’t, Kevin couldn’t, Stan couldn’t – but we’re on our halfway line going after some of the best teams in the world in their half! Baggio . . . Gullit . . . Van Basten . . . Schillaci . . . there’s nothing negative about that. That’s f***ing brave!”

Kenny has been criticised for encouraging defenders to play out from the back among other traits you would not imagine the likes of Martin O’Neill or Giovanni Trapattoni ever endorsing.

You can imagine certain people rolling their eyes when Kenny makes remarks like the following: “Our style of play, the way we want to encourage players to pass the ball, will never change. That’s what I believe in.”

Though there have been occasional exceptions, Ireland’s strategy since the Jack Charlton era has largely been long-ball football.

By bucking this trend, some people seem to be interpreting the Kenny era as an attempt to dismiss Ireland’s past achievements.

They may have enjoyed some notable results, but they supposedly did so playing ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’ football. 

Of course, whether Ireland should play in an attractive fashion is an argument that has been recurring for decades now.

Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady to an extent famously fell out with Jack Charlton over the issue.

But there is a big difference between the Charlton era and the present.

In the late ’80s, while it wasn’t unequivocally popular, there was a genuine logic to the way Ireland played.

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“I’d seen the World Cup in Mexico, and it was like peas and a pod,” Charlton explained in a memorable Desert Island Discs interview.

“Everybody played the same way through a playmaker in midfield, and unless the playmaker was in a good position to go at the back four, nobody would commit themselves forward.”

Charlton wanted to disrupt the status quo by implementing a game plan that many of the top international sides ultimately found difficult to deal with. In its own way, it would have felt as bold and unusual as what the current Irish team are trying to do now.

Could Kenny or another Ireland manager do likewise at present and enjoy similar success? It seems highly unlikely.

Charlton inherited a squad accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of English football in the 1980s.

He also had some of the most accomplished target men in the British game — Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino and Frank Stapleton — to choose from.

Nowadays, most top English academies — where the vast majority of players in the Irish squad started off — promote a progressive brand of football that encourages bravery in possession, playing out from the back et cetera.

You cannot suddenly tell a Jason Knight or an Andrew Omobamidele to unlearn all these habits and simply knock it long.

All Ireland’s underage sides also by and large adopt a Kenny-esque approach. If the senior team were to suddenly rely on a route-one game, it would undermine all the work being done by the teams beneath them.

Various incarnations of the Barcelona, Cruffyian style of football they originally perfected have become almost commonplace in world football over the past decade, and yet before Kenny’s appointment, Ireland invariably continued to play football as if it were still 1987.

There is a reason very few teams now play in this less sophisticated manner — it is no longer as effective as it once was.

Yet until recently, Ireland essentially were stuck performing a tribute act to the Charlton years with increasingly diminishing returns.

So whenever Kenny alludes to a new philosophy for Irish football, it should not be seen as a knock on ex-players and their highly commendable achievements of the past, but merely an acknowledgement that football has changed irrevocably.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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