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Purpose and positivity grows but Kenny doesn't need to appease for morale victory

Twelve months on from defeat to Luxembourg at an empty Aviva Stadium, things feel very different for the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland talisman Callum Robinson.
Ireland talisman Callum Robinson.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

IF ANYTHING CAN sum up the sense of purpose and positivity about this Republic of Ireland team it is the very noticeable absence of apathy about a friendly with Lithuania.

The usual feeling of weariness – dread, even – of a fixture with nothing on the line is telling.

Nobody is asking ‘what’s the point?’

Instead, there is genuine interest rather than contrived debate about what this Ireland team will do next, not to mention who, and how, they will do it.

That’s not just among the 35,000 who will be in attendance at Aviva Stadium tonight, but also within Stephen Kenny’s squad.

You might usually expect a trickle of departures from the camp between games in a friendly window, players traipsing back to clubs with knocks or niggles now that the glamour visit of Belgium is out of the way and a credible 2-2 draw was secured.

But that hasn’t been the case.

stephen-kenny-with-keith-andrews Ireland boss Stephen Kenny with assistant Keith Andrews. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Indeed, not long after the final whistle had blown on Saturday evening the Ireland manager was asked whether it might happen. “No, no, unless you know something I don’t,” he replied.

Of course, that doesn’t mean changes to the starting XI won’t be required, and faces who are pivotal to Kenny’s plans are rested.

Seamus Coleman played 90 minutes at the weekend and, with relegation-threatened Everton facing West Ham United on Sunday, it could be an opportune time for Dara O’Shea to make his return in a green jersey after suffering that brutal ankle injury while playing in the right-sided centre back role away to Portugal in the World Cup qualifier last September.

Troy Parrott, for example, has not quite kicked on since breaking his international duck against Andorra last summer. He started on just one occasion after that – the following friendly against Hungary – with late appearances off the bench against Azerbaijan (89th minute), Qatar (77th), Luxembourg (89th) and Belgium (92nd).

troy-parrott Forward Troy Parrott. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

The young Tottenham Hotspur striker, on loan with MK Dons in League One, has impressed Kenny and his staff in training since linking up but whether it is enough to force a start remains to be seen considering the blossoming partnership between Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene should be given as many chances to thrive as possible.

It may well be that a newcomer to the senior ranks, Connor Ronan, has the skill-set required to help create in the final third as well as offer support to those behind.

“When he plays he gets more touches than some no 10s. Some no 10s go in and out of the game and can produce good moments in the game, he gets more touches than any other player. He’s constantly on the ball, making a lot of very simple passes,” Kenny said when he named the squad.

“When we played 4-2-3-1 [system with the U21s] and he used to play in the 10, he was put at Adam Idah as second striker all the time and then back in [to cover midfield]. It was the most demanding role in that system and he was able to do it no problem.

connor-ronan The energetic Connor Ronan. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Playing with two 10s and one, he’s played a lot in that position. It’s in the higher positions we need more competition and that’s where we see him.”

They are just some of the selection issues for Kenny to contend with as he balances the need to deliver another strong performance – and win – alongside ensuring a morale victory for some of those squad members on the fringes.

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Because there will be no moral victories to be found against Lithuania, a side ranked 137th in the world. Extending the unbeaten run to eight games will only be worthy of any form of recognition by winning, and if Kenny can do so by utilising his resources all the better.

But trying to appease some with minutes is not required if the manager feels it necessary to keep his strongest XI together.

“Football being football, it’s always results-dependent and you’re always beholden to the powers that be. It’s not development football, we’re in big boys’ football here, that’s the nature of the business that ultimately if results didn’t come, then decisions have to be made,” assistant manager Keith Andrews said yesterday in relation to the pressure that was mounting a year ago.

gerson-rodrigues-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Gerson Rodrigues celebrates his goal 12 months ago. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The Sunday just gone marked 12 months since the nadir of the new regime, Gerson Rodrigues’ late strike for Luxembourg effectively ending any hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.

That the moment came in an empty Aviva Stadium due to Covid-19 restrictions only added to the feeling of isolation.

Twelve months on and things feel very different.

The sense of togetherness is palpable.

Kenny and his staff – with a new assistant coach in John Eustace now in place following Anthony Barry’s departure to Belgium – have contracts that will see them through the Euro 2024 qualification campaign, along with the upcoming Nations League group stages.

So if now is the time to experiment, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the momentum that has been built up.

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