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Dublin: 9°C Thursday 6 May 2021

Encouraging Slovakia performance proves Kenny's credentials and shows nonsense of succession plan

Kenny showed last night the progress he has made with his players, but it’s too little too late for Ireland’s Euros hopes.

Stephen Kenny.
Stephen Kenny.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A PENALTY SHOOTOUT defeat in a playoff begs all of the Whats Ifs.

What if Conor Hourihane had just lamped that ball in from six yards? What if Alan Browne hadn’t hit the post? What if Darren Randolph had got a touch to Lukáš Haraslín’s penalty? What if Matt Doherty’s penalty was a few inches lower? What if Aaron Connolly had been available? 

And the greatest of them all: What if Stephen Kenny had two years to prepare for this game, rather than two weeks?

Prior to last night, Kenny had his players together for a total of 12 days, two of which were match days and another two interrupted by flights to and from Bulgaria. 

Of all the absurdities of the Delaney regime – and there were many, given it became a kind of administrative Alice in Wonderland – his managerial “succession plan” is one of the most bizarre. 

According to Irish football bible Champagne Football, even Delaney had the awareness to admit the succession plan was “unusual enough”, but said it incentivised Mick McCarthy to qualify for the Euros and “to teach this young man.” 

It seemed like a bad compromise at the time and now it seems even worse, as Ireland last night showed positive, alluring signs of how much progress they can make under Kenny…and how much more could have been made. 

It was an imperfect performance, but also an improved one. 

Ireland were brave in all the right ways, largely dominating the game after they switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation midway through the second half. They carved out some glorious opportunities entirely through the ambition and craft of their own play, and looked the only side likely to win the game in extra-time. 

They didn’t do that, of course, and were ultimately let down by poor finishing and a cagey start. 

And, above all, it was much more enjoyable to watch than the soporific exercises in ”nicking it” which we’ve become inured to across the last two years. 

This may seem modest praise, but when was the last time an Irish side came away from a game even rueing bad finishing?  To lament bad finishing one has to create chances, which isn’t something Ireland have done much of recently. 

slovakia-celebrate-after-the-game The Slovak players react to Matt Doherty's missed penalty. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Last night they created three good goalscoring chances from open play and entirely through their own quality, which represents a step forward from our meagre present standing. 

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Ireland have shown an ability to play in this way before – against Italy at Euro 2016 and in the 2009 play-off in Paris being the most obvious examples – but these performances were often aberrations within the manager’s tenure. Last night came at the beginning of Kenny’s time in charge, and that it was also consistent with what Kenny’s public comments is a heartening sign that Ireland’s attack might just be getting involved in some cause-and-effect. 

Irish footballers haven’t been using the dreary “trusting the process” line of their GAA and rugby counterparts largely because there has been no process to trust. Last night indicated that might be about to change. 

It certainly wasn’t a flawless performance, and at times Ireland looked frightfully open: they were caught outnumbered on a counter in the first and final minute of the first half. 

Ireland looked much better in a 4-2-3-1, with Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick anchoring midfield. This gave Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens the space and peace of mind to cut in-field and bomb forward: Doherty caused panic with a weaving run into the Slovak penalty area while Stevens broke forward and picked out Alan Browne in the box, who forced a good save from Marek Rodak. 

That Browne was willing to break forward beyond McGoldrick gave Ireland much more penetration, and it was missing from the initial approach, with Aaron Connolly sorely lacked.

While James McClean played well – Ireland may well have fallen behind in the second minute without him – his style didn’t fit Ireland’s attacking plan. He lingered too near the left touchline when Ireland needed runners to cut in and run beyond McGoldrick. 

The result is chastening and means Ireland will miss a European Championships for the first time since 2008, while qualifying for the 2022 World Cup will be a tall order with only 13 places on offer to European sides. 

Ireland must improve on last night’s performance, but at least it was a performance that showed precisely how they will improve. 

In the dog days of Martin O’Neill’s reign, the consensus was that Ireland had to start doing things differently.

Bratislava showed they are finally doing so, but for the European Championships, it’s all happened two years too late. 



About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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