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Ireland's quiet man set for the biggest night of his footballing life

In just his third match in charge, Stephen Kenny will lead Ireland in a crucial Euros play-off against Slovakia.

Stephen Kenny pictured during training in Bratislava yesterday.
Stephen Kenny pictured during training in Bratislava yesterday.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Updated Oct 8th 2020, 5:06 PM

SPORT IS RELATIVELY unimportant in the grand scheme of things, it is not a matter of life or death, though in difficult times, it can feel vital.

At the beginning of March, around the start of the pandemic, RTÉ screened ‘The Boys In Green,’ an excellent, uplifting documentary by Ross Whitaker about the Ireland team in the Jack Charlton era.

The film conveyed how Charlton arrived in 1986 Ireland, where money and morale were in short supply.

Just under 10 years later, he left a country in the midst of the Celtic Tiger. Like its football team, the Irish people had acquired a newfound confidence in the intervening years.

Stephen Kenny could hardly be more different to Charlton in just about every respect. He is an introspective footballing purist, whereas the late Englishman was a gregarious pragmatist who valued results far more than aesthetics.

Nonetheless, the perception of Kenny as a romantic has perhaps been somewhat overplayed, as he has shown in the past he is not immune to adopting a more direct or defensive approach if required.

Rise_Of_Kenny_final

In a column for Extra.ie, former Ireland U21 boss and a colleague of Kenny, Noel King, recently summarised the soft-spoken coach’s manner when dealing with people: “I took part in the monthly FAI Manager’s Meetings online, which Stephen also attended, and it’s there you can see exactly how he goes about his business.

“I have watched with interest on how he negotiates. Quiet, unassuming, almost nervously he discusses the points. That’s his way, and he’s good at it.

He understands what’s going on and will be fully aware that football is ruthless and only winning gives you a voice. It doesn’t matter if you play lovely football, or if you lose a tight game or suffer a raft of injuries: you are either a winner or a loser. He gets it, but doesn’t believe for a second he won’t succeed.”

Kenny will hope to benefit from the good fortune Charlton enjoyed at the start of his reign, rather than the bad luck endured by the previous two national team managers with a League of Ireland background — Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr — both of whom fell narrowly short of qualification during their respective reigns.

Moreover, two unlikely away victories were key to kick-starting the Charlton era — Ireland’s 1-0 win in Scotland, and the Scottish side’s victory against Bulgaria, which ensured the Boys in Green reached Euro ’88 against the odds.

Subsequently, Ireland’s significant away victories have been very much thin on the ground. Wins on the road against Wales and Austria during the Martin O’Neill era were arguably the first time since the 1987 Scotland game that the Irish team beat a truly big international team at the opposition’s venue, though they did memorably overcome Estonia 4-0 in Tallinn to all but secure Euro 2012 qualification via the play-offs.

But now, like Charlton before him, Kenny needs two big away wins to ensure qualification for the Euros at the first time of asking.

If Ireland can get past Slovakia in Bratislava tonight, they will travel to face either Bosnia or Northern Ireland in November, with a place at next summer’s long-awaited tournament up for grabs.

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It’s hard to remember another time when results are bound to have such a dramatic impact on the Irish football narrative.

It feels as if now, more than ever, the cash-strapped sport urgently needs the sense of escapism that qualifying for a major tournament — and particularly one partially played on home soil — would provide.

Even before you consider all the coronavirus-related doom and gloom, the context feels crucial.

Should the team succeed, then the likely instinctive reaction will be that ‘reports of Irish football’s demise have been greatly exaggerated’. Victory would provide the FAI with a much-needed financial injection, while a third successive qualification for the Euros, coupled with Dundalk’s recent Europa League exploits, would be used as evidence to suggest that the situation is improving both on and off the field. In many people’s eyes, it would also vindicate the choice of Kenny as manager.

A loss, on the other hand, would see the knives come out. As unfair as it may seem given the lack of time he has had to work with the players, many of those who were sceptical about Kenny’s appointment in the first place would inevitably argue that the coach is out of his depth when asked to manage outside of the League of Ireland. And in some ways, defeat may seem like a fitting end to an interminably long qualification campaign. It began most notably with news of John Delaney’s controversial reversion to the role of FAI Executive Vice-President in the near-immediate aftermath of a dour away win in Gibraltar, before the off-field situation quickly escalated, and it could now end in abject failure on the pitch.

Ireland certainly won’t be brimming with confidence following last month’s underwhelming performances against Bulgaria and Finland in the Nations League, though Kenny and others have insisted the players’ lack of pre-season preparation was a significant factor on those occasions, and that they will be far better prepared to play this evening.

The visitors are missing Seamus Coleman, Troy Parrott, Harry Arter and Darragh Lenihan for the trip to Bratislava, though whether any of those individuals would have played to begin with is far from certain.

For Slovakia — who themselves suffered a disappointing 3-1 loss to Czech Republic in the Nations League last month – Stanislav Lobotka, Martin Dubravka and Milan Skriniar are among the important players unavailable, while they were unable to coax former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel out of international retirement.

Nevertheless, attacking midfielder Marek Hamsek — their captain and best-known footballer — is expected to feature, representing his country for the first time in almost a year. The 33-year-old former Napoli star is now playing in China with Dalian Yifang.

The hosts failed to qualify automatically from a group also comprising of Wales, Croatia, Hungary and Azerbaijan. The consensus view seems to be that while it won’t be easy, the Slovaks represent beatable opposition.

So as ludicrous as it sounds just three games into his reign, Kenny is already facing what will likely be remembered as one of the defining moments of his tenure. Ireland qualifying for the Euros next summer wouldn’t make day-to-day life any easier in this current crisis, but like all top-level sport at its best, it would at least help everyone briefly forget the prosaic and troublesome present.

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Darren Randolph (West Ham); Matt Doherty (Tottenham), Shane Duffy (Celtic), John Egan (Sheffield United), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United); James McCarthy (Crystal Palace), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa); Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), Aaron Connolly (Brighton); David McGoldrick (Sheffield United).

Slovakia XI (Possible XI): Marek Rodák (Fulham); Peter Pekarík (Hertha Berlin), Martin Valjent (Mallorca), Norbert Gyömbér (Salernitana), Róbert Mazáň (Mladá Boleslav); Juraj Kucka (Parma), Patrik Hrošovský (Genk); Marek Hamšík (Dalian Professional), Matúš Bero (Vitesse), Albert Rusnák (Real Salt Lake); Róbert Boženík (Feyenoord).

KO: 7.45pm; TV: RTÉ Two, Sky Sports Football.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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