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5 winners and losers of Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign

We look back at who impressed and who fell away over the last year.

Updated Nov 18th 2021, 8:02 PM

WITH SO MUCH focus on the manager’s position, let’s reflect on Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign from the perspective of some of the players. 

Winners 

Josh Cullen 

josh-cullen Josh Cullen, playing in Baku against Azerbaijan. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Cullen was not initially favoured in midfield when Kenny took over but forced himself into the team having taken the rare step of moving to mainland Europe for regular football. 

Thus he played more minutes than any Irish player across the group, starting every game. His defensive instincts have always been good – only John Egan won the ball back more often for Ireland in the group – and his passing has greatly improved since joining Anderlecht.

Cullen made more passes than any other Irish player – unsurprising given his position and consistency of selection – but more encouraging is the fact that 87% of them were accurate and only 17% of them went backwards. 

He didn’t score and didn’t have a single touch in the opposition penalty area, but he had more assists (three) than any other Irish player.

In fact, only nine players across all qualifying groups had more assists than Cullen…and four of them had the benefit of larger groups and played more games. 

Shane Duffy 

shane-duffy-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Shane Duffy celebrates his goal away to Luxembourg. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The revitalisation of Duffy was crucial to Ireland’s turnaround. Kenny says nobody deserves credit for his return to form other than Duffy himself, though the manager cannily brought him along to the summer training camp and played him in the final game of the summer, a goalless draw with Hungary. 

Duffy was man of the match and spoke post-game of mentally turning a page after a wretched spell at Celtic.

He drove all the way back from Glasgow to Brighton, which, he says, helped clarify his thoughts. He surrounded himself with good people, returned early to Brighton’s pre-season, and forced his way back into the reckoning for club and country. Duffy played every minute of Ireland’s campaign from September onwards, scored twice – and again in the friendly with Qatar – and can probably claim an assist on Serbia’s chaotic own goal. (The stadium announcer awarded him the goal.) 

Ireland have conceded two goals to players not called Cristiano Ronaldo since Duffy came back into the team, his passing and comfort on the ball has exceeded all expectation – Cruyff-turning Ronaldo wasn’t in anyone’s mind – and has actually helped Ireland’s pressing game.

When Ireland hem the opposition in and force them long, Duffy invariably wins a header around the halfway line. No Irish player won more aerial duels than Duffy (he won 19, Matt Doherty was closest with 9) and that’s in spite of missing the first two games of the campaign. 

Gavin Bazunu

cristiano-ronaldo-comes-up-against-gavin-bazunu-and-shane-duffy Gavin Bazunu saves at the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

What more is there to say? Bazunu joined Robbie Keane as the Irish international with the most senior caps in their teens and in hindsight he should have started in Belgrade and broken the record. 

There’s quite the highlight reel already: the penalty save against Ronaldo; the audacious fingertip stop away to Luxembourg; almost all of the Serbia game. 

When you take the opponent’s Expected Goals into account, Bazunu outperformed it: conceding five goals where the stats say Ireland should have conceded eight. He proved crucial to Ireland on the ball, and 90% of his passes were accurate. Those passes were varied, too: around one in three of them went further than 25 metres. 

Bazunu is one of the great success stories of recent years and, injuries permitting, he may retire as Ireland’s all-time record caps holder. 

Callum Robinson 

callum-robinson-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal-with-john-egan Callum Robinson celebrates his first goal against Qatar. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Robinson emerged as the key man of the Irish attack as the campaign wore on.

Most obviously he was Ireland’s top scorer with three goals (and add another three in the Qatar friendly) and that was partly a consequence of the fact he didn’t show his off-field hesitancy to taking shots: his total of 21 attempts was the highest in the Irish squad by a mile. (The next-closest was Aaron Connolly with eight.) 

Robinson’s contribution was an all-round one, as only James McClean put in more crosses while only Matt Doherty attempted more dribbles. 

Those latter stats may signal the need for a slight change in approach for Ireland. If Robinson is their best finisher, they need to get him closer to goal more often.

Matt Doherty

matt-doherty Matt Doherty in Baku. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

For years we witnessed Doherty fail to take his club form into the international squad, and this year we saw the opposite. Kenny is the first Irish manager to properly accommodate Doherty in his team – primarily as right wing-back but, as we saw in Portugal, occasionally on the left – and he was the architect of many Irish attacks. 

He added penetration – only Jeff Hendrick played more through balls – and also got Ireland up the pitch, as only Seamus Coleman completed more progressive passes. 

The referee’s whistle cost him a deserved goal at home to Portugal: only Callum Robinson had more touches in the opposition penalty than Doherty. 

Doherty has been among the most vociferous in support of Kenny and his coaching staff, and he delivered for them on the field, too. 

Honourable mentions: Andrew Omobamidele, John Egan, Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Chiedozie Ogbene

Losers 

Aaron Connolly

aaron-connolly-reacts Aaron Connolly reacts during the home draw with Azerbaijan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connolly was a favourite of Kenny’s even at the midway point of the campaign, but has suffered a precipitous fall since. He was denied blatant penalties away to Serbia and Portugal and won the corner from which Ireland scored in Faro, but made little impact beyond that. 

Kenny has invested a lot of faith in Connolly and declared in September that we have only seen 70% of his ability, but at the moment he is a distance beneath even that. He was left on the bench for the two games in October and didn’t make the squad at all this month, admittedly as he nursed a heel injury. 

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He has been replaced by Chiedozie Ogbene and now needs to kickstart his career. That may have to be away from Brighton, as Kenny spoke unusually candidly of how his career has stalled away from their first-team, saying a loan move to the Championship and the “focus” of playing twice a week would benefit him. 

Ciaran Clark 

ciaran-clark Ciaran Clark against Luxembourg. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland aren’t exactly laden with Premier League regulars but one of them, Clark, can’t get in the squad having been implicated in the defeat in Serbia and the nightmare against Luxembourg. 

Ireland conceded thrice in Belgrade with Mitrovic easily out-jumping Clark for the third goal, but it was his performance at home to Luxembourg that has left the lasting damage. Playing on the left of the back three but not particularly comfortable in possession, Luxembourg targeted him and those closest to him. Thus he gave the ball five times in the first 12 minutes and nine times overall before he was hooked on the hour mark. 

He hasn’t been included in a squad since and given Ireland’s now remarkable depth at centre-back, he may not be back for some time. 

Shane Long 

shane-long-helps-to-set-up-james-mccleans-goal Shane Long in action against Qatar in Debrecen, Hungary. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Kenny has invigorated several senior players but Long has slipped off the radar. He played the final half hour of the first two games and started the first friendly with Qatar, but hasn’t played since, unfortunately struck down with Covid on the eve of Ireland’s qualifier in Portugal. 

He may yet return, though it was telling that Callum O’Dowda, rather than Long, replaced the injured James Collins in the most recent squad.

Darren Randolph 

darren-randolph Darren Randolph, pictured against Wales in the 2020 Nations League. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Injury prior to the first qualifier in Serbia ended Randolph’s impressive run of playing in every competitive senior international since being brought off the bench in the 2015 win against Germany. 

That night he learned of how permanent a goalkeeper’s one-off opportunity can be, and now he is on the opposite end of the same phenomenon. Randolph has not been named in a squad since with Bazunu, Caoimhin Kelleher and Mark Travers all ahead in the pecking order. 

His club situation has not helped: Randolph is now third-choice at West Ham and not making the bench in Premier League games. A late attempt for a loan move was thwarted, the worst of all possible outcomes as the prospect of the deal meant James Talbot, rather than Randolph, was called up as injury cover for the triple-header in September. 

Caoimhin Kelleher 

caoimhin-kelleher-makes-a-save Caoimhin Kelleher makes a save after his introduction to the 0-0 friendly draw with Hungary. Source: Attila Trenka/INPHO

It is too harsh to call Kelleher a loser of the campaign given the hand he was dealt. Had he not been injured before the first game in Belgrade he would likely have started, and such is his quality, he may well have kept his place from there. 

Jurgen Klopp has called Kelleher the most talented goalkeeper of his age in Europe…it’s his bad luck that Gavin Bazunu is three years younger. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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