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Ireland's best performance since Euro 2016 deserved more

Stephen Kenny’s men were a penalty shootout away from the play-off final.

The Irish team watch on during last night's penalty shootout.
The Irish team watch on during last night's penalty shootout.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

1. Ireland’s best performance since Euro 2016 deserved more

IT WAS ROY KEANE who most famously lamented Ireland’s tendency to celebrate ‘moral victories’ and there was a time where that view became more or less the consensus.

The Irish team, Keane argued, should strive for more than just the occasional big result at a major tournament.

In one sense, last night was the type of ‘moral victory’ that Keane despised.

Yet the context of the ex-Man United star’s comments are important. They were made amid the Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy eras, when Irish football was generally on the rise.

Nowadays, a moral victory is still far from ideal, but it feels infinitely better than what preceded it.

For much of the last 20 years, Irish football has taken too many backward steps. There have been brief moments of euphoria — whatever you thought of the style in which it was achieved, qualifying for a 16-team Euro 2012 was not an achievement to be balked at, while victories over Italy and Germany under Martin O’Neill were up there with the most memorable moments in Irish football history.

Yet these special occasions have been anomalies. For long periods, the Irish team established a reputation as being hard to watch, playing an out-dated version of football that was incompatible in the modern international game.

Despite the result, last night was a rare sign that Irish football is headed in the right direction.

The Irish players played with purpose. They were positive and not reactive, as Kenny had urged his team to be in the pre-match press conference. They created chances and often looked dangerous, dominating possession for periods — characteristics that have been virtually non-existent in their away displays for a number of years.

It was by no means a perfect display of course — the Boys in Green still are not anywhere near clinical enough in the final third — but it was enough to warrant optimism for the future.

It was far less depressing, for instance, than the last play-off the team were involved in — an emphatic 5-1 defeat at home to Denmark prior to the 2018 World Cup.

The closest parallel was in fact another play-off involving the Irish team — the climactic 2010 World Cup qualifier against France. As on that occasion, Ireland played in a highly enterprising fashion, before falling to an unfortunate loss that they scarcely deserved.

That 2009 match at the Stade de France, and the rare joy with which Ireland played, proved to be somewhat of a false dawn, as the team largely reverted to old bad habits thereafter.

This time, however, will surely be different, with Kenny the most progressive coach the Boys in Green have had in quite some time.

As always with Irish sport, it’s the hope that kills you.

2. Could we see a raft of retirements?

It may only be the beginning of an era with respect to the Stephen Kenny regime, but last night might well be the end of the line for a number of players, many of whom have been loyal servants to the national side for a long time.

While no one would be tipping it to go ahead as planned with any great deal of certainty in the current climate, as it stands, the World Cup in Qatar is due to take place between 21 November and 18 December in 2022.

James McClean will be 33. Seamus Coleman will have just turned 34. David McGoldrick will turn 35 over the course of the tournament. Darren Randolph will be the same age. Shane Long will be almost 36. Of course, some of these individuals may prove resilient, but it seems unlikely all these key members of the squad will continue to be so prominent for the forthcoming campaign.

3. Better days to come?

There were understandable complaints about the lack of time Stephen Kenny had to prepare the players ahead of last night’s crucial clash with Slovakia.

However, that excuse won’t be applicable the next time major tournament qualifiers roll around.

The Uefa qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup is not set to begin until the end of March in 2021, with the groups due to conclude the following November and the play-offs happening in March 2022.

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Ireland have four Nations League fixtures before then, and Kenny will surely now decide to use these games for a degree of experimentation.

One of the positives in relation to the Ireland squad is its age profile, which at the moment is considerably younger than it has been for some time.

The likes of Jayson Molumby, Josh Cullen, Jack Byrne, Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah will be aiming to properly establish themselves in the side over the coming months amid this transitional phase.

There is also hope when you look at some of the underage players – Gavin Bazunu, Lee O’Connor, Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins, Connor Ronan, Jason Knight, Will Smallbone, Michael Obafemi and Jonathan Afolabi are among the starlets to have made encouraging strides at both club and international level, and they could well make the step up provided they fulfil their potential.

So while last night’s result is undoubtedly a blow for Irish football, both on a practical and psychological level, there are at least some signs of potentially better days to come.

4. Will the Euros even take place in Dublin anyway?

You can hardly blame Uefa for not anticipating a global pandemic, but the novel one-off idea to have 12 host countries for the European Championships looks more ill-fated by the day.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty how serious the Covid-19 crisis will be come next summer, but unless there’s a drastic improvement, the current pan-European format seems totally impractical.

And even if the four matches due to take place in the Aviva Stadium do go ahead, it is hard to imagine them occurring in a packed stadium given the current situation.

It doesn’t make last night’s result any less disappointing from an Irish perspective, but it is worth at least pointing out that even before their Euros dream ended, it was not exactly shaping up to be the idyllic scenario originally envisaged.

5. The succession plan has not aged well

Even when it was first announced, Ireland’s succession plan felt bizarre.

The cliché in football is to ‘pick the best man for the job’. In the FAI’s case, they chose two.

Mick McCarthy had been due to manage throughout the Euros qualifying campaign, before Stephen Kenny took over ahead of the World Cup qualifiers.

Of course, the coronavirus crisis threw that idea into chaos, and Kenny took over slightly earlier than expected.

Given the lucrative terms of Mick McCarthy’s contract at a time when Irish football was financially struggling, the mess that was made of the terms involving Robbie Keane’s deal and the various other complications that are comprehensively outlined in Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan’s excellent ‘Champagne Football’ book, the whole situation now feels like the last great folly of the old FAI regime.

The original thinking, of course, was that the ‘safe pair of hands’ that McCarthy represented would increase Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the Euros, before the more ambitious appointment of Stephen Kenny transpired.

But now that Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the tournament has ended, the plan can safely be described as a failure.

McCarthy did improve morale after the dark days towards the end of Martin O’Neill’s reign, and he was unfortunate not to be able to complete the campaign as was originally planned.

Yet even before last night, Ireland had some fantastic chances to qualify that they passed up. McCarthy’s second coming was short on memorable moments. The 0-0 draw in Georgia feels particularly wasteful with the benefit of hindsight, while the trips to Denmark and Switzerland, though typically spirited, were also characterised by the kind of pragmatism that Ireland largely eschewed against the Slovaks.

Now that it’s all over and the post-mortem can begin, it seems fair to ask the pertient question: would they not have been better off simply appointing Kenny in the first place?

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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