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The A-Z of the Irish football year, 2021

Our look back on another dramatic year on and off the field.

is for Andorra, who actually led Ireland for a brief period during a friendly game at the start of June. Happily, that goal proved to be the nadir, and Ireland have been an (almost) upward trajectory since. 

luc-holtz-during-the-game Luc Holtz. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

is for British-style, the reliable irritant that stalked even 2021. Ahead of the meeting in Faro and a year to the day since Stephen Kenny said he wanted to break Irish football’s association with a ‘British style’, Portugal manager Fernando Santos said “we know the characteristics of these British teams.” Worse was to come in the form of sheepskin-clad wind-up merchant Luc Holtz, who said Ireland had improved by reverting to a “British style” which they’d played for a hundred years. After his side were beaten 3-0, Holtz moaned about an alleged lack of sportsmanship from Ireland, saying he “expected more from a British team.” He was set right by an irate member of the Irish press – “This is like us writing that you’re Belgian” – before Kenny unloaded, saying Holtz had insulted all of the great Irish players of past generations by insinuating they played “caveman” football. 

is for Conference League, the new third-tier Uefa competition that drew supercilious snark from England but platformed the better elements of Irish football, seen in Bohs’ home victory against PAOK and Dundalk’s performance away to Vitesse. Shamrock Rovers missed an opportunity for group stage football in losing out to Flora Tallinn in the play-offs, but the defence of their league title gives them a good opportunity to make the step in 2022.

is for Damien Duff, a man allergic to drama and headlines in spite of the fact he constantly generates them. He began the year by walking out on Kenny’s staff – seemingly more in anger at the FAI than Kenny himself – and ends it by making his first step in management with Shelbourne. 

is for Euro 2020, with Ireland the sole host nation to fail to fulfil its commitments as the country clambered slowly from lockdown. (Our consolation prize is the 2024 Europa League final.) Meanwhile, we looked on as Italy took the crown on a day that Wembley took on the emblem of a demented, decadent and crumbling empire. And we may yet be committing to hosting a World Cup with these guys. 

ian-bermingham The scene of the 2021 FAI Cup final, ultimately on on penalties by Saint Patrick's Athletic. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

is for FAI Cup final, which attracted a record Aviva Stadium crowd and assumed its rightful role as one of the major days in the Irish sporting calendar. (Marred slightly, it must be said, by the Green Street cosplaying of an eejit minority at Irishtown.) 

is for Gavin Bazunu, the breakout star of the Irish football year. He made his debut in front of nobody at home to Luxembourg but made his name in Faro, saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty that was supposed to make him the most prolific goalscorer in the history of men’s international football. At this remove, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say Bazunu may retire as Ireland’s record caps holder. 

is for history, made by the Irish senior women’s team with a record, 11 (ELEVEN) – 0 win against Georgia at Tallaght Stadium. Chiedozie Ogbene also secured his place in the record books for the men’s team, becoming the first Africa-born senior Irish international with a debut against Hungary in June. 

I is for injured, as Jason Knight was in a training-ground tackle from his own manager, Wayne Rooney. Knight missed the trio of September internationals as a result and Stephen Kenny shouted Full House on his bingo card of abnormal fortune. 

cristiano-ronaldo-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Ronaldo does his thing. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

is for Jug, Matej, the officious Slovenian referee who failed to award Ireland a blatant penalty in their late defeat to Ronaldo/Portugal in Faro. Jug was seen smiling and bashfully booking Ronaldo for whipping his top off in celebrating the dramatic late winning goal. There were rumours in the Irish dressing room that it was Mr. Jug who went away with Ronaldo’s matchworn shirt, but he denied so when The42 contacted him via the Slovenian FA. 

is for Katie McCabe, arguably the best footballer Ireland have. She is at the heart of all that’s good about the Irish international team and also most that is debated: where, exactly, is her best position? She is playing at left-back for a star-studded Arsenal team, and is more than making a mark, making last season’s PFA Team of the Year. 

is for Luxembourg, who proved first to be Stephen Kenny’s menace and then his measure. The March defeat at a sodden, empty Aviva Stadium torpedoed Ireland’s qualifying hopes and marked a rock-bottom from which the manager has bounced back. The progress his side has made since was evidenced in the 3-0 win away to the same opponents in November, which has earned Kenny a contract extension set to include the Euro 2024 campaign. 

is for merger, as Bray Wanderers and Cabinteely join forces to take on the rest of the First Division from next season. They’ll play under the name Bray Wanderers and not, as now Twitter user suggested, Brayo Vallecabo.

is for normality, which seemed to break out in the FAI boardroom after two absurd, roiling years of departures, hires, disputes, leaks and MOUs. Long may it reign. 

is for O’Donnell, Stephen who led St Pat’s to second in the league and then the FAI Cup before promptly upping sticks for Dundalk. Pat’s were left furious, with Brian Kerr describing his behaviour as “disgraceful.” O’Donnell believes he had the right to leave. The atmosphere upon his return to Richmond Park next year should be…spicy. 

is for penalty, as the senior men’s team won their first spot kick in a game for more than five years when Jamie McGrath was fouled in the home friendly with Qatar. Callum Robinson converted it, Ireland’s first penalty since the Euro 2016 knockout loss to France. 

is for Qatar, who were added to Ireland’s group for a series of friendlies to better prepare them for the World Cup they are insanely hosting. They drew 1-1 in Hungary in March, before Ireland battered them 4-0 in Dublin. That is the end of our dalliance with them for now: sadly, we are not going to the World Cup. 

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

is for Robinson, Callum, who became the centre of the world’s scrutiny by becoming the highest-profile football based in England to say he has not yet taken the Covid-19 vaccine. The Irish players and manager leaped to his defence – Kenny might have picked a better word than “infectious” to describe his character – and Robinson then went on the kind of goalscoring run Irish football hadn’t seen for years, scoring twice in Azerbaijan and thrice at home to Qatar. It’s just a pity he missed the September internationals because of a positive Covid test. 

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is for Shamrock Rovers, again the dominant side in the country by a country mile, in spite of losing Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff in the off-season. The consistency elsewhere in their side and style and the better-than-expected performances from Danny Mandroiu helped mitigate against the losses, though, and with Byrne back for next year, group stage football in the Conference League is a realistic target. 

is for television coverage, the at-least annual debate which erupted more fiercely this year than ever before with RTÉ’s lack of live coverage of the European runs of Bohemians and Dundalk. No competition felt the loss of eir Sport more keenly than the League of Ireland. RTÉ’s Head of Sport Declan McBennett issued an explanation and defence of the situation in a memorably pugilistic interview with Johnny Ward on the LOI Weekly podcast. 

is for upset, with Shelbourne forcing the FAI to whisk the Women’s National League trophy across town in a dramatic finale. Peamount would win the league with victory against Galway and raced into a 2-0 lead, before suffering an incomprehensible, 5-2 collapse. That allowed Shels the chance to pilfer the title, and they did exactly that, beating eventual Cup winners Wexford 3-2. 

is for Viktor Orban the far-right strongman most annoyed by Stephen Kenny this year. Ireland took a knee to a wall of boos in Hungary in June, with Kenny later saying the boos reflected poorly on the country. Orban said he agreed with the football fans, saying they’d been provoked into their condemnation by the Irish players. “We do not expect the Hungarian national team to get on their knees but to fight, to win and, if they fail, to die standing up,” he declared, adding that Hungarian men kneel only “before God, the homeland and their beloved when they propose marriage.”

marc-bircham-in-the-crowd Marc Bircham watches the relegation play-off among the Waterford fans, days after he was sacked. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

is for Waterford FC, who pip Dundalk as the most chaotic club of 2021. The club has weaved a rich tapestry of farce over the last few years, but sacking manager Marc Bircham on the eve of a relegation play-off that they ultimately lost stands alone among the madness. 

is for xGAwhich you won’t need reminding stands for Expected Goals Against, for which Kenny’s Ireland registered their lowest figure since 2015. (Okay look, X is always the trickiest letter to fill in these pieces – ed.) 

is for Youth, promoted by Stephen Kenny and crucial to earning him a contract extension: Bazunu kept Ireland level away to Luxembourg with an absurd save from distance before Jason Knight was sprung from the bench to win the game. The young players are developing at different rates – Bazunu, Knight, Dara O’Shea, and Andrew Omobamidele are further ahead of Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly – but their infusion in the team was badly needed and gives Ireland a decent level of depth in most positions ahead of next year’s Nations League. 

is for Zefi, Kevin, who has perhaps signalled the post-Brexit future by leaving Shamrock Rovers for Inter Milan. Zefi was also part of an U17 Irish team that hammered Andorra earlier this year, a team notable for the fact there wasn’t a single English club represented in the entire squad. Welcome to the new age. 

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Gavin Cooney

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