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No one ever said it was going to be easy for Stephen Kenny and Ireland

England were the far superior side on a disappointing night for Ireland at Wembley.

stephen-kenny-dejected-late-in-the-game Ireland manager Stephen Kenny dejected late in the game. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

1. No one ever said it was going to be easy for Stephen Kenny

IF YOU FOCUS on the pure statistics, it doesn’t looking great from Stephen Kenny’s perspective.

In six matches, Ireland have lost three and drawn three. 

Since the beginning of this new era, they have scored just one goal, a trademark Shane Duffy header in the dying minutes all the way back in Kenny’s first game in charge away to Bulgaria.

On a dismal evening at Wembley, Ireland doubled the total number of goals they have conceded since the Dubliner took charge, from three to six.

And last night was undoubtedly the worst performance Kenny’s Ireland have produced, albeit England are also, by some distance, the best team they have faced.

From the outset, it looked somewhat of a mismatch.

For instance, England’s attack comprised of two of the best players in the Premier League so far this season, Jack Grealish and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, as well as Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, one of the outstanding young players in Europe at the moment.

By contrast, Ireland had Adam Idah and Callum O’Dowda, who aren’t guaranteed starters for Norwich and Bristol City, as well as Daryl Horgan, who is playing for a Wycombe side currently third from bottom in the Championship.

That is not to denigrate the Irish players, they are all good professionals, but they are simply not at the same level in terms of ability as their English counterparts.

3-0 ultimately was an accurate reflection of the considerable gap in quality between these two teams, though Kenny’s men were further hamstrung by individual defensive errors, as well as a variety of factors that meant the squad was somewhat depleted going into game.

There was much talk in the build-up to this clash about past encounters between the sides.

Prior to Thursday night, England’s last win in the fixture had come way back in 1985 — a 2-1 victory over an Eoin Hand-managed Irish team.

And only once in their history have Ireland suffered a more comprehensive defeat against the Three Lions, when they lost a 1958 World Cup qualifier 5-1.

Since the 1985 game, Ireland’s record had been one win, five draws and one abandoned match.

A pertinent question to ask might be why the gap between the two countries now appears so great, when there evidently was little between them during the Charlton years. Why have Ireland fallen so far behind and England accelerated towards the top of the international tree in the intervening period?

The answer is not an easy one to explain, and comes down to a series complex issues that go way beyond Stephen Kenny and the players on the field last night, far too extensive to summarise satisfactorily within the confines of one article. Population is certainly a factor, but so too are resources, talent development and the way football is run at a variety of levels in the respective countries.

Nonetheless, last night certainly highlights the magnitude of the task facing the Irish manager and his squad. They now have a clear idea of what international football’s optimal level feels like and just how far off it they currently are.

2. Could this fixture have been avoided?

On the face it, this was a game that England’s players could have done without in the midst of a hectic footballing schedule.

Conversely, it was a fixture that many Irish stars badly needed, given that a number of players have been struggling for first-team football — of the 11 that started for the visitors, only John Egan, Matt Doherty, Alan Browne, Cyrus Christie, Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Horgan could be described as nailed-on starters for their clubs.

It is hard to remember a time when the outlook has been as grim for Ireland with regards to pure talent available, whereas we are arguably witnessing a golden age for English football, or at least the potential for one.

With all that in mind, the timing of the fixture was far from ideal from an Irish perspective.

As so many people joked on Twitter, Ireland perhaps might have been better off arranging their traditional friendly with Oman.

With goals and confidence in short supply, chasing the ball around for 90 minutes against one of the best sides in the world is bound to do little for morale.

Yet the extraordinary circumstances that formed the backdrop of this game must also be taken into consideration.

With the complaints around Covid particularly in the last international window, it is easy to see why a friendly with England, with minimal travel and hassle involved, would appeal.

It’s hard to believe Ireland will have gained much — other than a bit more match fitness for those that were lacking it — from being resoundingly beaten by superior opposition. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

3. Encouraging signs from Ireland’s young players

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dominic-calvert-lewin-with-dara-oshea England's Dominic Calvert-Lewin with Dara O'Shea of Ireland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While last night won’t have made for pretty viewing for Irish fans, it would be inaccurate to suggest the game was completely devoid of positives for the Boys in Green.

There were a handful of encouraging moments. Notably when Jeff Hendrick lofted a lovely through ball to Daryl Horgan, though unfortunately there was no one on hand to convert the Galway native’s dangerous cross.

Yet such attacking ventures were sporadic at best for the away side — Ireland had to wait until the 73rd minute to register their first shot on target and they would do that just once more over the course of the game.

On a night they were thoroughly outclassed, perhaps the most encouraging signs could be seen in the performance of Ireland’s young players.

Jayson Molumby brought a great deal of positivity to the midfield when he was introduced in the second half, with the Brighton man not afraid to carry the ball and attempt ambitious passes.

After an unfortunate early knock suffered by John Egan, Dara O’Shea replaced the Sheffield United man and did not look out of place at this level.

Adam Idah got very little service but still worked diligently and led the line as well as could be expected in this thankless predicament.

The trio of aforementioned youngsters all worked recently enough with Kenny at U21 level, and if they continue to progress, could represent the fulcrum of the Irish team for years to come.

When you consider that plus point, as well as the fact that the U21 team still have a good chance to qualify for a first-ever major tournament by winning their final two qualifiers against Iceland and Luxembourg, then the future does not seem quite as gloomy as the manner of last night’s performance would suggest.

4. Jack Grealish stars 

jack-grealish-with-cyrus-christie England's Jack Grealish with Cyrus Christie of Ireland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As much as Stephen Kenny tried to downplay the presence of Jack Grealish and Declan Rice in the English set-up in the build up to last night, it was hard not to watch the match without thinking ‘if only’.

While Rice was left on the bench, Grealish starred for the first 61 minutes, before being replaced by Phil Foden.

As is often the case in football, the game was ultimately won and lost in midfield. Of course, the goals came about as a result of Irish defensive errors, but the pressure was so relentless that it always seemed a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the hosts would score.

As the Three Lions’ primary playmaker, neatly tying everything together, Grealish showed not for the first time this season why he is so highly rated.

The 25-year-old Aston Villa star was integral in the home side dictating the play, ensuring England controlled the match from start to finish, and looks the type of creative talent that the Three Lions have conspicuously lacked in the past, an issue that has so far consistently prevented them from reaching the zenith of international football in recent times.

5. Shane Duffy looking short of confidence

Ireland’s lack of goals has been a recurring problem for a number of years, but with occasional exceptions, the team can normally be relied upon to put in a solid defensive display.

Last night though was one of those anomalies — like the 5-1 and 4-1 respective defeats to Denmark and Wales during the Martin O’Neill era, they were uncharacteristically error-prone at both ends of the pitch.

All three goals conceded were eminently avoidable, as the away side made it all too easy for their opponents.

Shane Duffy has been enduring a torrid time at club level with Celtic — the club he joined on loan at the start of the season — culminating in his omission from the starting XI for their most recent league game against Motherwell.

Yet as Brighton colleague Aaron Connolly pointed out during the week, you do not become a bad footballer overnight.

If you were to ask any fan or pundit to select Ireland’s best player over the last four years, they would be hard pressed to identify anyone other than the Derry native.

Even as recently as the play-off with Slovakia, the 28-year-old was a standout performer.

Last night though, he appeared to bring his inept club form onto international scene.

On more than one occasion, he lost a set-piece dual with Harry Maguire — including for England’s all-important opening goal.

His distribution was also poor at times, and for a team that insists on playing out from the back, as Kenny’s sides normally do, that is a real problem.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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