One of the worst results in Ireland's footballing history, but here's why Stephen Kenny still deserves time

The Irish team suffered a humiliating defeat at home to Luxembourg on Saturday night,

A shot of Luxembourg's winning goal.
A shot of Luxembourg's winning goal.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

1. One of the worst results in Ireland’s footballing history, but here’s why the Stephen Kenny project still deserves time

IT WAS IRELAND’S captain Seamus Coleman who gave one of the most damning assessments of the dismal loss to Luxembourg.

“It’s a shocking result, an embarrassing result,” he told RTÉ. “Let’s not hide behind anyone for that. That’s on us as players. We should be embarrassed. 

“As players we need to have a good, hard look at ourselves. You need people demanding the ball out there and I don’t think we did that enough. If you’re building up on one side you need people to want it out the other side, and I don’t think we had enough voices.

“Listen, I’ve got to come out here and do an interview but there are no words for that. It’s embarrassing on behalf of everyone at home watching. As players we take that on the chin but it’s nowhere near what we wanted.”

Kenny himself was only slightly less damning in his verdict.

“I take responsibility for the whole thing,” he said. “It’s not good enough. I think the players are a lot better than they showed in that match. Compared to the performance in Serbia it was chalk and cheese.”

There is little doubt that the ignominious 1-0 defeat will now be remembered alongside similar debacles — the 0-0 draw with Liechtenstein, the 3-1 catastrophe in Macedonia and the 5-2 capitulation against Cyprus in particular spring to mind.

And unlike the three aforementioned games, the Luxembourg match was on home turf, albeit without the benefit of a buoyant crowd roaring Ireland on.

So there is no escaping the sense that losing at the Aviva to the team with an estimated population of a little over 600,000 and ranked 98th in the world by Fifa — 56 places below Ireland — is one of the worst results in the country’s history.

The performance and result was so bad that it has led some critics to question Stephen Kenny’s future in the job.

It’s certainly the lowest point in a reign that has so far yet to produce any real highs.

Ireland have failed to win all 10 of the matches Kenny has presided over, losing six (or seven, depending on whether you count the Slovakia game as a draw or defeat).

By the time the Irish team play their next competitive qualifier away to Portugal on 1 September, more than two years will have passed since their last competitive victory — an unremarkable 2-0 defeat of Gibraltar in June 2019.

It’s hard to remember another time in recent memory where the outlook, at least purely from a results perspective, has been so grim.

And yet, in spite of all this woe, it would be foolish to dispense with Kenny’s services at this stage.

Context is required in assessing the team’s awful run of form. They have been badly hit by injuries and Covid-related absences in recent months. Moreover, there have been some encouraging performances, especially away from home against Slovakia and Serbia.

But perhaps more importantly, having spent years of relying on the same narrow group of players, Kenny is the first Irish manager in a long while who has shown a willingness to trust in youth: last night’s starting XI included Gavin Bazunu (19), Dara O’Shea (22) and Jason Knight (20). Jayson Molumby (21) and Troy Parrott (19) were both introduced off the bench, while Aaron Connolly (21), Caoimhin Kelleher (22) and Adam Idah (20) probably would have featured were it not for injury.

Previous stalwarts of the team, such as Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy, James McClean and Robbie Brady have been boldly consigned to the substitutes’ bench. Glenn Whelan, a key member of the side under previous boss Mick McCarthy, is no longer even deemed worthy of a squad place.

So it’s clear that Ireland are a team in transition. Kenny wants players who fit his style and those that don’t tend to be relegated to peripheral roles at best. 

On a related note, the manager’s programme notes ahead of the game last night were an interesting read.

“I thought, at times, we played brilliantly in Belgrade on Wednesday,” he wrote. “The standard of the players’ technical ability was very evident and couldn’t be questioned. We played some terrific football against a top class international team away from home. We came out with a narrow 3-2 defeat but I think the narrative and the institutionalised thinking that we’re incapable of being a progressive football nation won’t effect the clarity of thinking and our determination to see an Irish team that supporters can identify with and are exhilarated by as we watch with our own eyes the high number of young players coming through to fulfil their potential within the framework of the Irish team.”

To dispense with Kenny at this juncture would feel like, not just a rejection of the man, but the concepts he promotes above. It would seem akin to admitting defeat and accepting that it is in Irish footballers’ DNA — as some have suggested — to rely primarily on basic, cautious, route-one football. A reversion to the near-unwatchable backs-to-the-wall 0-0 draws with Denmark and earning smash-and-grab victories at home to Georgia.

Indeed, for too long, Irish football has been obsessed with quick-fix solutions, both on the field and off it. Many millions of euro, which would have been better spent on the grassroots and player development, were instead reserved for high-profile managers that would earn positive results in the short term but contribute to Irish football’s stagnation in the long term.

Those previously in power bought into ‘the cult of the manager’ — as if one figure can suddenly cure Irish football’s many ills.

By contrast, Kenny is the first national team coach in a long time who has shown a genuine interest in what happens beyond the current qualifying campaign, in the long term benefit of Irish football even if it comes at his own immediate expense. To sack him and hire a new ‘miracle man’ would be simply repeating mistakes of the past and assuming one individual can swiftly resolve everything.

Last night’s defeat was one consequence of years of neglect at an administrative level in Irish football and there is bound to be plenty more pain on the horizon as Kenny and others work hard to undo the bad decisions of the past.

2. Was this Ireland team ever genuine World Cup qualification contenders in the first place?

inpho_01794874 Ireland's James McClean. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Many critics suggested last night that the Luxembourg defeat effectively ended Ireland’s World Cup qualification hopes.

Yet such talk assumes the Boys in Green had a genuine chance of reaching Qatar in the first place.

Consider it this way. There are 13 spots available for European teams. You would suspect that eight of those will be filled by Belgium, France, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia and Germany. That leaves five spots for the rest of Europe to compete for, and teams that have not been mentioned so far include the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland and Turkey. Given Ireland’s form even prior to losing their opening two qualifiers, it would take an extreme optimist to believe they belong in that company at present.

Whereas the question up until last night, based on the assumption that Portugal would top the group, was whether they could stay alive and earn a play-off spot by finishing second, even third place is now starting look like far from a guarantee. Luxembourg were the better team at times last night, while Azerbaijan will be no pushovers either, given that they were only beaten 1-0 by Portugal during the week.

3. Gavin Bazunu the only positive on a gloomy night

gavin-bazunu-during-the-warm-up Gavin Bazunu pictured in the warm-up prior to last night's match. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There was precisely one positive from an Irish perspective at the Aviva last night: Gavin Bazunu’s performance.

He was the one Irish player on the pitch that it would fair to fully absolve from any blame in the defeat.

He could do nothing about the superbly taken goal, his distribution was frequently excellent and everything else that was asked of him, he managed well.

For a 19-year-old to deliver such a composed performance was particularly impressive.

Bazunu certainly appears to have all the attributes required to be a top goalkeeper for many years to come.

It was also another step on a remarkable journey that saw him make his Shamrock Rovers debut at 16, in the process becoming the youngest first-team player in the club’s history.

He then signed for Man City in 2019 and has impressed coaches at the Etihad outfit ever since.

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This season has seen more progress, with the Dublin-born teenager of Nigerian descent joining League One side Rochdale on loan and establishing himself as a regular there.

It’s just a pity that the biggest moment in his career to date has been overshadowed for reasons largely beyond his control, but there are undoubtedly better days to come for the accomplished young goalkeeper.

4. Does Brian Kerr have a point?

Of the many critiques delivered in the wake of last night’s abysmal showing, Brian Kerr’s was among the most stinging.

“Tonight isn’t just down to Stephen’s faults or the team’s faults,” the former Ireland boss said on Virgin Media. “This has been coming for a good while.

“This is the fault of a lack of proper player development structure and coaching structure in Ireland for many years. There has been a dearth of talent coming through from the teams.

“Suddenly, Stephen is pouring players through to the senior team from the U21s that were successful for him for about a year who aren’t ready. But there was no real quality or depth to that, that has been proven.

“And the people who are in charge of that development should seriously be looking at themselves tonight, rather than just criticising the manager.”

Kerr himself boasts an impressive track record at developing players, given how he was integral to the most successful Irish underage sides ever, so his comments deserve to be considered seriously.

It’s hard to argue against the notion that Irish football has suffered due to player development issues in the past. Between the so-called ‘golden era’ that saw the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne come through, up until the present day, there was a definite lull in the production of top-level players. Nonetheless, there are also other factors, such as the English top flight essentially becoming an international league during that period, making it harder for Irish youngsters to thrive, with the sport in this country increasingly dependent on under-resourced League of Ireland clubs to produce talent.

Yet the narrative being promoted by Kenny and others is that the future is bright.

Ruud Dokter was appointed FAI High Performance Director in 2013 and it is still too early to clearly say whether or not his reign has been a success.

Certainly, the much-publicised controversies off the pitch in recent times have significantly hindered Irish football, from a financial, reputational and psychological standpoint.

Yet there remains optimism that the situation is improving, with consistently excellent results at underage level providing evidence for that outlook.

In addition, Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi, Dara O’Shea, Will Smallbone, Caoimhin Kelleher, Adam Idah and Mark Travers are among the highly promising young players to have received game time at Premier League level in the past year or two, while others such as Nathan Collins and Jason Knight are considered to be individuals with great potential in the Championship.

None of these players have established themselves as stars yet. Indeed, most aren’t even regulars in their respective clubs’ teams and statistically, it is likely that some will fall off the radar as is so often the case with gifted young players.

Yet the depth of talent at underage level appears greater now from an Irish perspective than it was five or 10 years ago, when far fewer young players were even getting a chance at Premier League level. And it will take another five to 10 years before we can definitively decide whether Kenny’s kids have flourished, or if Irish football’s underage structures remain as problematic as ever. 

What is certain, however, is that with the new rules regarding Brexit preventing Irish players under 18 from joining English teams, Premier League clubs can surely no longer be regarded as the most reliable environments in which to develop promising Irish players.

Perhaps with occasional assistance from Seria A and La Liga clubs, League of Ireland academies are surely now the most viable pathway forward, but whether the requisite levels of patience, investment and support can be implemented is another matter.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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