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Time for the talking to stop as Stephen Kenny and Ireland finally begin a new era in Sofia

The long, long wait for Kenny’s first game in charge comes to an end in the Uefa Nations League tonight.

Stephen Kenny at the pre-game Irish training session in Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia.
Stephen Kenny at the pre-game Irish training session in Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia.
Image: Kostadin Andonov/INPHO

Updated Sep 3rd 2020, 9:12 AM

MINUTES INTO STEPHEN Kenny’s 2018 unveiling as Irish U21 manager and senior-boss-in-waiting, a journalist’s Google Maps chimed with immaculate timing: “You have arrived.” 

The journey began in front of 50 people in Longford and then wound itself around nights of joy, strife, glory, failure, and redemption before leading to Sofia and a debut in Irish football’s biggest job in front of…nobody. 

Kenny has negotiated enough improbabilities on his way here to know the universe might have a few more to throw back at him. 

It’s been a pretty interminable wait: since the day Kenny was unveiled in 2018, we’ve had seven senior men’s competitive goals, six FAI CEOs, five senior men’s wins, four Oireachtas Sport Committee meetings, three teenage Premier League debuts, two senior men’s managers, and one Ballybrack footballer rise from the dead. 

At least he’s had plenty of preparation time.

The U21s gig was useful in teaching him how to manage sessions and get his messages across in the tight confines of an international window, while the Toulon tournament has given him the experience of managing in a competition scenario that he will hopefully have cause to use with the senior team. 

He soaked up ideas by spending time at a number of clubs including Reading and Brentford and met Roberto Martinez in the lobby of a Dublin hotel for tips on, among other things, how best to work with club managers on international call-ups. 

Kenny could look for worse templates than Martinez’, who is playing crisp and fluid football having united a squad of disparate backgrounds. 

We’ve heard lots of how Kenny’s Ireland will play, but he will be just as eager to stress to his players why they play. 

Cultivating a collective identity among his squad has always been important to Kenny: he took the Longford Town job and changed the colours of the away kit to blue and gold to match the county’s GAA teams, and when he stayed on with Derry City in the 2010 First Division, he deliberately recruited players who grew up within a few miles of the city. 

After he was promoted to the senior job, Kenny took a week during the lockdown to arrange Zoom calls with the players included in previous squads by Mick McCarthy, setting an hour aside for each between 10 in the morning and six in the evening. 

james-mccarthy James McCarthy trains at Abbottstown earlier this week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He spoke about this on a corporate webinar in May, and honed in on his learning more about the Irish backgrounds of the British-born players: James McCarthy comes from a family of fluent Irish speakers in Gweedore, he noted, while Callum O’Dowda’s grandfather was a tenor from Louth who left for England to further his career. 

Kenny, of course, is unique in this context because he never left for England. 

Jason McAteer was first to hang a question mark beside that fact, with Seamus Coleman giving it short shrift in return. “I don’t think it needs a reaction. There are always going to be people with opinions, but I don’t think the manager needs to answer any on that, his record speaks for itself.” 

Kenny has given the impression in public he is largely impervious to this criticism, and has certainly been unafraid to talk with the kind of heady optimism that might be easily thrown back in his face, saying last week his ambition is to change the perception of Irish football around the world and slough off its associations with a “British style.” 

“Sometimes I answer questions too honestly but it’s not a deliberate strategy”, he said yesterday. “Maybe it’s not wise, maybe other people are wiser than me. But I do believe that we have a lot of potential coming through the ranks and I think we have a lot of good players in the squad already.

“I don’t feel any real pressure, I think there’s pressure with international management regardless. I don’t see any added pressure really.” 

There has been an acknowledgment that these muscle memories won’t waste away overnight. Darren Randolph said there will be a change in how Ireland play, but that we shouldn’t expect a kind of green-clad Manchester City. 

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Kenny has said as much too, but has promised his Irish side will play with confidence and will be aggressive in pressing high up the pitch tonight. This was an ambition of McCarthy’s team too, of course, but it was too often brief and uneven  – pressing is only effective when the whole team does it. 

That Ireland intend on keeping the ball and passing it more often under Kenny will actually make this pressing game easier when they lose it, given the players should find themselves standing closer together when they do lose the ball. 

There is unlikely to be a revolution in team selection either.

Kenny rates the back four and goalkeeper he inherited from McCarthy as among the top 10 in Europe, so expect Randolph, Enda Stevens, John Egan, and Shane Duffy to start. The only doubt is where Kenny falls on the Doherty/Coleman divide. While Coleman is his captain, Doherty may get the nod tonight.

matt-doherty-and-seamus-coleman Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The formation will be some variation on a 4-3-3 and given Kenny’s effusive public statements, it would be a surprise if James McCarthy does not make a first international appearance in almost four years at the base of midfield. 

Jeff Hendrick has not played a game in six months and might find his place under some threat from Hary Arter or Jayson Molumby, while Kenny has spoken about his fondness for having a left-footed player in the midfield three, so Conor Hourihane or Robbie Brady may find a role there. 

With David McGoldrick absent, Shane Long will probably lead the line, though Adam Idah is highly regarded. Kenny has also spoken of needing to have his wide forwards play further infield and closer to the striker, so he may opt for a right-footer on the left (Aaron Connolly has played there for him at U21 level) and a left-footer on the right (if so, Brady is in the mix here too, along with Callum O’Dowda.) 

Bulgaria, meanwhile, have undergone a change of their own since they were easily beaten in a friendly in Dublin last year. 

Georgi Dermendzhiev has been appointed manager after a lengthy domestic coaching career gilded by qualification for the group stages of European competition (sound familiar?) and started his reign with an impressive 1-0 win over Czech Republic last year. 

Dermendzhiev has lowered the average age of his squad – forcing Kenny and his backroom staff to revise many of the scouting reports they had prepped -  and Kenny has identified Ismail Isa, Bozhidar Kraev and Spas Delev as likely attacking threats.

Bulgaria are without Cagliari striker Kiril Despodov, however, who is self-isolating in Italy having tested positive for Covid-19. 

The Nations League’s byzantine format can be forbidding, but these are competitive games with direct and indirect consequences: results will inform seeding for the World Cup play-off draw later this year and the competition offers a backdoor to World Cup playoffs, all the while offering crucial preparation for next month’s Euro 2020 playoff with Slovakia. 

And so, on with the games, as the decades of harboured ambition that led to months of bided time can finally be put to rest for Stephen Kenny, and allow a new journey to finally begin in earnest. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Enda Stevens; James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane; Robbie Brady, Shane Long, Aaron Connolly. 

KO: 7.45pm; TV: Sky Sports 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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