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Dublin: 3°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Plane saga dominates build-up as Kenny searches for important win against Wales

With the Euros dream dead, Ireland need to start getting results to improve their seeding for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers draw.

Stephen Kenny at Irish training ahead of the clash with Wales.
Stephen Kenny at Irish training ahead of the clash with Wales.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

FEW VISITING INTERNATIONAL sides have as wide an experience of Dublin as Wales.

They were the first visiting international side to play soccer at Croke Park; they have lost at Dalymount and won at Tolka Park; and they have even appeared at the RDS, when the Five Nations Rugby turfed Jack Charlton’s side out of Lansdowne Road in 1992. 

They have played to packed houses at Lansdowne Road old and new, and even they have prior experience of the eerie, empty Aviva they will be met with later today, having played in 2011′s inglorious Carling Nations Cup. Aaron Ramsey scored his third international goal in that tournament, against Northern Ireland and in front of 529 people. 

It’s the Nations League this afternoon, and sadly, getting 529 people into the ground would represent the kind of progress that is currently a distant dream. 

Not that today is a natural dwelling for dreamers. Playing Wales for a fifth time in three-and-a-half years, in an empty stadium, and three days after the cruel perishing of long-lingering Euros hopes, isn’t the kind to thing to get Freudians too excited. 

That said, the build-up to this game was dominated by analysis of the Irish team’s eternal Oedipal  conflict: the quality of the FAI’s custody. The full reasons behind Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah’s absence from Thursday’s game have finally been established, although the WhatsApp conspiracy theories have long since replaced Jon Bon Jovi as the week’s least reliable source

“Bossman Steo” has reason to be fuming, mind.

After one staff member was pulled from the trip at late notice with a positive Covid test, his replacement tested positive the night before Thursday’s game. Said staff member was asymptomatic and had returned negative tests on Sunday and earlier on Wednesday afternoon, the latter from a test conducted on Tuesday morning, hours before Ireland flew out. 

Nonetheless, the staff member was forced into self-isolation and his contact tracing tagged Connolly and Idah as close contacts, as they spent more than two hours at a distance of less than two metres from the staff member on the flight to Bratislava: 1.7 and 1.9 metres, to be precise. 

As it transpires, Connolly and Idah sat in the wrong seats. The back of the plane was reserved for the non-playing members of staff, with management and players allocated seats to the front of the plane. The players gone on first, though, and four Irish players took the seats at the back of the plane. 

Nobody told them to move, and thus Connolly and Idah spent the flight sitting behind the Covid-positive member of staff. They had negative tests, wore masks and didn’t interact with the staff member, but the players were bound by inflexible rules. 

“That seems to be the case”, confirmed Kenny when asked if the players sat in the wrong seat. He was sitting at the front of the plane and unaware. 

aaron-connolly Aaron Connolly: sidelined. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kenny’s pre-match press conference was dominated by the most controversial seating plan since Golfgate, and the Irish boss is known to be frustrated that an employee performing a “non-essential” role was drafted in at short notice, even though their Covid tests seemed to be in order. 

In what may be a new Irish football record, it has taken three games for Kenny to be asked whether he has confidence in the support staff around him.

“It’s not for me to be making public statements like that. That would be grossly irresponsible of me to do that, and I’m not really going to comment on all of those aspects now. That’s just the way I genuinely feel.

“Listen, we have a lot of great staff here, a lot of good people here, this situation is unprecedented for sure. I think it’s something we just have to contend with. I think, without doubt, everyone can learn but it’s an unfortunate situation and one that we have to live with.”

He said there won’t be many changes to the travelling party to Helsinki for Wednesday’s game against Finland.

Kenny will have to make some changes for this afternoon’s game, however. Idah and Connolly have gone back to their clubs, while David McGoldrick is out with injury and James McCarthy is doubtful.

The substitutes in Bratislava – Alan Browne, Callum O’Dowda, Shane Long, and Robbie Brady – will likely start, though the back four may remain unchanged.

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Matt Doherty’s struggling with cramp in the closing stages of Thursday night might offer an opportunity to Cyrus Christie, though, as Seamus Coleman is injured.

These changes are, of course, all Covid-dependent. The players and staff were tested again in Dublin on Friday evening, with the results expected to come through by Saturday night. As of 11pm the FAI had not released the results.

Kenny needs to balance the need to make the changes with the importance of the game. It may not be an alluring occasion, but the game is important for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, if Ireland are going to use the Nations League as a backdoor to a play-off for the 2022 World Cup, they need to win today. Only group winners are in contention for three play-off places, as Uefa have fixed the glitch that allowed Ireland get the Slovakia game without winning a game in the last campaign. One point from their opening two games has already left them five points behind Wales.

More pressingly, Ireland can give their seeding for that World Cup draw a fillip by picking up points between now and the end of the Nations League campaign.

The seeding is determined by the Fifa world rankings, and Ireland are currently in pot three, heightening the prospect of a nightmare draw for Qatar 2022.

Romania are in the final spot in pot two, but only eight ranking points ahead of Ireland. To illustrate how quickly that gap can be closed: a win today would give Ireland nine ranking points.

ryan-giggs Ryan Giggs celebrates Wales' 2018 Nations League win at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Realistically, there are four pot two spots up for grabs, but if Ireland are to contend for them, they will have to win a Nations League game for the first time ever. Ireland are currently on a run of seven competitive games without a win, their-second worst streak ever. (The worst is a 14-match winless run that ended in 1972.)

Today would be a good place to start, with Wales coming to Dublin again without Gareth Bale. Aaron Ramsey is available, however, linking up from Juventus having missed Thursday’s 3-0 friendly defeat to England.

Even allowing for the usual pre-game bromides, Ryan Giggs seems to have been genuinely impressed with Ireland’s ultimately fruitless performance in Slovakia, flattering us with words we’ve waited a long time to hear: “I thought they were the better team, with lots of energy and not giving you time on the ball.”

Most were encouraged by the Irish performance in spite of the result, and although Kenny yesterday called the performance “exceptional”, the taste of defeat is still on his tongue.

“The performance gives an indication of what to expect and to improve on that, but I’m not trying to spin a situation. We were very, very disappointed to lose and that is something that we just have to accept.”

Qatar 2022 looks an awful long way away from here, but Ireland can at least begin doing themselves favours from today.

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Enda Stevens; Jeff Hendrick, Josh Cullen; Callum O’Dowda, Alan Browne, Robbie Brady; Shane Long

Wales (Possible XI): Wayne Hennessy; Conor Roberts, Joe Rodon, Ben Cabango, Ben Davies; Joe Morrell, Ethan Ampadu; Harry Wilson, Aaron Ramsey, David Brooks; Tyler Roberts

On TV: Sky Sports Football; KO: 2pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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