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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

McCarthy's Sky commentary a comical counterpoint as Kenny's Ireland show signs of real change

Although he initially looked uneasy with the new style, Shane Duffy showed some of Ireland’s traditional strengths to rescue a draw in Bulgaria.

Stephen Kenny during Ireland's 1-1 draw in Sofia.
Stephen Kenny during Ireland's 1-1 draw in Sofia.
Image: Kostadin Andonov/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY’S AMBITIONS are hardly modest – to move boldly from the shadow of Ireland’s neighbour and her football history to a new style of play that will be immediately apparent to all the nations of the Earth. 

Consider, then, the sheer number of cosmic aberrations that must unfold to lead to the first game of this revolution being televised to the sound of his predecessor. 

That Mick McCarthy ended up on Sky’s commentary of the game, and that he slipped immediately into last year’s news – that the result was the only good thing about Gibraltar away; that Conor Hourihane was never going to play left-back beyond an hour of a friendly game; that we should cross the ball more – gave the night the kind of sledgehammer symbolism even Michael Bay would tone down. 

And then there’s the ancient and recurring result: Opponent 1-1 Ireland (Shane Duffy.)

In truth, the goal and the result hew a very different look to the performance.

That Ireland scored from a corner shouldn’t be seen as a capitulation to the old days: set-pieces have always been important to Kenny, and he evidently targeted corners in this game as he spoke post-game that it was Ireland’s first goal from a corner since 2017. 

Kenny and most of the players wheeled out for press this week have been clear that there would be no vast changes in the space of this week, but in truth, there was more change than we could care to have expected. 

The stats bear out the change: Ireland had 59% of possession and made 549 passes, which was twice as many as Bulgaria and, for example, almost 150 more than they did in McCarthy’s last game against Denmark. 

conor-hourihane-celebrates-shane-duffy-scoring-an-equaliser-in-injury-time Shane Duffy celebrates his goal. Source: Kostadin Andonov/INPHO

Encouragingly, the players stuck to exactly what their new manager asked them to do.

Regardless of what you think of what Kenny is asking them to do, that they largely stuck to it offers an early rebuttal to the tired, players-may-not-respect-his-CV line. 

Ireland chased the game by rarely feeding the ball wide for full-backs to sling it into the box and instead kept on playing in tight spaces on the edge of the box. 

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This made for an almost comical comparison, as McCarthy spent the night urging Ireland to cross the ball and get it into the box, like some distant, no-good echo goading a relapse into the past. 

The players held firm. “Even when we were 1-0 down, we didn’t retreat to just lumping it, we kept to the style and that was positive”, said Duffy after the game. 

There were signs, however, that Kenny is going to have a few more tricky hurdles to negotiate in the weeks and months to come.

It was Duffy who showed his customary resilience and leadership to rescue the result, but there were often stages when he looked pretty unsuited to Kenny’s way.

Twenty seconds in, he staggered diffidently forward with the ball at his feet, miscontrolled it, and fouled the player he gave it to. Minutes later, he got on the ball in a similar position but this time he hesitated to move forward this, as James McCarthy gesticulated madly for him to get going. 

And minutes after that, John Egan provided an awkward comparison.

He strode confidently forward, dallied just long enough to draw an opponent, and then broke a line of Bulgarian players in slipping the ball through for McCarthy, who then had the space to move forward. 

Duffy’s passing was ragged and his lack of pace almost costly in the first-half, but for Darren Randolph’s marauding turn as Manuel Neuer. And while his’ was not the only Irish error in the Bulgarian goal it was probably the most glaring, caught as he was too far from Egan and goalscorer Bozhidar Kraev. 

And yet, without Duffy, Kenny would have lost his first game and then faced the early misgivings about a style with which his captain seemed uncomfortable. 

There is some mitigation here, of course – this was only Duffy’s fifth competitive game since February, and he seemed visibly tired by the end of the game. 

However, given we know Brighton have already deemed Duffy inessential to the overhaul of their playing style, and the fact Ciaran Clark and Dara O’Shea will soon be playing regular Premier League football as Duffy plays in Scotland, Kenny may soon be asking himself whether his vice-captain should remain as an automatic starter. 

Tonight Kenny answered that question in regard to his captain, but Duffy may pose a trickier question, as the new manager continues to negotiate the tension between the old and the new. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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