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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 16 January 2021

The English video is a non-issue - Stephen Kenny's real problem is that the story went public

The FAI consider the matter dealt with, but the leaking of dressing room details undermines Kenny’s work as manager.

Stephen Kenny at Wembley.
Stephen Kenny at Wembley.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IN A WEEK that saw the centenary of Bloody Sunday commemorated at Croke Park and a great-grandson of an Easter 1916 rebel lead the Irish rugby team at Twickenham, it was Stephen Kenny who somehow became the Irish sporting figure at the centre of Anglo-Irish relations. 

Perhaps it was just the latest instance of Kenny’s bad luck. 

The UK Daily Mail startled with a story last Thursday, stating Kenny was under investigation by his employers following a complaint over a supposedly political team-talk and an allegedly “anti-English” motivational video shown to the players ahead of the friendly defeat at Wembley. 

An FAI statement released to the Mail said they were aware of issues around content shown to the squad ahead of the game, and were “already looking into the matter as a matter of urgency in order to establish the facts.” 

Outgoing CEO Gary Owens – still at Abbottstown under a handover period as new CEO Jonathan Hill remains in London – set to work to find out what happened. As he did so, rumours as to what Kenny showed the players went wild. 

The reaction ranged from false reports of what was shown – no, the squad didn’t watch all of In the Name of the Father ahead of the game – to musings as to what should have been shown (one fan on this writer’s Twitter timeline said a better reflection of our now-mature nation would have been to screen Simon Coveney’s truthtelling to Andrew Marr.)

In reality the video was a three-minute montage splicing previous Irish goals against England with scenes from Anglo-Irish history, which included the Easter Rising. 

It seemed harmless, and one person in the room told The42 the reaction was “completely blown out of proportion”, and that no one felt there was anything unusual about the video.

Two separate sources, not in the room when the video was shown but among the Irish squad “bubble” for the duration of the international window, said they were unaware of any members of the squad raising either the video or the team-talk as an issue. 

Nonetheless, anyone is entitled to take offence and, equally, the FAI are entirely right to look into a complaint raised by a player or staff member.

The regrettable part was that it played out in public.

The Mail in the UK pumped the hysteria, and splashed with the claim Kenny was being “summoned for emergency talks” over the situation, beneath a headline claiming he “may lose his job.”

They quoted Tory MP Andrew Bridgen to condemn a video he had not seen. “By firing up old resentments, the video only fuels extremism and racism and has no place in football. We must kick it out.”

Bridgen hasn’t always shown a deep awareness of old resentments: in 2018 he appeared on BBC Radio’s Nolan Show and said all English people are entitled to an Irish passport upon request.

Kelvin Mackenzie, meanwhile, decided to take operatic offence, and tweeted Kenny should be sacked for what he believed was “an anti-English video.” 

He repeated these views in his own online video, which segued into a complaint about Ireland’s neutrality during the second world war as a scrolling graphic on the screen carried testimonies of people who had saved on their car insurance. 

As Churchill acts go, it was less Winston than the jaunty commercial dog. 

It was a days-long absurdity Kenny should not have had to put up, and that the story went public also led to upset for Irish goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly. 

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Kelly left the Irish camp last Monday ahead of the flight from Cardiff to Dublin, and in a statement released by the FAI, he explained he was opting out in a Covid environment because of his asthma.

alan-kelly Alan Kelly. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On Saturday, in a personal statement this time issued on social media rather than through the FAI, Kelly said he was “disgusted” by claims he was responsible for the leak, as a result of a “innuendo” conflating his early departure from the camp with the leak. He denied ever leaking dressing room information in 35 years as a player and coach. 

Earlier that day, meanwhile, a couple of Irish newspaper reports claimed the issue was less the motivational video than Kenny’s team-talk and a speech the night before the game. One of these reports named four senior players supposedly growing “restless” at issues in the camp.

James McClean was named as one of these players, and he responded on Instagram by taking aim at the leaker without denying there were issues in the camp: “Didn’t want to public speak on the matter but this absolute gutter press…any issues within a camp should remain in a camp, nothing worse than a tout.” He concluded the post with an emoji of a rat.

Darren Randolph was another of the players named as being unhappy, and, curiously, an online report claiming he was set to retire from international football was later removed from the site on which it was posted.

The other two players named, Shane Duffy and Robbie Brady, are also understood to have backed their manager over the weekend. 

Kenny’s job was never in jeopardy, and his one-on-one meeting with Owens was one of roughly 12 held by the outgoing CEO to establish what happened. That the FAI’s response was described in the media as an “investigation” is understood to have irked some senior figures at Abbottstown, who consider the use of the word an exaggeration.

There was much caviling online at media outlets for what many saw as the reporting of a non-issue, but that the FAI confirmed they were looking into the matter made it a legitimate story for all Irish outlets to cover. 

Ultimately, the FAI released a statement last night saying no action will be taken, and that they consider the matter closed. 

Stephen Kenny may not consider it closed.

His historical tub-thumping may have been misguided and a little bit cringey, but it hasn’t caused any significant discord among his players and Kenny can be heartened by the swell of public support. This appalling run of form – one goal and no wins in eight games – has evidently not significantly weakened his position among Irish supporters still locked out of stadia.

Kenny’s problem is not the content of the story; it’s that the story emerged in the first place. 

That words said in confidence to players can seep into the public is deeply undermining, and hinders Kenny’s ability to do the job on his own terms.

If Kenny can’t plug the leak, however, a forbidding World Cup qualifying campaign will become more daunting still.


About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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