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'You can’t be paralysed by fear. Life is short'

Stephen Kenny is hoping for another positive display against Italy, after an encouraging start as Ireland U21 boss.

Stephen Kenny (file pic)
Stephen Kenny (file pic)
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

DESPITE SOME EXCELLENT recent results, Ireland U21s will not go into tonight’s fixture with Italy at Tallaght Stadium (kick-off: 8.05pm, live on Eir Sport) as favourites.

The Italians have players of the calibre of Moise Kean, Patrick Cutrone and Alessandro Bastoni to choose from — footballers who have more experience playing at a higher level than their Irish equivalents.

The game also pits the top seeds against the team deemed fourth-best in Group 1 when the draw was made.

Yet underdog status is nothing new for Kenny. Not many people would have tipped his side to prevail 3-1 away to Sweden last month, having gone a goal down and missed a penalty.

Similarly, you are talking about a manager who took Dunfermline to the Scottish Cup final, got Dundalk to the Europa League group stages and regularly oversaw sides who punched above their weight in the League of Ireland.

Kenny’s teams have always been renowned for playing good, positive, attacking football, and there is an excitement about this group of players in particular that he deserves partial credit for.

And that positivity is not necessarily confined to his teams’ styles. Kenny says it was a conscious decision for his side to play a number of their qualifiers early. It means they sit top of their group on nine points, with three wins from three. They sit six points ahead of Italy, due to the fact that Paolo Nicolato’s men have only played once — a 5-0 win over Luxembourg.

Nonetheless, particularly if they win this evening and go nine points clear of ostensibly their biggest rivals, the decision to get the games in early will end up looking like a masterstroke, as admittedly every decision does when a team is consistently winning.

On the other hand, if the first few games had not gone so well, Kenny would have left his team open to criticism and probably playing in front of a half-empty stadium tonight rather than a sold-out one. It was a calculated risk that has clearly paid off.

“We spoke when we formulated the fixtures,” Kenny explains. “We said: ‘Right let’s have 12 international games for the U21s in the one year, which you’d have never had before and say: ‘Right, let’s take on two games in every window,’ which is demanding.

“And it can be counter-productive, because we could lose. We’re going well at the moment, but if you’ve a bad four days, you find yourself behind in the group. We’re fourth seeds, fourth seeds never qualify as winners of groups, it’s very unusual if you ever qualify as a fourth seeds as a winner of the group.

So when we had the meeting, it’s not like the senior team where the fixtures are just drawn, you have to go in and negotiate your fixtures, you have to go in and say: ‘I’ll play you then.’ We sort of looked at it, and thought, the only way we could do well in my view, or the best way, was to try and win games and get momentum and keep it going.

“But you can miss key players for one window and lose two games. For example, Sweden only had one game in the last window and only one in the next one when they play us. But it’s given us a chance to get momentum and get points on the board. We took a game last March. It gave us a chance to get players in early and try to establish a team.”

Unaccustomed to the more sporadic rhythms of international football, Kenny has now had almost a year as Ireland U21 boss and he acknowledges it has taken some getting used to.

“It has [been different to club management], but I’ve just been very busy. I’m just learning, attending tournaments. It was lucky enough that it coincided with the U19s qualifying for Armenia, so I was able to go to Armenia, and then the U21 European Championships and Toulon, which was three weeks, because we had a week build-up and then two weeks — it was a busy period.

I’ve not done a lot on the training ground. What I do find actually just raising your voice and shouting takes a day or so to find your rhythm. Now that all those tournaments are over, I’ll focus on staying sharp from a coaching perspective.

“I only worked with one assistant [at Dundalk], Vinny [Perth], and on the training ground you split into various groups all the time. Ruaidhri Higgins then worked on the opposition and so forth, but I mainly worked with one assistant at clubs. I’ve two here; Keith Andrews and Jim Crawford, who have both been brilliant. But you need that. Say, for example, the Toulon Tournament — five games over 15 days. It’s a huge demand. You are trying to assess new teams and new players so quickly, and to coach the team to be able to play. So, you definitely need that.

“Then these two matches in this break as well, there is a lot of work in these breaks. I would have been very hands-on at club level. It’s just different.”

soccer-international-friendly-italy-v-brazil-emirates-stadium Stephen Kenny attended a lecture by Marcelo Lippi not long after Italy won the 2006 World Cup. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

At the moment, given his excellent start with the U21s, the unusual succession plan that will ultimately see him succeed Mick McCarthy as Ireland senior manager looks an inspired decision. It could have been so different though, had Kenny’s side been badly beaten in Sweden, or suffered shock losses against either Armenia or Luxembourg.

“Ultimately, these are all possibilities,” he says. “But you can’t be governed by fear either. There are no certainties, but you have to have confidence and you have to back yourself to do well. I think it’s important to have conviction and that’s the way I view it. Yes, things can change over one window. That’s the nature of matches.

“We are not sitting here patting ourselves on the back at the moment. Italy are one of the top two teams in Europe and they are coming here. Then we have third seeds Iceland away. Iceland have had a couple of convincing wins, they are doing well.”

And while a number of Ireland’s players are currently making encouraging strides for club and country alike, Kenny believes the former should not necessarily dictate the latter in terms of selection.

“I think there is a danger in focusing on what you don’t have sometimes. It’s not a league table either, to say, ‘How many players have you got playing in the Premier League, how many games have they played?’ The international team shouldn’t reflect a league table of how many appearances people have and so forth.

“You have to have your own vision of what you want, your own style of play and what fits that, what constitutes a team.

“I remember being in Scotland and attending a lecture by Marcelo Lippi, through an interpreter in Hampden, I think it was.

They had just won the World Cup and he was speaking about [Fabio] Grosso, the left-back, and all the players they brought from the teams in the lower part of Serie A to win the World Cup.

“They went with players rather than just names with Juve and Milan, or whatever.

“So, you’ve got to see it with your own eyes. You’ve got to see the potential in people, even if they are not really excelling with their club.

“You have got to make your own decision. Just because someone else has their own opinion on a player, such is the rapid change of managers at clubs that just because someone else doesn’t view it [doesn't mean you have to agree].

“There are plenty of examples of how to maximise, you can’t still be focused on what you don’t have, you have got to utilise what you’ve got. As a nation overall, we have to show greater belief in ourselves.

“Players want to play in a progressive way, supporters want to see a team playing in a progressive way.

“We can’t be paralysed by fear. Life is short, you have to maximise everything you’ve got and see the possibilities that exist. That’s how I view it.

“I think football is changing all the time and the styles of play are evolving all the time.

“And there is less cynicism in the game. Not outside the game, I don’t mean on the periphery, but in the actual game itself.

“There is less cynicism and some of the great teams in recent years have influenced teams all over to play in a more progressive way.

“There is not just one way of playing, of course, but that has to be viewed as good.”

He continues: “I’m privileged to do what I do. Obviously, I am still making sure I learn all I can and improve. I realise that I’m in a great position, but every day, you have to prove yourself. I am under no illusions. You learn from your experiences, negative as well as positive.

You develop strengths, as a coach and a man, at your lowest points. You don’t care less what anyone else thinks and understand that whatever anyone else thinks is irrelevant. It’s what you know yourself that is more important.”

And would Kenny have ambitions to manage at an even higher level some day, in the Premier League perhaps?

“I have to be respectful about what I say. I’m in the position I want to be in. Ireland is the ultimate ambition; to manage your country, there is no greater honour.”

Moreover, Kenny’s belief and positivity is trickling down to the players, if Conor Masterson’s comments on Tuesday are anything to go by.

“Against Sweden, we were the underdogs going into that game, but we didn’t think that. We believed in ourselves, went out there and showed everyone in this group and Sweden what we can do.

“We have the same belief going into Italy now. We believe we’re going to beat them.”

Eoin Toolan and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to give an in-depth breakdown of where Ireland’s play stacks up against the contenders in Japan, and look into why New Zealand and England are primed for World Cup success.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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