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Kenny anticipates 'really special' experience for players as they finally play in front of Aviva crowd

Almost half of the squad for tomorrow’s clash with Azerbaijan have never played front of fans at Lansdowne Road.

Stephen Kenny.
Stephen Kenny.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND ARE CHANGING their pre-game routine and are now training at the Aviva Stadium rather than at their base in Abbottstown, in order to better familiarise themselves with the environs of the national stadium. 

In spite of Stephen Kenny’s preparation tweaks, he can’t help one reason as to why tomorrow evening’s game with Azerbaijan will be unfamiliar to a chunk of the squad: it’s the first time international fans have been back at Lansdowne Road since November 2019. 

Almost half the squad – Gavin Bazunu, Caoimhin Kelleher, James Talbot, Ryan Manning, Andrew Omobamidele, Liam Scales, Jamie McGrath, Jayson Molumby, Adam Idah, and Aaron Connolly – have never played in front of an Irish crowd at the Aviva Stadium. 

For some of them, that will change tomorrow evening, with 25,000 fans permitted to attend. (Whether it will reach that number isn’t yet confirmed, with tickets still available on general sale.) 

“We’ve seen a high number of players make their competitive international debut in empty stadia, with echoes where you can hear the voice of players”, said Stephen Kenny ahead of tomorrow’ game. “It’s not comparable, it just isn’t. 

“All of the players’ families have been part of their football journey in their lives, which isn’t always an upward curve; there’s ups and downs.

“Then their son/brother/friend/grandson gets the chance to play for Ireland and they can’t go. So for them to get there is really special and to see their families witness the players playing…it’s very proud.”

Kenny is trying to ward off a more familiar issue, and says he will make changes to his line-up to avoid a repeat of the misery of March, when Ireland followed an encouraging performance in defeat away to Serbia with an appalling home loss to Luxembourg. 

luxembourg-players-react-at-the-final-whistle Empty stands form the backdrop to Ireland's Luxembourg horror. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Wednesday’s heart-breaker in Portugal at least had the solace of being a very good performance, though much of that will be squandered if Ireland don’t finally get their first points against the lowest-ranked side in the group. 

“That was certainly part of our learning and I think we got to such a level against Serbia that when some players had not being playing regularly, or not playing at all really, to go again three days later and get to that level was difficult. 

“But it is not a problem for someone like Josh Cullen who is in the moment and has played so many games in Europa League and in the league for Anderlecht, he is flying.

“You get into that mode of playing every three or four days and that is fine. So it is something that we are cognisant of, that we just have to make sure we are right. We might make some changes to freshen up and make sure that we are ready.” 

To return to the unfamiliar: Kenny has been dealt some good news on the Covid front, with Callum Robinson and Alan Browne freed from their isolation and with the squad in Dublin. Both are in contention to play tomorrow. 

Shane Long, though, is unavailable, following his positive test in Portugal. 

“I honestly don’t know how he managed to get Covid”, said Kenny of Long.

“He plays guitar in his room on his own a lot because of the Covid times. He brought his guitar with him and he plays away in is room and practises. He’s a very careful person, always has the mask on, he’s a family man.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate.  We’ve had a player who’s got it over the last couple of weeks who actually was double-vaccinated, so sometimes it’s hard to believe.” 

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Dara O’Shea is out with the ankle problem that forced him off in Portugal, while Nathan Collins has also been withdrawn with an injury.  That has meant a first call-up for Liam Scales, days after he completed his move to Celtic from Shamrock Rovers. 

“He has a terrific attitude, he’s a very good footballer and athletically he’s improved”, said Kenny, praising his versatility and experience at left centre-back, left-back, and left wing-back.  

“It’s good to have that flexibility and he’s earned his call-up.” 

Tomorrow’s game will be a completely different test to the Portugal game: Azerbaijan usually play a back five and concede fairly few goals: they’ve lost more than a goal just once in the last two years, a run which includes one-goal losses to Serbia and Portugal. 

Whereas Ireland could counter-attack against Portugal, tomorrow the onus is on them to break down their opponents, a role in which they have not always been comfortable in recent years. 

“We want to really play with intensity, it’s very important for us”, said Kenny. “We want to go and put in a strong performance and get the victory that we desire.

“Azerbaijan have had very close games themselves with Serbia and Portugal and we’ve seen Qarabag in the group stages [of the Champions League] and they comprehensively beat Aberdeen during the week. 

“We’ll have to earn the right to win, there’s no doubt about that, but we’re determined to get that home victory. If we get it, it will be really special for everyone, to celebrate it with the supporters. We have a huge desire to do that and hopefully we can do it.”

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