James Crombie/INPHO Stephen Kenny.

Stephen Kenny 'not concerned' with reports his job is on the line and comes out fighting ahead of Serbia game

The Irish manager was in bullish mood as the pressure intensifies.

WE’VE BEEN HERE before. 

Ireland have followed an encouraging performance away from home in defeat to a group heavyweight with a bad result at home to a group minnow, and Stephen Kenny has followed a wan, lifeless media performance with something altogether more strident and convincing. 

In March Ireland impressed – but lost – in Serbia and were then beaten in shocking, torpid circumstances at home to Luxembourg, after which a deflated Kenny was hardly audible at times over his post-match Zoom press conference. 

He then found himself and was more bullish when speaking ahead of the friendly with Qatar days later, hitting back at critics emerging “from the woodwork” and stressing that he would be successful in the job. 

This week, Ireland played well in heartbreaking defeat in Portugal, then fell behind and rescued a late draw against lowly Azerbaijan, with Kenny low in energy when he spoke to the written press over Zoom. 

And at his pre-match press conference today, Kenny had returned to his passionate and self-assured self. 

The background to tomorrow’s game with Serbia is more fraught, however, given Ireland are still winless in the group and a couple of newspaper reports today claim that defeat against Serbia will herald the end for his reign. 

“That is irrelevant to me, it’s part of international management, it comes with the territory. It is not something that I am concerned about”, said Kenny when asked about those reports. 

In spite of Ireland’s appalling run of results – it is 15 competitive games without a win if you stretch it back to the end of Mick McCarthy’s most recent tenure – Kenny firmly rejected the idea his team is lacking confidence, and then caught fire. 

“I don’t accept that at all. The confidence of the players: they displayed the confidence. Take the four matches that people are talking about in the campaign. In the games against Serbia and Portugal away, they are probably two of our best performances away from home in the last decade, without question. We lost 3-2 and 2-1.

“Against Luxembourg, we didn’t play well, it was a poor performance but we still didn’t deserve to lose the game based on chances, we had more chances. The other night we dominated and we should have won well. 

“Don’t forget, the spine of this team was ripped out of it. Darren Randolph was injured for a period, Richard Keogh finished with his accident, and Glenn Whelan at the latter end of his career – a brilliant player – and David McGoldrick, who retired. The whole spine was taken out of this team. 

“We have taken the best young players that we have seen, probably, for a long, long time and we blooded a lot of players in that period. And you are not always going to get a level of consistency with that.

“Our performances overall, bar the Luxembourg game, which we were disappointed with, have been good overall. With Serbia and Portugal in the group, and the spine being ripped out of the team, and we haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002: did anyone think that we were favourites to qualify or we should qualify?

“We certainly have a plan in place. I made the decision – right or wrong – that we would build this squad to be a really, really competitive team to qualify for [European Championships in] Germany 2024.

“We didn’t not try to win the games. We went very close to winning in Serbia and winning against Portugal, away from home, we scored the first goal in both games, and played brilliant football in both games.

 Against Azerbaijan, it was a good occasion, the supporters were brilliant, we started brilliantly, couldn’t get that goal, they scored a goal from 25 yards and defended deep, we threw the kitchen sink at them, so many attempts at goal but we missed the target. Our finishing could have been better, we have only ourselves to blame in that regard.

“But I think there’s real progress overall to be honest. That’s the way I see it, the way my staff and all the coaches see it and there are a lot of people behind us. There are a lot of people who aren’t, who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’.

“That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat. You’re trying to build something tangible over a period of time and that can be successful.”

It is the first time Kenny has explicitly mentioned building a team for Euro 2024 in a press conference thus far. He went on to say that he has been given no assurances from the FAI in this regard, and that he has taken them “regardless of the impact on myself here. I’ve not been given any assurances, I’ve just been given full support by the FAI behind the scenes. They’ve been brilliant.” 

He also confirmed his contract runs out next July, before qualifying begins for Euro 2024. 

Kenny then steered focus to the task at hand tomorrow night, as Ireland renew their acquaintance with Serbia. 

“This is not about my contract, it’s now about us preparing for Serbia. We had a brilliant game with them in Serbia, they are a very good side. [Luka] Jovic was €60 million to Real Madrid, [Dusan] Vlahovic, is being talked about between €50-70 million to the Premier League,and they aren’t getting into the Serbia team at the moment. They have that level of depth. 

“It’s going to be a really tough game. Mitrovic has already scored seven goals in the campaign, and he has scored goals from nothing. When they beat Azerbaijan 2-1 he created two goals from absolutely nothing. 

“We are going to have to be at our best, they are a formidable team.” 

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