Kenny finding European champions Italy an inspiration as his vision for Ireland begins to take shape

The manager wants his squad to mimic the Italian’s collective culture of ‘self-sacrifice.’

Stephen Kenny.
Stephen Kenny.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY’S SQUAD-BUILDING has been come together gradually…and then suddenly. 

His 26-man squad for next week’s World Cup qualifiers with Portugal and Luxembourg is the first of his tenure not to feature a first-time call-up, and Will Keane is the only uncapped player within it. (Had he not missed a chunk of training with a groin niggle last month, he might well have made his international bow in the friendly against Qatar.) 

Kenny has spoken of the importance of accumulating depth across the squad, and he now has at goalkeeper, centre-back, wing-back and arguably in some – if not all – of the forward positions. 

Such depth is a necessity of the new three-game windows and the schedule is only going to get more intense: Ireland face four Nations League games in 10 days next summer. 

The manager has now spoken of fostering something else: a unity of purpose. 

“We’ve got to have a squad, have to have a collective of self-sacrifice, that is very important for us going forward”, said Kenny. 

“We look at Italy as the European champions: I see them as the ultimate team of self-sacrifice, where every player sacrifices himself for the team, regardless of whether he has been selected.

“We have to have that culture in the team, and the squad and that is what we will need.

“I am not saying that we have [done it yet]. We are in the process of trying to have that. It seems like it is a criticism of what went before every time you try to say things like that, – that it is an inherent criticism – but that is not what I am trying to say.

“I think it is something we need, maybe it wasn’t so evident in the two-game windows where you could nearly select your XI and not train too hard and ease into it. But in the three-game windows that we have, we have to have that.” 

italys-national-football-ceremony-at-the-quirinale-presidential Roberto Mancini, to the backdrop of his European Champions. Source: DPA/PA Images

This is at the root of his bold proclamation in the aftermath of the Qatar friendly that the squad’s medium-term aim is to win their Nations League group next year. Ireland remain in League B and will learn their three opponents next month, with top spot earning promotion and, most valuably, the guarantee of a play-off for Euro 2024. 

“Players have common goals and they have individual targets. For some, it is to win matches. For some, it is to get a certain number of caps or break through their own barrier. 

“Players do see things through their own eyes, it is to try and bring it around. Obviously we are not going to qualify for the World Cup and we know that now and have known that for the last couple of windows. For us at the minute, we want good performances, to try and win as many games as we can and improve collectively.

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“And we know that going into the Nations league in June, that gives you a Euro play-off and that sets a culture of trying to achieve things, trying to win, trying to do as well as you can in the group.

“First or second could get you a play-off for the Euros and taking that into the European championship, where all these players we introduced will have 10 or 20 caps, and we still have a core of experienced players who are very important.

“But we have a squad as well with a level of competition. We have to try and replicate that in attacking areas as much as we can.” 

As it stands, Kenny is contracted for four of the six Nations League games next year, with his current deal expiring next July. Further signs of progress against Portugal and Luxembourg next week should earn him an extension. 

Ireland are also pencilled in for a couple of friendly games in Dublin next March, with opponents yet to be confirmed. In spite of the elective hammering against England a year ago, Kenny says they are targeting games against top-ranked sides. 

“Yeah, we’ll look for strong opposition. I heard some names being mentioned that are exciting but nothing is finalised.”

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Gavin Cooney

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