Stephen Kenny. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
busy period

'This is our opportunity to get ahead now' - Kenny unworried by hectic Nations League schedule

Ireland face four games in 11 days, beginning away to Armenia on Saturday.

STEPHEN KENNY HAS a canny habit of reframing things.

It’s one of his strengths as Irish manager, and arguably the single trait that has done so much to endear him to the supporters: flipping the perspective on big matches as opportunities to win rather than to avoid losing.

One line delivered after the 2-2 draw against Belgium this year sticks out: “We don’t want to be in a low block playing against them. It’s a slow death, we’re not having that.” 

A marathon international window has just kicked off, with four Uefa Nations League games squeezed into 11 days at the end of the players’ club seasons. The manager, however, is not stressing the physical challenge of the schedule. Quite the opposite. 

“I always see it as an opportunity to get ahead of your rivals. I always like those periods. I say to our players, ‘this is our opportunity to get ahead now.’ People will be worried about the impact of it but we’ve got to approach it in the way we can. Sometimes when [the fixture lists are] not even, I don’t like that, but when it’s even for everyone I don’t mind it. I’m happy with it if all the teams have to do that.” 

Ireland begin their campaign away to Armenia on Saturday, which is followed by two home games against Ukraine and Scotland.

The window is then rounded out in Lodz, Poland, the new venue for the return game against Ukraine. Ireland have a truly wretched record in the Nations League: in 10 games across two separate campaigns, they have yet to win a game and scored just two goals. The competition does carry very significant enticements, however: winning the group would earn promotion to money-spinning meetings with top-tier, League A opposition, while seeding for the Euro 2024 qualifier draw will be determined by the Nations League. 

The Irish squad began assembling at Abbottstown on Saturday, arriving in three separate tranches owing to their differing schedules. The bulk of the squad gathered on Saturday, with the Premier League players and those involved in the Championship play-off semi-finals joining on Sunday. Caoimhín Kelleher arrived on Monday morning following the Champions League final.

There were a couple of exceptions: Conor Hourihane and Shane Duffy elected to come in on Saturday, with the latter needing match sharpness having not played since that friendly with Belgium in March. The latter was one of only two players to play all of a 60-minute training game with the Irish U21s on Sunday, for which players had been given individual fitness plans to follow in the weeks since their seasons ended. 

All 27 players in the squad trained yesterday, with no fresh injury issues reported ahead of Saturday’s game in Yerevan, though James McClean’s load is being managed as he recovers from a muscle injury sustained on the last day of the League One season. The only confirmed absentee for the Armenia game is the suspended Josh Cullen, but Kenny says he will not be picking his team for Saturday with one eye on the games to come. 

“We are not in a position to think like that. We have to pick what we feel is the right team for Armenia. Armenia is a challenge away from home. We have watched the matches, they have had mixed results. We have watched the matches when they’ve beaten Iceland at home and beaten Romania, so they are capable of winning matches. They won a group with Georgia and North Macedonia to qualify. We know we will be playing in 28 or 29 degrees, at 5 o’clock [local time]. That is a challenge. So we need to make sure that we are ready and we are not thinking of matches in advance of that.” 

michael-obafemi Michael Obafemi. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Michael Obafemi has this week returned to the squad for the first time in four years, while CJ Hamilton and Festy Ebosele have earned their debut call-ups. While Kenny said Obafemi is ready to make an impact on the team, he played down the prospect of all three being brought straight into the team in Yerevan. 

“Some of the other players have done well, it’s not like players will come in and come into the team straight away. We are on a good run of form and players have done well in previous internationals and have scored goals, and that’s important.” 

Yerevan has recently been the scene of discord, with thousands of people protesting at a city square earlier this month in response to a call for civil disobedience from opposition leader Ishkhan Saghatelian, in a bid to oust Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. The opposition claim Pashinian has conceded too much in a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, following conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The FAI sent a security delegation to Yerevan yesterday morning, led by Chief Security Officer Joe McGlue. 

“We’ve not been briefed on that at the moment but there is a delegation going over”, said Kenny. I’m sure they will brief us in due course.”

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