'It was too strong. It wasn't a word I should have used' - Stephen Kenny in reflective mood

The Ireland manager admits his frustration at how the Nations League ended, as he eyes more clean sheets in Euro 2024 campaign.

Stephen Kenny experienced various emotions on Tuesday night.
Stephen Kenny experienced various emotions on Tuesday night.

ONCE THE DUST had settled on the final two games of Ireland’s Nations League campaign, Stephen Kenny had the time to reassess a couple of matters.

He explained as much during a 35-minute Zoom call on Friday afternoon.

For one, the Ireland manager accepted that his tone in the immediate aftermath of the 3-2 win over Armenia did not reflect his true feelings.

Indeed, insisting that it was “convincing” and highlighting his side’s ability to string 20-30 passes together, despite throwing away a two-goal lead in a maddening two-minute spell late in the second half, was labelled “a vanity project” by former international Gary Breen.

“Listen, Gary is entitled to his opinion as anyone is, I think you’re always going to get strong opinions in this arena and that’s part of it,” Kenny said.

“I did say in the TV interview afterwards that it was an exceptional performance against Armenia, which was too strong a word, it wasn’t a word I should have used.

“It wasn’t an exceptional performance. I accept that. But there were a lot of very good aspects to the performance.”

stephen-kenny-reacts-after-robbie-brady-scored-from-the-penalty-spot Stephen Kenny reacts after Robbie Brady scored from the penalty spot. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While Kenny held firm on his insistence that Scotland shouldn’t have been awarded their decisive penalty during the 2-1 defeat at Hampden Park, citing Lyndon Dykes’ slip into the feet of Alan Browne, he accepted that the “flipside of the argument” was that the spot kick given against Armenia could have gone either way.

“It wasn’t one that we were shouting the houses down for… It’s not the way we would have wanted it, don’t get me wrong, to leave it so late to have to win,” he continued.

“There was no euphoric feeling in the dressing room afterwards. We were all annoyed, all disappointed with ourselves for letting that slip. We weren’t high fiving each other. We knew that we had a good position and let it slip, we should never do that. That’s clear.

I’m very encouraged by the capacity to score goals throughout the team, and we can make improvements in other areas.”

Ireland did manage to compose themselves and regain the initiative against Armenia, but the sloppy nature in which they relinquished such a comfortable position was something Kenny seemed keen to address.

He insisted that the friendlies with Norway and Malta next month will be used as a means to fine tune matters ahead of the Euro 2024 qualifiers in March, rather than an opportunity for further experimentation with new faces.

“We have conceded goals and that’s something I’m not happy about. Particularly the two goals the other night, they were poor goals to concede from our point of view,” Kenny said.

“In order to qualify we’ll need to keep clean sheets because [we] had a run of clean sheets coming into the summer of Portugal home, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg away.

“But we need to have that culture of not conceding.”

john-egan-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-first-goal-with-jason-knight John Egan (right) celebrates his goal on Tuesday night. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Expanding on that theme, Kenny spoke positively about the nature of competition for places throughout the squad, adding that Jayson Molumby showed promise deputising for Josh Cullen in the centre of the midfield, despite being substituted early in the second half after coming dangerously close to receiving a second yellow card.

“We need that, we can’t be relying on one player in certain positions. We need that sort of back-up.

“I am happy that there is an element of competition in all areas and clear ideas of what is expected of them, and the development of the team as a group,” the manager reasoned.

We can’t have those situations like the other day where we vacate the middle of the field, like we did for their first goal and left ourselves way open.

“The second goal, obviously, was just an individual mistake and we just can’t make those. We have to make sure that we don’t concede goals in that period.

“The protection to our back three is vitally important and Josh Cullen provides that brilliantly, I must say,” Kenny explained.

“A player like him, with those defensive instincts, you are unlikely to concede the type of goals we conceded against Armenia. We just have to get that culture of getting back to focusing on keeping clean sheets.

“The hardest thing is to score goals, that’s the hardest part. We scored three against Armenia, three against Scotland at home, and we looked like we have the capacity, since Michael Obafemi, he has given us the ability to score and create goals. They weren’t clear chances, they were terrific strikes.

michael-obafemi-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Michael Obafemi has become a mainstay. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That has given us much more encouragement. Troy Parrott is a little bit, maybe not at the level he was in the summer when his confidence was high. These things are cyclical.

“Competition for places, we will see who comes in in good form in November, in March, and these decisions can change based on players’ form at their clubs.

You do like to have some continuity in your selection at international level but sometimes your form at your club can make a difference and get you in the team.”

Ireland finished third in their group, scoring eight times and conceding seven. Of the 14 other teams in League B (Russia being excluded from the competition) only three scored more than Kenny’s men.

Two of them happened to be Ireland’s opponents – table toppers Scotland and second placed Ukraine – while Serbia netted 13 times in six games.

It’s clear, then, that finding that defensive solidity to match a growing confidence in the final third is now crucial for progress.

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Ireland also dropped five points from winning positions against the top two and, allied with that near miss on Tuesday night and the opening defeat in Yerevan, the ability to stifle rivals while in the ascendancy is not yet something they have mastered.

“Qualification for the Euros is really what would be special for everyone in Ireland, for all Irish people everywhere,” Kenny acknowledged.

“That’s what we’re trying to build a team towards, and most people can see the potential in the team. They can see a lot of good things happening but there are areas we need to get better at still. We just have make sure that by March we improve again.

troy-parrott-scores-his-sides-second-goal Kenny admitted Troy Parrott was lacking the same confidence as he had in June, when he scored against Scotland (above). Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We have to consider a couple of players showing good form and we don’t want too many changes coming in again and replacing, it has to be based on merit or on players who will improve us, we don’t want too many changes, we want an element of continuity going into the European Championship qualifiers.

“I’m not a slave to any one system,” he added. “It’s not based on ‘I believe in one system and we fit the players to that system’. You have to be adaptable.

“The reason we picked these systems is essentially because we are trying to fit a system that suits the players at our disposal. The players that are emerging, a system that maximises the potential of the players we have.”

A well-worn tale of woe was thrown Kenny’s way on this topic, when it was pointed out that Ireland lack a creative No.10 and exciting winger capable of helping to create more clear-cut chances.

Wes Hoolahan and Damien Duff were mentioned.

Kenny wasn’t biting.

There is no point in me lamenting that we haven’t got this type of player or that type of player. I’d rather focus on what we have got and trying to maximise the potential. That’s my job, as manager, to try and maximise the potential of the players we have got.

“We have got a lot of talent. Maybe we don’t have the archetypal player in certain positions but it’s not something that leaves me worried.

“I feel there is tremendous effort and collective will in the group, they give everything of themselves and there is a determination to improve again. We know we have to improve again.

“We are formulating a team, you can see the evolution of the team and you can see a lot of players really emerging, and it looks like we are going to be a good team. We have seen that from large parts of the display against Scotland, but we have to continue to get better in this period and use the two games in November to improve and make sure that we are ready for March.”

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