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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
The contrasting emotions above of John Egan and Amber Barrett sum up the different fortunes of the Ireland men's and women's teams this year.
# Review
Kenny's Ireland don't need to look far for inspiration after largely forgettable 12 months
It’s been a mixed year for the Irish team.

LAST SUNDAY’S 1-0 win over Malta felt like a fitting end to what has been a largely forgettable 12 months from the Irish team’s perspective.

Not for the first time, the Boys in Green laboured to a win over a lower-ranked side.

As it had been days earlier in the 2-1 loss to Norway in Dublin, creativity was an issue as they struggled to break down their opponents’ low block, managing just three shots on goal over the 90 minutes.

It was a year in which arguably the most significant moment for the team took place off the field.

The draw for the Euro 2024 qualifiers pitted Ireland in the unenviable position of having to face the Netherlands, France, Greece and Gibraltar.

That fate could have been avoided had they produced better performances in the Nations League and done enough to secure status as second seeds.

However, it’s still unfortunate to get arguably the worst possible outcome in being paired with France and Greece — possibly the toughest two teams they could have drawn in their respective categories.

And so Kenny’s future could potentially depend on having to overcome at least one out of two sides — the Dutch and the French — who are considered among the favourites to win this year’s World Cup.

But there may be hope in qualifying via the playoffs route.

Hypothetically, Ireland could lose all their group matches including Gibraltar and still reach the playoffs depending on the outcome of other groups (you can find a more detailed explanation of the various permutations here)

But even that would be an arduous task, with the Boys in Green needing to prevail in two one-off playoff matches over the course of a couple of days in March 2024, just three months out before the tournament proper begins.

The alternative, of course, is either Ireland pull off a major upset by finishing in the top two of the group, or luck goes against them again and they don’t progress to the playoffs. Consequently, the coming 12 months will be pivotal.

Kenny, it’s fair to say, has received no shortage of support from both media and fans during his time as Ireland manager, but even his most ardent backers will find it difficult to make a case for a further contract extension should another qualifying campaign go awry.

No Ireland manager has ever failed to qualify for three successive tournaments and survived — although it should be pointed out that Kenny’s stint comes with a considerable caveat in that he only oversaw one game of the Euro 2020 campaign — the playoff semi-final defeat to Slovakia.

The manager’s new contract was officially announced in March of this year but had been widely seen as inevitable long before then after Ireland ended 2021 in an encouraging fashion, with three victories from four games.

12 months on, the outlook is less positive, with the team struggling for consistency and only impressing sporadically.

Consider the results in 2022: two draws (Belgium home, Ukraine away), four wins (Lithuania, Scotland, Armenia — all home — and Malta away) and four losses (Armenia and Scotland away, plus Norway and Ukraine at home).

Of those fixtures, there was one truly outstanding performance  — the defeat of Scotland in Dublin — and one particularly awful display — the loss against Armenia in Yerevan.

Otherwise, the matches generally panned out as expected. Ireland beat the teams ranked below them in the world and either drew with or lost to the sides above them.

All of this means it’s still pretty difficult to cast a definitive judgement on the Kenny era. At times, it has felt like they’ve been fighting a phoney war. Of the 30 matches they have played since the Dubliner took charge, only nine have been qualifying games — just one more than Mick McCarthy oversaw during his altogether more brief second reign in charge of the national team.

It would be harsh to definitively judge any international manager based on nine qualifiers, which is partially why plenty of people still have faith that the Kenny project can work and deserves more patience.

Conversely, while you could legitimately argue that the other 21 matches have hardly been insignificant, there has been perhaps more scope to experiment than other managers might have been afforded.

The most important tests will be next year, but whether Kenny has used this time as efficiently as possible is debatable.

What cannot be disputed is the significant rebuilding job Kenny has performed.

The players who were stalwarts of the Mick McCarthy era and for large parts of Martin O’Neill’s tenure too — Darren Randolph, Glenn Whelan, Shane Duffy, Seamus Coleman, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Robbie Brady — are either no longer guaranteed starters or out of the picture completely.

Meanwhile, the recent international bows of Mark Sykes and Evan Ferguson take the number of Ireland senior players making their debut under Kenny to 15.

In addition, it’s also worth noting that while the likes of Troy Parrott and Michael Obafemi did appear very briefly under previous management, it is only since the former Dundalk boss took charge that they have been given a sustained run in the team.

It’s therefore very difficult to oversee this level of change and achieve the desired level of consistency and coherence required to function at the top level of international football instantaneously.

And whether all these players are good enough also remains to be seen. Bazunu and Collins are currently the only members of this younger group playing regularly in the Premier League.

But then, even the best young talents often require patience. As a 19-year-old, Harry Kane spent the majority of the 2012-13 season on loan at Leicester City, registering two goals from 13 appearances in the Championship. The following year, he hit a far-from-spectacular three goals from 10 Premier League appearances at Spurs.

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The truth is that the quality of Ireland’s players, rather than the manager, will ultimately be the key factor in whether they can achieve their main goal of reaching a major tournament.

A well-drilled, tactically intelligent team can achieve great results on occasion — as recent victories for Saudi Arabia and Japan over Argentina and Germany respectively have shown.

But for the most part, international football is less system-oriented than the club game, given that coaches have relatively little time to work with their squad on the training pitch. So the teams with the best collection of individual players invariably prevail and in 2023, Kenny could do with more of his players really putting their hands up for selection at club level and playing with more regularity at an elite level.

The situation is not unsalvageable, however, and the Boys in Green do not need to look too far for inspiration.

Not many people were tipping the Irish women’s side to reach the World Cup for the first time ever on the back of a seven-game losing run last year.

Yet momentum is so important in international football. A 3-2 friendly win over an Australian team ranked 22 places above them proved the catalyst for change.

Since that match, the Irish side have lost just twice and won 11 out of 15 matches on their way to making history. 

Playing a series of high-ranked teams like Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Iceland may have led to defeat and disappointment in the short term but it paved the way for better days ahead.

The fact that Pauw simply had more time to work with the players cannot be dismissed.

Moreover, like the men’s side, the majority of Ireland’s women’s players don’t line out for the top clubs — although Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan are exceptions.

Yet despite their limitations, Vera Pauw has created a formidable outlook that’s based primarily on a strong team ethic, intelligent strategy and some moments of individual brilliance that McCabe especially is capable of conjuring.

Unlike the women, the men’s team do not have any players currently deserving of the ‘world class’ label but Pauw’s team have shown the big difference that even a couple of these special individuals can make.

Anyone feeling particularly downhearted on account of the men’s team’s mainly uninspired last 12 months need only look to the women’s side as an example of how swiftly the tide can turn in international football.

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