Dublin: 8°C Friday 28 January 2022
Advertisement

A year of two halves: the inside story of Stephen Kenny's Ireland in 2021

With Stephen Kenny in talks over a new contract, The42 spoke to some of those closest to the situation to see how the Ireland manager turned his year around.

Kenny's Ireland 2021

JEFF HENDRICK WAS the obvious choice for those searching for discontent.

It was March 2021 and the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup were over after just two games.

A 3-2 defeat to eventual group winners Serbia in Belgrade was followed by the calamitous 1-0 loss against Luxembourg in an empty Aviva Stadium three nights later.

Senior FAI sources insist that while they would be classed as a “Doubting Thomas” with regards to manager Stephen Kenny at this time, there was never any consideration given to sacking him.

But some were curious.

This was 27 March and Ireland was still in Level 5 lockdown. From the outside, it felt like the walls were already closing in on Kenny.

A selection of some of the headlines in the aftermath of Gerson Rodrigues’ late strike give a taste of the atmosphere:

“Night the big dream imploded.”

“Kenny’s reign in real doubt.”

“Fallout from defeat will be brutal for boss.”

“Horror show leaves Irish football’s new era in tatters.”

One national newspaper even drew up a shortlist for a panel of four possible replacements. They were Robbie Keane (who remains on the FAI’s payroll), Roy Keane, Chris Hughton and Neil Lennon.

  • See sport differently with The42 Membership and get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate. Click here to find out more>

It wasn’t just journalists, or those close to players, that were digging for the inside story. In the upper echelons of the FAI, they were also looking for answers.

And for some wanting to find a certain angle, it seemed as if Hendrick might be a willing raconteur.

The experienced midfielder was dropped for the first two games by Kenny, jettisoned from the centre of the pitch against Serbia in favour of Josh Cullen, Alan Browne and Jayson Molumby.

He did feature off the bench for the final 30 minutes but didn’t make it beyond the touchline against Luxembourg when Jason Knight was picked to start in place of Molumby.

“He would have been in a position to say, ‘This is a fucking joke, this is shit, the staff and manager haven’t a clue’,” a source says.

“He could have told them it was Mickey Mouse stuff and it’s all shit, but he didn’t because that’s not what it was like. What he actually did was say to himself, ‘OK, the manager didn’t pick me, this is why he didn’t pick me, so how do I get back in the team?’”

Those close to the situation insist there was never any rift between player and manager over the handling of the early part of the campaign, and that once they were able to have one-on-one discussions, in which Kenny made it absolutely clear what he wanted from Hendrick, the player’s fortunes turned around.

Another close to the dressing room pointed out that the Newcastle man has carried himself with more authority and confidence around the squad — as proven by the latter part of the campaign, when Hendrick started in Faro against Portugal and became a crucial component in the 3-4-2-1 system.

gerson-rodrigues-celebrates Ireland's nightmare defeat to Luxembourg in March effectively ended hopes of World Cup qualification after just two games. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The timing of the Luxembourg defeat was interesting, though. It was not for almost another two months that the FAI held a virtual Emergency General Meeting (EGM) to usher in a new dawn at boardroom level.

In late May, Gerry McAnaney was elected President, Paul Cooke was confirmed as Vice-President, while there was also the inauguration of the new General Assembly, to replace the FAI Council, as part of the reform in line with the Government bailout.

The dynamics were beginning to change. While Roy Barrett, a Kenny ally, was re-elected as Chairperson by the 141 General Assembly delegates, the incoming board of the FAI was also ratified.

Newcomers Tom Browne, Gary Twohig and former goalkeeper Packie Bonner joined the re-elected John Finnegan, Catherine Guy, Liz Joyce, Joseph O’Brien, Richard Shakespeare and Robert Watt.

These are the 12 men and women who sat around a table in the Castleknock Hotel before Christmas to instruct chief executive Jonathan Hill — described by sources as someone extremely hands on and eager to know exact details of all the senior team’s operations — to offer Kenny a new contract to oversee the Nations League campaign this year and European Championship qualifiers in 2023.

Senior FAI sources insist there is no clause relating to performance over the next 12 months that could see his tenure ended before the Euros, and they are adamant that Kenny and his primary coaching ticket of assistant Keith Andrews, first-team coach Anthony Barry and goalkeeping coach Dean Kiely will be allowed to carry on as is, with no cost-cutting measures in place to trim the extended backroom staff.

Indeed, decision-makers in Abbotstown have been left surprised by recent reports that the number of support staff is seen as an issue – some are full-time FAI employees with dual roles within the association while others have external full-time positions.

A source cites how Kenny’s overall team is in line with the likes of Scotland and is not deemed a stumbling block to negotiations.

anthony-barry-and-keith-andrews Anthony Barry and Keith Andrews have become cornerstones of Kenny's coaching staff. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

These are talks that will continue into the New Year, yet at the start of 2021, the manager didn’t look as if he would be in such a strong position.

Two staff from within his inner circle departed.

Covid protocols were leaving Kenny, and several players, frustrated.

For the first half of the year, most staff could barely speak to new colleagues during camps.

There were separate bubbles within the squad which meant interactions were limited to 15-minute slots.

There was no warmth, no feeling of togetherness and no sense of spirit.

Kenny hated it.

This was not how he works.

The weight of responsibility was heavy and the feeling among him and his most trusted allies was to battle through, and hope things could change.

It took six months, but eventually they did.

The tide turned during the summer training camp in Spain last June – a first win of the Kenny era against Andorra, a clean sheet away to Hungary, a prolonged period of training together and, whisper it, drinks and a sing-song with an Irish band on stage the night of the Champions League final.

“It was fucking brilliant,” a dressing room source laughs. “The summer was exactly what we all needed.

“James McClean and Shane Duffy might not have a note in their head but that camp was exactly what everyone needed. There were a few drinks, but it wasn’t drink-fuelled, it was craic-fuelled. That was the start of when I felt as if we were all in it together and pulling in the same direction. That’s the only way it was ever going to work.”

It was also when the some in the FAI began to realise that the talk of harmony being spoken about publicly was reflective of the work happening behind the scenes.

Doubts regarding the relationship between Kenny and his captain had lingered until that point.

***

Seamus Coleman was apparently furious, and a host of senior players were lining up to fight the captain’s corner regarding the injustice.

The issue? His attendance at a press conference prior to a Nations League game with Bulgaria despite the fact he was injured and would not play.

While this goes back to reports in a national newspaper in November 2020, as has become clear from numerous sources, you cannot fully examine this year in its entirety without examining a hectic prelude.

As well as the apparent Coleman problem – described in the newspaper as a “humiliation” for the captain, with Shane Duffy, James McClean, Darren Randolph and Robbie Brady namechecked as being restless – November also saw the infamous Wembley-gate fallout.

A motivational video and speech from Kenny prior to the 3-0 friendly defeat to England led to headlines in the English and Irish Daily Mail decrying the manager as anti-English.

The FAI promptly reacted to the story declaring there would be an investigation. Former interim CEO Gary Owens was tasked with handling matters.

Damien Duff, Barry’s predecessor, tore strips out of Owens and the whole situation in a face-to-face meeting at Abbotstown. He was furious about the supposed leaking and FAI reaction.

In early January it was announced he was leaving. Kenny had tried to keep him over that Christmas, but his decision was made.

Three days after Duff’s departure was confirmed, it was announced that goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was also stepping away. He had been pin-pointed by some as a leak of the Wembley story, which he publicly refuted, and while his departure was not as sore for some as Duff’s, the successive blow was still felt.

stephen-kenny-celebrates-after-the-game-with-seamus-coleman Kenny and Coleman celebrate together after the final game of the campaign in Luxembourg. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It felt like open season on Kenny’s methods, which is why the reaction to the story some days later regarding Coleman and other senior players’ anger was soon rebuffed.

McClean, one of those mentioned, received a message about the article and within minutes posted to his Instagram page raging at its contents.

Behind the scenes, too, the newspaper was made aware of the anger felt by the Ireland captain, and they printed a clarification a day after the story emerged, confirming that Coleman had been told he didn’t have to attend but insisted on doing so regardless.

It was feeding into the overall split among some in the media regarding Kenny’s tenure, and the nature of criticism.

And while comments doubting his suitability for the job from Paul McGrath and Richard Dunne were brushed aside by the Ireland manager, it’s understood that his relationship with former boss Brian Kerr is no longer as warm as it had been over the preceding 20 years.

Bearing in mind the earlier stories about Coleman’s apparent discontent, it was then a viewed as a major show of faith among the FAI board that the Ireland captain insisted on joining up with Kenny and the squad for that training camp in Spain, despite carrying a hamstring injury.

The skipper was vocal on the pitch after Luxembourg about the “shocking and embarrassing” nature of the defeat, and the two-month lead in to the summer was filled with negativity from the outside.

“It told us a lot that Seamus stayed around and didn’t go off on his holidays,” a FAI source adds. “That was a good sign because it was an indication of the buy-in from the senior lads.”

This was also the camp where Andrew Omobamidele introduced himself properly to the management and senior squad members.

“He has too much sense for his age,” a source jokes, adding that the emergence of Gavin Bazunu from “distant third choice” to number one was no surprise once everyone saw him up close.

The young goalkeeper only joined up with the senior squad for the first time in Manchester on the Monday before the opening qualifier away in Serbia a few days later, so Mark Travers was preferred.

A stuttering performance opened the door for Bazunu against Luxembourg and he has made the position his own since.

While playing a part in Shane Duffy’s revitalisation is something that Kenny has played down in public, preferring to praise the defender for his own efforts in forcing his way back into Brighton’s plans following a disastrous loan spell with Celtic, there are those within the Ireland camp who insist he has played a crucial role.

As Duffy also dealt with the grief of losing his father, combined with his lack of form on the pitch, it led to him becoming a more withdrawn figure around the Ireland set up.

Usually, the life and soul of the team hotel, where he would make his presence felt in the players’ room as well as the working room, where a bay of treatment tables are fixed alongside pool and table tennis, he was no longer that same influence.

Some close to him in the camp explained how, when Covid protocols allowed, Kenny would bring him for more one-on-one chats, as well as maintaining regular contact outside of their time together to check in on the defender.

shane-duffy-heads-under-pressure Shane Duffy has returned to form for club and country since rejoining Brighton. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It wasn’t until the Portugal game in Faro that Duffy started a World Cup qualifier – he was also on the bench for the Andorra game – but throughout that process his confidence was being rebuilt by Kenny in the background.

His return to form, and fitness, for the start of this Premier League season then made it a no-brainer to reintroduce him to the starting XI.

Kenny’s focus on the emotional and mental side of a player’s welfare is one of the reasons David Forde was brought in as senior team’s mental health and wellness coach.

But for six minutes in the Estadi Nacional last June it felt as if they were heading deep into a black hole when Andorra took the lead.

“We joke about it now but at the time you are fearing the worst,” a source adds.

“You think it’s the end. It becomes very real at that moment and was actually a heartbreaking because you see all the work going on and what is happening but there is only so much people will take without results.

“After Luxembourg there was just a real sense of anger about how it went, but this felt different, it was emotionally tough and disheartening.

“It was only six minutes but it was the longest six minutes of my life and was a huge relief when Troy [Parrott] turned the game for us.”

Ireland won 4-1 and the mood had already been lifted by the week’s work, including that bonding session the night of Chelsea’s win over Manchester City in the Champions League final. There was added pleasure in seeing Barry taste success before linking up.

An Irish band played on stage that evening but they weren’t needed for too long. Staff and players quickly took the reins, tunes ranging from Embrace, Paolo Nutini, The Dubliners’ My Little Son and Christy Moore’s take on Back Home in Derry.

SEE SPORT
DIFFERENTLY

Get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate in The42 Membership.

Become a Member

While World Cup qualification was out of reach, it wouldn’t be long before a few more were singing a different tune about the manager’s future.

***

One high-ranking FAI employee was taken aback when they arrived at Aviva Stadium for the visit of Portugal in November.

Qualification was long gone and, while this was to be the first full house during the Covid era, the make up of the home support was a surprise.

Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo was in town and Portugal’s glut of world class stars were always going to be a major attraction.

But the level of vocal backing for Kenny and his players, fresh from a stirring comeback against Serbia when all tickets were also sold under restricted availability, was telling.

So too the amount of young children, not just with their fathers or along with their local clubs, but families as a whole. That’s what stuck in their mind looking around, and was a topic for discussion.

“It was really heartening to see and I think it was an example of the connection that has definitely been made between the players and this team under Stephen,” the source recalls.

jamie-mcgrath Jamie McGrath Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was a joke elsewhere that the number of families would have been bolstered by those of some of the young players emerging in the squad who were visiting for the first time.

Jamie McGrath was 25 as he broke into the team and his journey is an example of a different way of doing things – but one which could become more common having developed at St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland while earning a degree from Maynooth University.

His full debut came at the start of September in Faro and, having eventually put down his phone and replied to as many messages as possible congratulating him, he crawled into the bath to soak his weary limbs.

It was approaching the wee hours and the game still flashed through his mind. He had whipped in the corner from which John Egan have Ireland a 1-0 lead.

For 89 minutes it looked as if it would be the winner, until Ronaldo popped up twice to completely change the complexion of the night.

McGrath was still buoyant at his achievement, though. Kenny had phoned him a week before the squad was announced to let him know he would be included, and to make sure he was primed to make a mark.

Then, 90 minutes before kick-off, he pulled the St Mirren midfielder aside to let him know he would be starting. They had worked together at Dundalk and formed a relationship; Kenny knew how to deal with the situation.

Like his work with Duffy behind the scenes, the Ireland boss also made sure to remain in contact with Chiedozie Ogbene during the drawn out process to confirm his eligibility with Fifa, reassuring him of his future importance to the squad as they battled through red tape.

Again, that bore fruit in the latter stages of the campaign as Ogbene delivered goals and excitement, just like his messages to Jason Knight offered solace during his recovery from a bad ankle injury suffered in a tackle by his Derby County manager Wayne Rooney during a training session.

But these attempts to strengthen bonds behind the scenes still weren’t garnering the results required to quieten talk around his future.

And when a stale, flat Ireland could only draw 1-1 at home to Azerbaijan following that spirited performance against Portugal, it felt as if some of the earlier lessons of the campaign had not been learned.

Some players were not capable of physically dealing with the quick turnaround, and it was viewed that panic set in among some when an early goal didn’t arrive and the Azeris grew more comfortable after their goal.

These were some of the kinks that should have been ironed out sooner.

When Duff and Kelly departed there was a focus on Kenny, from within the squad and FAI, about who would replace them.

The players were quickly won over by Barry’s arrival, and Kenny earned praise for how he dealt with his appointment. “He didn’t rush it or just get someone in who he knew and would say yes straight away, he wanted to make absolutely sure it was the right person,” a source says.

Indeed, Barry’s left field appointment came after a few meetings with the Ireland manager in which they spoke about their shared values following the recommendation of Ruaidhri Higgins, the former opposition analyst/head scout who also left during the year after getting the chance to become Derry City manager.

He was replaced by former Shamrock Rovers midfielder Stephen Rice, then on the coaching staff at Crystal Palace, who joined that summer camp in Spain before officially taking up the position.

But it was the arrival of Barry, working in tandem with Andrews, that was most intriguing.

“Anthony has been massive in terms of his tactical awareness and ability to give you information in a simple and efficient way, you know exactly what’s needed,” a source explains.

“When Kenny steps in at a session the place will go quiet, because he will watch from the sideline and could be focusing on something you might not even consider.”

In simple terms, the dynamic on the training pitch is that Andrews will go through the analysis and talk through what the opposition will try and do, Barry will then say how Ireland will stop it and help to implement Kenny’s game plan.

stephen-kenny Negotiations over Kenny's Ireland future will continue into the new year. Source: INPHO/James Crombie

That’s not to say everyone has been totally convinced by the upturn in results during the second half of the campaign. Reports that Bonner remains sceptical emerged but sources among the FAI board insist he is not a figure who tries to dominate proceedings at meetings, offering valued insight on more technical aspects of performance rather than trying to strong arm colleagues.

Amid the growing positivity in the latter months there also came some controversy. Callum Robinson’s admission during the September window that he had chosen to not yet be vaccinated against Covid-19, despite being struck down by the virus twice, caused a stir.

Indeed, a comment from RTE’s Joe Duffy on Liveline mocking the player for having caught the virus more times than he had scored for Ireland found its way onto one of the player’s social media feeds.

The usually affable Robinson was angered by the jibe, so too several of his teammates, and the West Brom man spoke about being determined to shove Duffy’s comments down his throat.

He did so with a brace away to Azerbaijan, following it up with a hat-trick against Qatar and then netting Ireland’s final goal of the campaign in the 88th minute away to Luxembourg.

It was an emphatic way to finish the campaign, especially given the nature of how it began against the same opponents.

Board members, a chunk of whom Kenny has still not even met, have been able to witness first-hand the positivity among match-going support.

That alone is not what prompted them to instruct Hill to nail down Kenny beyond the current contract, which runs out midway through this year’s Nations League campaign.

Assessing the campaign, from the start to finish and dissecting what has been happening on and off the pitch, coloured their view.

It is not all rosy, of course, but 2022 looks far brighter.

See sport differently with The42 Membership and get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate. Click here to find out more>

About the author:

Read next:

COMMENTS (6)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel