in depth

Pride, prejudices, and ‘the darkest of places’: The story of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland reign

Gavin Cooney takes an in-depth look at how the Ireland manager’s dream job petered out into disappointment.

stephen-kenny-heads-for-the-tunnel Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

I’VE ONLY GOT one chance, it’s a short life. I’ve only got one opportunity here. I will ensure that I have conviction in the way we set up the team. The ambition will be to dominate possession in a lot of the games. We can’t promise we’ll always achieve that, but I want people to come to the Aviva Stadium and look forward to going and watching this team. Ideally I would want every schoolboy team looking at the senior international team and thinking ‘That’s how we want to play’

- Stephen Kenny, 9 April 2020 

Ambition can take you to the darkest of places.

- Stephen Kenny, 21 November 2023


In the dressing room at the Aviva Stadium after Tuesday night’s friendly game against New Zealand, John Egan – invited to be part of the squad as he recovers from injury – stood up to pay tribute to the manager and his staff, hailing the bond they have created within the team. 

Jayson Molumby spoke up on behalf of the younger cohort of players, who were granted U21 and then senior international debuts by Kenny. James McClean spoke, Shane Duffy too. Tears were shed.  

The final word went to Stephen Kenny, who could not emphatically say that this would be the final time he stood among them, but merely that was the likeliest outcome. The writing was on the wall, but as the FAI had not yet committed it to headed paper, Kenny had to caveat his farewell.  

“My dream is to carry on but my own instinct is that won’t happen,” Kenny told his post-game press conference, a version of the words he had delivered to his players moments earlier. Confirmation was delivered at 6.41pm on Wednesday evening via an emailed statement, the FAI’s traditional means of dispatch. 

The cold and harsh reality of bad results had intruded for the final time on Stephen Kenny’s dream. 


Martin O’Neill’s tenure with Ireland was done; the vivid glory of Lille and Euro 2016 dismally greyed across a wretched year that began with the 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. Mick McCarthy quickly emerged as his likeliest successor, with a retinue of his former players now ensconced in television studios and happy to talk up his qualities.  

But this was November 2018, a time when front pages were filled with details of Theresa May’s draft Brexit agreement with Brussels. Like every other part of Irish life, football here was reassessing its relationship with Britain. Was it not time for the FAI to do something different? To look closer to home for once? 

Stephen Kenny’s achievements with Dundalk both domestically and in Europe made him a compelling candidate. Kenny enjoyed a swell of support among fans, with Derry City and St Patrick’s Athletic issuing statements in support of his candidacy. Kenny himself spoke directly of his desire for the job in an interview with Emmet Malone of the Irish Times, in which he promised big things. 

“Do I think that I could take charge of the next generation of Irish players and turn them into a really cohesive team, combining the best virtues of Irish sides – the honesty, work-rate and passion that we’ve shown down the years – but introducing a more European style of play, a more fluid and expansive way? Yes, I do.” 

Then-CEO John Delaney was never deaf to public opinion, and he met Kenny at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Blanchardstown to find him a role. He was offered the U21 job, and then the U21 job with the future promise of the senior job. Kenny insisted on a written guarantee, and Delaney eventually obliged, committing the FAI to appointing Kenny as senior manager on 1 August 2020, with McCarthy in situ until then. 

Damien Duff called the succession plan “a bit mad”, while Brian Kerr called it “bizarre”. 

“I’m happy for both of them”, said Kerr. “I know Stephen very well since he was a young lad and I saw him for St Pat’s. “I predicted the day would come when he would be Ireland manager two years ago although I’m surprised it has come this quickly and in this arrangement. But for both of them they have to be happy and it could work out very well, although it is a bizarre way to have fallen.”

stephen-kenny-with-ruud-dokter Ruud Dokter, right, with Kenny at his unveiling as U21 manager. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

McCarthy was publicly unveiled as senior manager at the Aviva Stadium on 25 November 2018, with Kenny introduced as U21 manager at the same venue a day later. John Delaney sat with McCarthy at his press conference, whereas High Performance Director Ruud Dokter accompanied Kenny. 

As Kenny answered questions, a journalist in front of him realised he had forgotten to close the Google Maps app on his phone when it chimed aloud, “You have arrived.” 


Kenny arrived slightly ahead of schedule. By April 2020, the worlds inside and outside of Abbotstown had been transformed. John Delaney left the FAI in April 2019, with the organisation thrown into chaos and wrestling itself away from insolvency. Then the pandemic halted matches, with the Euros playoff against Slovakia postponed to later in 2020, and, crucially, after Kenny’s proposed start date. 

The FAI, now led by interim CEO Gary Owens and his deputy Niall Quinn, decided to accelerate the succession plan. McCarthy and his assistant Terry Connor left, and Kenny was promoted to the top job in time to take charge of the play-off. Bizarrely, Delaney had signed Robbie Keane to a longer contract than either McCarthy or Connor, and so he remained on the payroll. 

Kenny did not want Keane on his coaching staff, and the FAI backed him on the principle that any manager must be allowed to pick his own team and be able to succeed or fail on his own terms. Keane felt jilted, a fact made worse by the fact that he felt blindsided by the announcement. Kenny revealed he hadn’t phoned Keane to tell him of his plans due to “complex contractual arrangements”. 

Kenny brought Damien Duff into Keane’s old role as number three, with Keith Andrews stepping up from the U21s as assistant. Aside from the retention of Alan Kelly as goalkeeper coach, Kenny completely overhauled the team’s support staff, down to bringing in his own kit man and press officer. 

stephen-kenny-with-keith-andrews-and-damien-duff Duff, Kenny, and Andrews. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Kenny made a conscious effort to make everyone in his staff feel important, and every member of the extended staff was given a match-prepped jersey after each game, which featured the same date, match details, and patches as the players wore. 

In return, Kenny got total commitment from his staff, with a new level of detailed analysis brought to the job. Ahead of the 2022 friendly against Lithuania, for instance, eight giant posters were hung on the walls of the staff’s analysis room at Abbotstown, detailing their opponent’s formation and style of play in each of their last eight games. 

The Owens/Quinn combo did not initially appoint Kenny but they gave him enormous backing, and later in 2020 they proposed that he join a revamped senior management team at the FAI as International Football Director. Kenny retreated from the role, saying “I don’t have the title of Director. I’m the manager of the international team, that’s all I ever wanted to be.” 

Quinn and Owens also held talks with Brian Kerr about a potential return to the FAI. Quinn had worked with Kerr on punditry duty for Virgin Media, and six weeks after he returned to the FAI, Quinn publicly said he would like Kerr to be back in the building too. “It would be fabulous to have Brian in and we’re pretty much in favour of it,” he said. Kerr is understood to have favoured a coaching role at the Association rather than an administrative job, but ultimately no role was formally offered. Kerr therefore remained as a television pundit, whose criticism stung Kenny. At one point during his tenure, Kenny’s press officer submitted a complaint to Virgin Media about the tenor of Kerr’s criticism. It’s unclear whether it came at Kenny’s behest. 

Kenny spoke in July 2020 of a fact to which he would consistently return: “We haven’t seen enough players come through.” He noted then that prior to Aaron Connolly, only Alan Browne and Sean Maguire had come through the Irish system since Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who were then 28. 

Whenever Kenny diagnosed past ills or spoke of what he would overhaul and improve, some of those who went before him read it as an implicit criticism. While Kenny may not agree with that, he blundered in his final days by comparing Ireland’s 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands with nadirs suffered under O’Neill, McCarthy, and Steve Staunton. 

james-collins-reacts-to-a-missed-chance Kenny's first game in charge ended in a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While Kenny continuously talked about revolutionising Ireland’s playing style, he did not immediately build his team around young players. At the start of 2020, he spoke privately of building his team on a back five of Darren Randolph, Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, and Enda Stevens and he initially hoped to build his midfield around James McCarthy. 

Josh Cullen, later one of the first names on his teamsheet, wasn’t included in Kenny’s first squad at all. 

Kenny’s first game was a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria in the Nations League, with the scoreline and the scorer – Duffy from a set-piece – belying an obvious change in style, with Ireland completing more than twice as many passes as their opponents. In a twist of fate, McCarthy provided Sky Sports’ co-commentary on a game played behind closed doors. There followed a 1-0 home defeat to Finland days later, at which a journalist leaving the press box was heard exclaiming, “Where’s your revolution now?” 

The crucial Euros play-off came a month later and was prefaced by a damaging farce, with Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah ruled out because they sat in the wrong seats on the plane to the game. Under the HSE’s two-metre rule, the pair were 10 and 30 centimetres too close to a staff member who subsequently tested positive for Covid, ruling them out as close contacts. Unbelievably, the test turned out to have been a false positive. 

Kenny’s team were slightly more conservative – playing a 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-3-3 – and were unfortunate to lose, beaten on penalties after Alan Browne had hit the post and Conor Hourihane missed a glorious chance. 

slovakia-celebrate-after-the-game Slovakia ended Ireland's Euro 2020 playoff ambitions. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The Nations League campaign then unfurled into disaster, as Ireland failed to even score a goal for the rest of the year across Covid-addled games. Their goalless run stretched to a record-setting 11 hours, but the pandemic’s upheaval provided mitigation: in his first eight games in charge, Kenny lost 14 players to injury and another 12 to Covid cases. 

While the pressure was intensifying, Kenny remained determined. “I have no doubts I will be a success. Absolutely no doubts,” he said after a 1-0 loss to Wales in Cardiff. 



The end of his first year brought a few more concussive blows.

David McGoldrick, outstanding in the Slovakia playoff, retired for personal reasons, while Ireland endured a chastening 3-0 friendly defeat at Wembley. Then, in December, the UK Daily Mail broke a story stating that Kenny was under investigation by the FAI over a motivational video shown to the squad ahead of the England game. 

The video spliced footage of previous Ireland games against England with footage from the 1916 Rising. The vast majority of those in the room when it was shown had no problem with it, but there were some objections raised. The FAI investigated, confirming so in a statement in which they said they were looking into it “as a matter of urgency, in order to establish the facts.” 

Gary Owens interviewed approximately 12 people directly involved, but Kenny was ultimately found to have no case to answer and the case was closed. Chairman Roy Barrett later said the media blew it out of all proportion, and when asked if the FAI contributed to that hyperbole with their statement, he said, “I can see that. I’m not denying it.”  

While Kenny was cleared, the episode left some damage. Alan Kelly didn’t like the video and left the staff, while Damien Duff walked too. Duff had an issue with how the FAI handled the incident, though a senior FAI source says the video saga was “catalyst” for his exit, rather than the only reason. It is understood Duff had some differences with Kenny, but they did not lead to anything like a breakdown in relations between the pair. After he left the set-up, Duff often texted Kenny messages to wish him good luck ahead of games.  

Kenny insisted he had no problem with his players over the leaking of the story, but hinted he was being undermined from elsewhere.

“I think there may be people behind the scenes or elsewhere who want to cause problems for the team or don’t have the best interests of the team.”

He declined the opportunity to elaborate.  

External noise and criticism became a preoccupation for Kenny, wrestling as he had to with the rare dynamic of being an Ireland manager living in Ireland. In one of his final press engagements he was asked how he blocked out that noise, to which he replied by saying, “with great difficulty.”

There were times in the job he had to be beseeched to stop Googling his own name. He largely bit his tongue in response to criticism, though did hit back at a journalist in June, calling for more respect after the questioner described the 2-1 defeat away to Greece as “shambolic”.  

In what proved to be his final press conference as Ireland manager, Kenny complained that a lot of the criticism of him was “political.”. As an FAI source told The 42 in relation to the videogate saga, “he wasn’t being paranoid, as he was under siege”. 

But nonetheless, Kenny stooped and started building back up. A senior source at the FAI said Kenny’s defining characteristic is his resilience, and his ability to carry on through whatever setback or misfortune afflicted him. This, it is explained, was borne out of his passion for the job and the deep belief that he was in a privileged role. 

stephen-kenny-and-anthony-barry-look-on Losing Anthony Barry, second from left, was a major setback. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The rebuild began with the recruitment of Anthony Barry as Duff’s replacement, and a switch to a back three system. It quickly took its roughest punch yet in the second game of World Cup qualifying, the 1-0 home loss to Luxembourg at an empty Aviva Stadium. Kenny was so morose and forlorn in his post-match press conference over Zoom that he was found by a member of staff in the same room staring vacantly into the distance, long after the press conference was over. 

His spark for the job was rekindled days later after a 1-1 friendly draw with Qatar, rounding on critics who had “turned very quickly” and insisting he would be a success. He earned a public vote of confidence from the FAI and soon the Luxembourg game took on the hue of a necessary nadir. 

The trajectory from there was almost continually upward: a June training camp brought a first win – 4-1 over Andorra – along with a creditable draw away to Hungary, a debut for Chiedozie Ogbene, the rehabilitation of Duffy after a deeply difficult spell at Celtic, and crucially, a chance for the squad to bond in an environment finally free of many of Covid’s lonely strictures. The travelling FAI party were impressed by the environment created by Kenny and his staff, along with their professionalism and work ethic. That captain Seamus Coleman was present despite a hamstring injury was seen as another endorsement of Kenny’s work. 

September brought an agonising, last-gasp defeat to Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo breaking the all-time international scoring record with two stoppage-time goals to rob Ireland of one of their greatest-ever results; their brilliant counter-attacking approach cruelly yielding nothing. 

By now, Kenny had begun blooding youth, with Gavin Bazunu, Adam Idah, and Andrew Omobamidele all outstanding against Portugal. But that sense of progress was checked by a fitful 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijan days later, after which Kenny again went on the offensive, saying it was his plan to use the World Cup qualifying campaign to build a squad for Euro 2024 qualifying. 

cristiano-ronaldo-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Cristiano Ronaldo scored two late goals to deny Ireland a landmark result against Portugal. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

That would ultimately leave Kenny as a hostage to the Euros campaign, but first he had to make it that far. Days later, Bazunu almost single-handedly rescued a point at home to Serbia, and Ireland then finished the group unbeaten, rounding it out with a sweet 3-0 win away to Luxembourg. Luc Holtz, the Luxembourg manager, spent the build up continually describing Ireland as “British.”

This riled Kenny, who for once had the sure-footing of a victory from which to make his reply. “We were disappointed he denigrated all the great players who played for Ireland. Denis Irwin was in with us a couple of weeks ago. Roy Keane, John Giles, Liam Brady, Mick McCarthy, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff. It is wrong to say they just fight for second balls and played caveman football for a hundred years.” 

Here was an instance of Kenny’s team portrayed as in the lineage of the Irish teams who went before them, rather than separate to them. 

As Kenny spoke, Irish fans banged on the windows outside, singing his name, and CEO Jonathan Hill tweeted his approval from the ground: Kenny’s position was clearly safe. The FAI voted to extend Kenny’s contract through to the end of the Euro 2024 campaign, and all was signed and sealed the following March. 


Kenny never let his ambition slip. Before the 2022 Nations League draw was made, he said his side should be aiming to win their group…which made for easy criticism after his side lost both of their opening games. The opening-day defeat away to Armenia was the most damning, with a squad consisting of primarily Championship players almost creaked with rust.  

The subsequent home defeat to Ukraine was worse than the scoreline suggested too, given the visitors had rested most of their first-choice players.  With Kenny yet again under pressure, a tweak from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 led to a 3-0 win at home to Scotland, which was followed by a 1-1 draw against a much stronger Ukraine team in Poland, a game illuminated by Nathan Collins’ stunning individual goal. 

Kenny continued to introduce young players to his squad, and Collins was the summer’s breakout star. He did so largely because they were the best option available to him: the average age of the squad got younger across each of the four campaigns he took charge of. 

A significant setback was suffered at the start of the year, when Anthony Barry decided to join Portugal’s backroom staff ahead of the World Cup. Barry’s calibre is evident in the fact Thomas Tuchel persuaded Bayern Munich to pay Chelsea a release clause for his services, and Barry was a popular and energetic figure around the Irish camp, fitting perfectly into the environment. 

John Eustace replaced Barry, but he was gone by the end of the June window, taking the manager’s job at Birmingham. Barry, in hindsight, appears to have been a major loss, and his value to the set-up was made clear when Kenny tried to get him back after the World Cup. Barry instead decided to stick with Roberto Martinez and joined him with Portugal.  

troy-parrott-shoots-reacts-to-a-missed-chance Troy Parrott missed a glorious chance in Scotland. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Meanwhile, the team grew erratic. They narrowly lost a full-blooded Nations League game at Hampden Park, in which Troy Parrott spurned a glorious one-on-one chance. That left Ireland needing to beat Armenia on the final day to avoid relegation, an altogether different scenario than the one sold by Kenny. They did so, but only via a late penalty having blown a 2-0 lead.  

Kenny described the performance as “exceptional” in his television interview, but later retracted it. Hyperbole of this kind became a constant stick with which to beat Kenny. He rarely had any momentum as Ireland manager, and without a bank of results – or at least one great win – with which nobody could argue, he had to fight his corner on the quality of performances, which were always open to challenge and rebuttal.  

Sometimes he was exactly right, but sometimes he wasn’t. There was a tendency too to slip into stump speeches to which the country ultimately became inured. Statistics on goals scored and crowds attracted and players introduced was a currency that devalued over the years. Ireland’s poor Nations League campaign left themselves open to a challenging Euro 2024 draw, meaning they would need to benefit from a bit of luck when they trooped to Frankfurt for the ceremony. 

Consistent with Kenny’s tenure, he didn’t get it.  


Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2024 via the traditional means were over as soon as the draw was made. To draw Netherlands as top seeds and world champions France as second seeds is right out of the Book of Job, though Ireland left themselves open to it thanks to their Nations League finish.  

Realistically, Ireland had to hope their Nations League standing was good enough to earn a backdoor playoff, which would mean that the rest of the qualifying groups needed to keep the giantkilling to a minimum. Regrettably, qualifying then became a months-long campaign of giantkilling. 

Kenny would be defined by Ireland’s performances against fourth seeds Greece, the highest-ranked side they could have drawn from that pot. And while Ireland’s performance at home to France was diligent and encouraging and only a miracle save away from being another famous 1-1 draw, their 2-1 loss in Athens in June was ruinous. 

stephen-kenny-dejected-after-the-game June's defeat in Athens signalled the beginning of the end for Kenny. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Scarred by Armenia, Kenny arranged a nine-day warm-weather training camp in Antalya to condition the players for the Greece game, but his exhaustive preparation was mocked when the Irish bus had to beat back floods on the way to the OPAP Arena. (On that day, it was warmer in Dublin.)  

Ireland were completely outplayed, with Evan Ferguson failing to register a single touch in the Greece box from open play. Kenny later said he didn’t recognise himself in the team. This game winnowed much of his support in the FAI boardroom, but all agreed to allow him see out the rest of the campaign. 

Beaten in Paris, Ireland needed an improbable win at home to the Dutch to rescue the campaign, and while they began aggressively and brilliantly, they couldn’t hold onto to their early lead. Thus began the long goodbye. Greece’s 2-0 win in Dublin was only the second time Ireland lost a competitive game by more than a goal under Kenny, while no result in Amsterdam last week could have rescued him. It turned out to be a flattering 1-0 loss. With just two wins over Gibraltar, it was Ireland’s worst qualifying campaign in 50 years. 

What emerged over this brutal campaign was an inability to change things. This Irish staff worked harder and were more detailed than ever before, but it seemed they had a plan for everything aside from when the plan failed. Ireland were often undone when opponents surprised them. 

When Matt Doherty spoke of how Greece’s wide forwards were much wider than Ireland anticipated in June, for instance, and there was no effective reaction to Ronald Koeman’s half-time switch to a back four in Dublin. Kenny also referenced the fact Armenia reverted to a back five against Ireland for their victory in June, having played in that system in only one of their previous 20 games. 

“I’ve grown myself in that period”, said Kenny on Tuesday night.

“The game is so fast-moving tactically, every year, so fast-moving and you continue learning. And that’s been something I’ve taken on board.” 

But this inability to react also falls on the players. Were they simply too young and inexperienced to react in games, and to accommodate themselves to the flow of a game? In hindsight, it is not a coincidence that the best performance of the year came in the one game for which Seamus Coleman was available.  

The players stood firmly by Kenny and his staff throughout, and senior FAI sources have remarked that the environment he created was very different to the one they witnessed under Vera Pauw. His successor will inherit a completely overhauled player pool: Kenny took over the third-oldest squad in Euro qualifying and now leaves its second-youngest group of players.  He didn’t have the wingers to play in his favoured formation, so he made do with a back three but leaves his successor with Chiedozie Ogbene, Mikey Johnston, and, most likely, Kasey McAteer. 

republic-of-ireland-head-coach-stephen-kenny-acknowledges-the-fans-after-the-final-whistle-in-an-international-friendly-match-at-the-aviva-stadium-dublin-picture-date-tuesday-november-21-2023 Kenny said an emotional farewell after Tuesday's 1-1 draw with New Zealand. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Kenny arrived with his vision, but international football is becoming a land for improvisers rather than ideologues. He didn’t have the profile of players to play as he ideally wanted, and too many of those he did have lacked the consistent gametime at club level to peak when they wore an Ireland jersey. 

Maybe Stephen Kenny aimed too high: maybe the style of play was too optimistic for the quality of the players he had, or at least against some of the opposition he faced. Maybe his soaring rhetoric never could meet the reality he could deliver; maybe his many bombastic comments painted a target on his back. 

But he wouldn’t have been Ireland manager without doing all of it. 

“Rather than build something step-by-step, I am a big picture person: you have to see what you can achieve, and work toward it”, said Kenny on Tuesday.

“That’s how I see life. When you do that, and you set the bar high, your fall can be acute. It leads you to incredible highs, and incredible setbacks. I have never not done that. I don’t mean that as some kind of badge of honour: you can only be true to yourself.” 

He signed off with the media on Tuesday by saying that the Ireland job is “an absolutely great job now, with talent, but talent now with experience”.

Now it’s a great job for somebody – it was the dream job for him.

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