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Stephen Kenny is building something exciting and deserves a new contract

The manager oversaw an impressive win against Qatar at the Aviva Stadium last night.

Stephen Kenny pictured during last night's match.
Stephen Kenny pictured during last night's match.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY HAD two big challenges when he took over as Ireland manager.

One was to qualify Ireland for the World Cup — something they last achieved 20 years ago.

And sceptics might have argued the other major obstacle was equally as unlikely to be successfully navigated.

His task was straightforward: he had to restore the sense of joy that had been long absent from Irish football.

Part of the reasons for this pervasive feeling of negativity of course goes beyond the team itself.

The various FAI-related controversies left a sour taste for ardent football fans and served to exacerbate the sense of distance, which had already existed to an extent, between the general public and the team.

Those off-field issues are surely also the primary reason why the men’s side have struggled to attract a sponsor in recent months, with the perception of and trust in the sport’s administrators extremely low in light of events of the recent past.

Yet in terms of the team itself, the morale was hardly high either.

The last days of the Martin O’Neill era were unmistakably dire, as the Irish side seemed to get outplayed if not necessarily beaten, by every country they came up against.

There was certainly some improvement when Mick McCarthy took over, but his relatively short-lived tenure was similarly reductive and ultimately felt like a bit of a slog.

Results were often fairly respectable — draws against teams of the calibre of Switzerland and Denmark are not to be sniffed at — but it sometimes seemed as if fans were not as invested in the team as they could be.

They were not a side that you fell in love with the way people did, certainly in relation to teams during the Charlton era and McCarthy’s first reign.

Part of the problem was that the games were often quite boring — there was a stretch where it felt as if the team were perpetually hanging on for a 1-1 draw with Georgia.

There were occasional highs like the 1-0 win over Germany, and the Euro 2016 campaign that followed, but these nights were outnumbered by the difficult-to-watch away fixtures where Shane Long or Daryl Murphy cut a lonely figure in attack.

Kenny was seemingly aware of this problem, as he has made reference to the past disconnect between the team and the Irish public on more than one occasion.

“The Irish public will identify with these players and when they are successful, there will be a great connection there I feel, very powerful,” the manager said back in May.

The old cliché in football, which has been regularly referenced by Kenny’s detractors, is that fans don’t care about style so long as you are winning matches.

The results really are supposedly all that matters.

Yet Kenny’s Ireland almost seem to contradict this widespread belief to a degree.

If someone who knew nothing about Irish soccer simply looked at a sheet of paper that showed the Dubliner’s results, they would be unlikely to come to the conclusion that the manager deserves a new contract.

It’s also fair to say that most coaches who win only three of their opening 18 games in charge, or one out of 13 competitive matches, would be under severe pressure.

Ireland could still finish behind Luxembourg in fourth place in the group. And regardless of what happens next month, this campaign will surely be looked back upon as the worst overall performance in qualifying since Eoin Hand’s team won just two of their eight games in attempting to reach the ’86 World Cup in what was a much tougher-looking group that also featured Denmark, Soviet Union, Switzerland and Norway.

And yet post-match Tuesday night, Conor Hourihane described the atmosphere in the Irish camp as “feel-good”.

All of the 25,000 available tickets for an ostensibly meaningless friendly with Qatar were sold, with many of those in attendance chanting “there’s only one Stephen Kenny” during the encounter.

Similarly, last month, before the qualifier at home to Serbia, a banner was unfurled that read: ‘In Kenny We Trust.’ 

A few weeks back, even before he had picked up his first competitive win, an Ireland Thinks survey suggested 80% of the Irish public were still behind Kenny.

Consequently, perhaps results aren’t always all that matters and people are actually willing to take into account the context, namely what Kenny has inherited and what he is trying to build.

Last night — against a country seven places above them in the Fifa rankings — was the most convincing sign yet that the team are headed in the right direction.

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The result meant Ireland had scored three or more in back-to-back games for the first time since 2013 — encompassing a Noel King-managed 3-1 win over Kazakhstan and a 3-0 defeat of Latvia in Martin O’Neill’s first game in charge.

Granted, it was friendly, but with World Cup qualification long since out of the question, you could argue that Ireland, from their perspective, have been playing glorified friendlies for some time now.

Inexperienced players like Andrew Omobamidele and Jamie McGrath — the type of footballers that other less adventurous managers simply would not play in the first place — look as if they have been in the team for years.

The more experienced stars, who have not been discarded, like Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane, appear reinvigorated.

However, no player has looked more transformed than Callum Robinson — the West Brom star registered one goal in 12 appearances under McCarthy and O’Neill. He also started the Kenny era slowly amid well-documented issues with Covid, but now has five goals in two matches — a remarkable haul for a team that had been considered shot-shy up until this window.

Moreover, previous Ireland managers seemed reluctant to trust the players and often publicly lamented their lack of ability.

Under Kenny, this stark conservatism has been replaced by ambition and growing self-confidence.

The manager’s comments in last night’s post-match press conference felt almost like a rebuke to the ‘we don’t have the players’ mantra that had become almost accepted as fact prior to his appointment.

“Every player’s technical quality was outstanding,” he said. “It does show the players are well capable. People say we don’t have the players who can play from the back. Sometimes when you make mistakes and they get punished that can be thrown at the players. But they’re all good footballers.”

So forget the results, they will surely come now that the team have some positive momentum.

As it stands, Stephen Kenny has succeeded in bringing back the sense of joy to Irish soccer, and for that reason, he deserves to see his contract extended beyond the summer.

– First published 06.15, 13 October

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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