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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 1 June, 2020

Kenny plans to reach out to Robbie Brady, James McCarthy and Shane Long

Now that he has succeeded Mick McCarthy as Ireland manager, what are the big questions facing Stephen Kenny?

Stephen Kenny wants James McCarthy back in an Ireland shirt.
Stephen Kenny wants James McCarthy back in an Ireland shirt.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Can he win over the dressing room?

This may be easier than his sceptics think. Some players already are Kenny believers, James McClean predictably enough, given how his career was kick-started by Kenny, but so too John Egan and Darren Randolph, two players who have no connection to the incoming manager but whose eyes were opened by his success with the Irish Under 21 team.

Given his background in League of Ireland football, the presence of a sizeable contingent of League graduates in the Ireland squad – among them Seamus Coleman, Matt Doherty, Enda Stevens and McClean – is a useful starting point.

Yet it only goes so far, a point Gary Breen made earlier today on Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme, when he referenced the first meeting Kenny will have with the squad. “That initial talk (to the Ireland players) will be massive,” Breen, the former Irish international said, “because players can sense straight away whether someone is good or a bluffer.”

For what it’s worth, Breen doesn’t believe Kenny falls into the spoofer category, citing his reputation for thoroughness. Yet he’s wary about the hype building around a man who has never managed at Premier League or even Championship level. “This is exciting, he has a reputation for prepping his teams well and I hope he lives up to the billing he has got,” Breen said, “but his CV ……”

The uncomfortable truth is that Breen is not the only person worried about Kenny’s resume, which may be top-heavy with League of Ireland achievements but doesn’t have any Premier League stardust sprinkled across its pages.

Yet this isn’t as rare as you might think. Just over eight years ago, another League of Ireland manager got an international job in Ireland on the back of taking Shamrock Rovers to two league titles and the Europa League group stages. Now, some further context is required here. Michael O’Neill is a former international; Kenny isn’t. Furthermore, expectations around that 2012 Northern Ireland team are nowhere near as high as they are around this current Republic of Ireland side. Still O’Neill – who has gone on to take Northern Ireland to the last 16 of Euro 2016 and to the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 play-offs – hasn’t won as much in club football as Kenny.

He does possess a sharp football brain, however, which gradually saw him win over the Northern Ireland panel. Kenny, arguably, is an even smarter tactician, whose greatest asset is his ability to spot a player and make him fit into a system. He’s also self-aware enough to know he’ll have to convince a few dissenters that he is worth the gamble.

michael-oneill-with-steven-davis-after-the-game Michael O'Neill with Northern Ireland captain, Steve Davis. Source: Jonathan Porter/INPHO

“Will players believe in my message or methods? That’s probably the question [people are asking],” Kenny said back in November 2018. “Well, most players play football because they love the game. So if you play in a progressive, attacking way, the vast majority buy into what you are doing.

“I don’t think players will have any qualms about the way the team will be set up by me, or the level of detail or the quality of the training sessions I will put on, because they will be very specific to the games themselves. You’ve got to ask questions of players.”

His first question will be blunt. Are you with me? If they aren’t, he won’t shy away from ditching them. Behind the quiet voice is a ruthless operator.

So in what way will he be different to Mick McCarthy?

This isn’t the time to put the boot into McCarthy, whose dignified exit merits respect. Still, no manager is above questioning. Questions not only about his execution, but also his selection.

You can quibble over his preference for Seamus Coleman over Matt Doherty, and until his injury, of Richard Keogh over John Egan. Robbie Brady, Shane Long and James McCarthy had their injury issues but should have played the key end games of 2019. Kenny intends to reach out to all three.

Many assume he plans to throw in his lot in with the young players he has worked with at Under 21 level but it’s much likelier that he’ll try to build a midfield around McCarthy, Brady and Jeff Hendrick, which means an end to Glenn Whelan’s international career.

Long will return; Callum Robinson is highly thought of by the new manager, while Kenny also genuinely feels that Randolph and his quartet of defenders deserve to be ranked in Europe’s top ten.  

The man is one of life’s optimists, Slovakia in November a game he expects to win. He won’t speak dismissively of Ireland’s players the way Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill did.

shane-long-and-robbie-brady-celebrate Kenny wants to reunite Shane Long and Robbie Brady in the Ireland team. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Are we likely to see young players get a chance in the next 12 months?

The short answer is yes, namely strikers Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly as well as the Millwall midfielder, Jayson Molumby. Kenny also has a habit of finding an uncut gem who he knows he can polish into something special. One constant throughout his career, however, has been his willingness to adapt to the opposition and change his team accordingly. He won’t be blindly loyal to anyone.

How will he handle the stick from outside the camp?

Well, he better get used to it, because the Ireland job is toxic. Expectations are unrealistically high, partly a legacy of Eamon Dunphy’s punditry and nostalgic references to Ireland’s glorious past, which existed for about a couple of months in 1974.

On top of this, a divide exists in Ireland between League of Ireland devotees and another section of fans who don’t worship at that particular church. Kenny is a product of the League, and the goodwill towards him from this constituency is huge. You just know, though, that as soon as there is one bad result, there will be some former international pointing to his background.

So is this appointment too big a risk?

Definitely not even if plenty of hardened old pros are cynical about Kenny, possibly because he isn’t as fluent in clichés or excuses as they are. They say it’s a gamble, going with this youthful, intelligent, football purist for the national job. But what exactly is the danger? The possibility we may have a manager who will encourage an Irish team to pass the ball? After 15 years of dire football, something like this is desperately needed. He has the footballing and emotional intelligence to do something special.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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