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By now, debating who the Irish manager should be feels almost beside the point

The scrutiny of Stephen Kenny’s future has intensified in recent days.

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny applauds the fans after the Serbia game.
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny applauds the fans after the Serbia game.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Sep 8th 2021, 12:00 PM

FOR YEARS, and perhaps even decades, Irish football has been asking the wrong question.

The identity of the national team manager and whether he is the right person for the job has long felt like a national obsession.

So many of the most intense debates in the history of Irish football have essentially boiled down to that specific query — even Saipan was basically about this.

The debate around this question has of course been amplified in recent days, with Stephen Kenny having to play down speculation that his immediate future in the Ireland job is in doubt.

Even last night’s creditable 1-1 draw with Serbia did not prevent similar questions from being asked afterwards.

But the arguments both for and against Kenny have been so impassioned to the extent that his importance has been greatly exaggerated.

Of course, the manager’s identity is not unimportant. But in reality, a good coach can make a bad group of players slightly better, and a bad one will hamper a good team only to a certain extent.

This is especially true of international football, where managers can’t even orchestrate the buying and selling of players, and so they have even less influence than at club level.

So let’s look at England as an example. They obviously share more differences than similarities to the Irish team — football is a massive industry over there whereas it is plainly not here.

Yet the current Irish team share one comparable trait to the English side of a few years ago.

For a long time, there was a sense that England were underachieving at international level.

They had been perennial quarter-finalists at major tournaments for much of the Sven-Göran Eriksson era. Under Fabio Capello, even getting to this stage was no longer a guarantee, and with Roy Hodgson, there was also a sense they were going backwards, exiting the 2014 World Cup at the group stages and suffering an embarrassing Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland.

Gareth Southgate was eventually almost appointed by default, following the swift and controversial departure of Sam Allardyce after one game in charge.

Like Kenny, Southgate was not an especially big name when it came to international football.

Aside from England U21s, his only other managerial experience had come at Middlesbrough, where he had been dismissed not long after the club’s relegation from the Premier League.

Like Ireland with Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill, for years England had been seduced by the cult of the manager, paying extortionate wages to big-name coaches in the misguided hope that it would somehow solve everything.

Appointing Southgate, some may have felt at the time, was akin to throwing in the towel. What had he ever achieved as a manager? Some many have even levelled the accusation, as they have with Kenny, that he was ‘out of his depth’.

His CV may have been far less impressive than Messrs Eriksson, Capello and Hodgson, but what he did have, more than the previous bosses, was an intimate knowledge of the English football system, having coached the U21 team between 2013 and 2016.

And this instance is hardly an anomaly — Joachim Low had a relatively unremarkable coaching career before spending three invaluable years as Germany assistant boss. He then got the main job after Jurgen Klinsmann stepped away and ultimately guided the team to World Cup glory.

Southgate, meanwhile, has gone on to become England’s most successful coach since Alf Ramsey, guiding them in the summer to their first final of a major tournament since 1966.

The former Aston Villa defender is a good manager, but not a miracle maker. The reason he eclipsed Eriksson and Capello is not that he is a genius. Really, what happened is that instead of worrying so much about who their national manager is, England seriously overhauled and invested in their underage system. Southgate, for all his astute decisions that helped this success story come to fruition, was fortunate to arrive in his role at the right time.

The results have been plain to see — in 2017, the Three Lions won the U17 World Cup for the first time, while an incredible array of talented players have come through their system in recent times to the extent that their media’s high expectations around major tournaments finally is starting to feel justified.

Of course, comparing Ireland and England is ridiculous in many ways, but it doesn’t mean nothing can be learned from the Three Lions’ previous predicament.

alan-browne-and-john-egan-dejected Ireland's Alan Browne and John Egan dejected after the match with Azerbaijan. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

One of the most salient points made about Kenny’s Ireland in recent days came from his former assistant at Dundalk, Vinny Perth, who was speaking on Off the Ball in the aftermath of the disappointing 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan on Saturday.

“The FAI have known about Brexit for five years, yet we haven’t invested a red cent into underage football,” he said.

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“Do people think North Macedonia just turned up at the Euros and it happened overnight? It was an eight or nine-year project.

“Azerbaijan have something like 26 full-time coaches associated with their academies.

“In Ireland, there are only six people employed full-time through all the League of Ireland clubs as an academy coach according to the FAI.”

Consequently, in one sense, it doesn’t really matter what the Football Association of Ireland do next.

They could stick with Kenny and the team will get slightly better or slightly worse. They could hire another visionary with a Kenny-esque approach and the team will get slightly better or slightly worse. Or they could hire a more high-profile manager who has had plenty of experience at club level in England, whose main priority is getting positive results rather than taking more of a long-term view, and the team will get slightly better or slightly worse.

The only way considerable change will occur is if, like England, Ireland put significant resources into the game at grassroots level, and given the FAI’s well-publicised debt, expecting that to occur anytime soon is surely wishful thinking.

Kenny himself is aware of this major issue. ”It is a huge challenge for everyone in the football community in Ireland to foster and develop players, to reach their full potential, with the limited infrastructure, finance and facilities in Ireland,” the Irish manager wrote in his programme notes last night.

“Tonight’s opponents, Serbia for example, seem to have a high number of players playing across the top leagues throughout Europe, yet their population is just seven million. The development of their indigenous clubs Partizan Belgrade and Crvena zvezda amongst others are clubs with substantial resources and infrastructure which develop players and sell them for high transfer fees, which is reinvested within the clubs.

“Likewise, Croatia, with a population of just five million, reached the final of the last World Cup with the development of clubs such as Hadjuk Split and Dinamo Zagreb. It would be naive to suggest that we couldn’t learn from either country as we search for a different pathway for greater numbers of Irish players and the broader development of football in Ireland.”

So in one sense, international football is similar to the club game in that investment in players is the biggest driver of success.

Promptly dismissing Kenny for his team’s failure to qualify for Qatar would only strengthen the perception that Irish football is still asking the wrong question.

Ireland, at their best, reached the World Cup knockout stages three times in the space of 12 years and at the very least, that is what the country should continue to strive towards ultimately. But it will take the efforts of a collective rather than one man to make it happen.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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