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'He also said he hoped I prove him wrong and that’s certainly the intention'

Paul McGrath has said he doesn’t believe Stephen Kenny is the right man for the Irish manager’s job.

Stephen Kenny and Paul McGrath.
Stephen Kenny and Paul McGrath.
Image: INPHO

Updated Oct 1st 2021, 8:48 AM

WITH WORLD CUP qualification out of sight, the primary drama left in Ireland’s campaign is whether Stephen Kenny deserves to have his contract renewed. 

Kenny’s deal is up next July, which is after the beginning of the next Nations League campaign but before qualifying gets underway for the 2024 Euros. The manager has stated he is building a team for that campaign, but needs to prove something in the remainder of this series to earn a shot at it. 

Ireland remain winless in the group, with defeats to Serbia and, most damningly, at home to Luxembourg followed by a wrenching late loss in Portugal and successive 1-1 draws at home to Azerbaijan and Serbia. Performances have oscillated wildly but results have remained poor, with Kenny admitting yesterday that his side need to turn draws into wins. 

An ‘Ireland Thinks’ poll yesterday stated 80% of those surveyed want Kenny to remain on, but there are some recognisable voices among the 20%.

Paul McGrath’s has been the most forceful: having lended his face to the FAI’s promotional campaign for the friendly against Qatar on Tuesday week, he has since gone on record as saying Kenny isn’t up to the job. 

“It’s my belief that Stephen might not be the person to take us on to that level where we are starting to win things again”, McGrath told 2FM’s Game On. 

“I like Stephen, I love what he done with Dundalk, but there is something about Stephen in his way with the team at the moment, I don’t think he is going to change just because we are losing or drawing most games.

“I think we do need to change. If we are losing games, we need to go to something else to try and win.

“I think he has a tough job. Maybe some of the players aren’t as good as players we have had in the past, and I understand every country goes through that, but it would be nice to get a couple of wins and I hope Stephen does.

“Maybe he will prove me wrong.”

McGrath’s headline words were put to the Irish manager at a press conference yesterday. 

“Paul McGrath is an Irish legend – there’s no doubt about that. I don’t think he was overly-critical. I think he said also he hoped I proved him wrong, and that’s certainly the intention in that regard. We want to do well, we want the team to be successful. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and that’s the nature of football, particularly international football but I’ve no major issue.” 

Kenny was asked a few time about the FAI’s impending decision on his future, and consistently batted it away by saying he’s not fixated by it, steering focus to the next weekend’s qualifier away to Azerbaijan. 

He also says he doesn’t feel the need to address the board directly before they make a decision on his future. 

“From my point of view I’m just focused on preparing the team well. I’m not interested in the politics behind the scenes. I never get involved in that. The main thing for me is that we’ve had good support from everyone in the FAI, really good support and we want to have a good window and we want to go to Azerbaijan and get a victory. That’s the ambition, and come home and play against Qatar and do well.

“I’m just focussed on the performance and getting the win against Azerbaijan. That’s what we want to do. I can’t affect anything else so I’m just focussing on that at the moment.” 

One change Kenny has made is the inclusion of Wigan striker Will Keane, who is involved in the squad for the first time since declaring for Ireland at the beginning of 2019, when Mick McCarthy was in charge. 

ipswich-town-v-lincoln-city-in-ipswich-uk-09-nov-2019 Will Keane as an Ipswich player in 2019. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Keane is 28, and is now at Wigan having come through the ranks at Manchester United. He played underage football for England before switching to Ireland, the opposite path tread by his twin brother Michael, who has admitted to using appearances for the Irish U17s and U19s as a stepping stone to the England team. 

Keane has four goals for Wigan so far this season, for whom he plays as a second striker and in a slightly withdrawn role. Kenny says he can lead the line, however, while also praising his link-up play and ability to score headed goals. (Three of his four goals this season have been headers.) 

Perhaps Keane can alleviate Ireland’s goalscoring problem: they have managed only five goals in five games thus far. 

Elsewhere, Seamus Coleman misses out with a hamstring injury, while Dara O’Shea will be out for the rest of the year with the ankle injury he sustained against Portugal. In better news, Chiedozie Ogbene, Enda Stevens and Jason Knight have returned from their injuries. 

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Keane’s inclusion means seven of the 25 players in the Irish squad are currently playing in England’s third tier, and Kenny was pressed on why those playing regularly at a slightly higher level, such as Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan, are being omitted, to which the manager responded that they are on stand-by. 

He put Shane Long’s exclusion down to a lack of game time – he has just 23 minutes under his belt since the last camp – and was also asked directly about another trio of absentees: Darren Randolph, James McCarthy, and Ciaran Clark.

“Darren is available, he needs some games at West Ham, he’s fully fit.

“James McCarthy, he’s not playing at the moment. He’s had an injury history in the last while so it’s great for him, he played 70 minutes, he played 45, so he’s hoping to get minutes under his belt, he wants to play for Ireland. He wants to get matches before the November window.

“With Ciaran, I had a good conversation with Ciaran, we’re looking at the November window for Ciaran.”

Kenny must hope his squad come through the weekend’s fixtures unscathed, and then the squad have the relative luxury of almost a full week to prepare for the return meeting with Azerbaijan in Baku. 

Republic of Ireland squad 

Goalkeepers: Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).

Defenders: Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Nathan Collins (Burnley).

Midfielders: Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Harry Arter (Nottingham Forest), Jamie McGrath (St. Mirren), Jason Knight (Derby County).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Aaron Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion), James Collins (Cardiff City), Daryl Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers), Adam Idah (Norwich City), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United).

 

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Gavin Cooney

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