The Irish team pictured before last night's match with New Zealand. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The results were not good enough, but history will be kind to Stephen Kenny's Ireland

The manager oversaw a 1-1 draw with New Zealand last night in what is widely expected to be his final game in charge.

TUESDAY NIGHT at the Aviva Stadium felt like the Stephen Kenny era in microcosm.

So many familiar themes were evident.

The encouraging start gave the false impression that it would be a rare positive night for Ireland.

The strange, subdued atmosphere that was so prominent, particularly in the early, Covid-ravaged part of the manager’s reign, was again apparent.

The team emerged with a disappointing result despite the sense that the opposition were inferior and there for the taking.

The concession of yet another spectacular long-range goal — one of many unfortunate trends under Kenny.

The tidy, progressive build-up play is perpetually undermined by a lack of ruthlessness or cutting edge in the final third.

And of course, it ended with the most Irish of outcomes — the 1-1 draw — just as it started under Kenny a little more than three years ago in Sofia.

Now, even the ex-Dundalk manager’s most ardent defenders will find it extremely difficult to make a convincing case for him to stay on and to disagree with the seemingly inevitable conclusion the FAI board will come to whenever they convene to discuss the manager’s future.

Kenny’s record after 40 matches stands at 11 wins, 12 draws and 17 defeats.

So judged purely on results, his tenure has been an unequivocal failure.

The victories have come largely against lowly opposition: Andorra, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Scotland, Armenia, Malta, Latvia and Gibraltar (twice).

Yet, assuming it is the end of the road for Kenny, last night felt slightly different to previous managerial departures.

Whereas in the past, there was exasperation, the current prevailing mood can better be described as exhaustion.

Rancour is the emotion most commonly associated with the conclusion of Irish managerial reigns.

There was a palpable anger among fans towards the end of the reigns of Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Steve Staunton to cite a few examples, not helped by some ill-advised comments in the media and a style of football that was unattractive to watch.

Yet at the Aviva Stadium last night, the boos at the final whistle were barely audible and seemed half-hearted at best among the underwhelming attendance of 26,515 spectators.

The tone was closer to resignation than outrage.

This unusual reaction is surely down to the fact that more than any other coach in recent memory, save for a minority of League of Ireland sceptics and disgruntled ex-players, fans have fervently rooted for Stephen Kenny to succeed.

The Dubliner was a symbol for the league, of its increased level of professionalism and sophistication in recent times.

People were not just cheering for Stephen Kenny, they were supporting what he represented.

And while there are multiple factors behind it, it is not a complete coincidence that as Kenny’s profile has grown, the domestic game’s popularity has expanded in terms of attendance and virtually every other discernible metric.

It is a remarkable and dramatic shift compared with only a few years ago when there was an international manager at the helm, Giovanni Trapattoni, who was so disinterested in and alienated from the domestic game that he went as far as to suggest there was “no league” in Ireland.

But more importantly than his deep-rooted association with the League of Ireland, fans went all in on the Kenny experiment because he was a figure with whom they could readily identify.

For the first time since Brian Kerr, the Irish manager came into the job having spent much of his career immersed in the domestic game.

He was not a managerial icon a la Trapattoni, a World Cup winner like Charlton or a two-time European Cup holder in the vein of O’Neill, but someone of more humble origins. 

Whereas you got the sense in the past that certain coaches privately felt they were doing fans a favour by accepting the Irish job, the Tallaght native always gave the impression that it was genuinely the pinnacle of his career.

“The greatest honour you can have,” Kenny said during his post-match press conference on Tuesday. “Whatever you do in life [after], it would be a step down, no matter what you did, but that’s the way it is.”

Kenny is down to earth and relatable in a way previous managers weren’t. It comes through in the manner in which he communicates and conducts himself, which is at the heart of why there has been so much goodwill and a sense of melancholy and regret amid his anticipated departure. 

His programme notes from last night’s match epitomised his common touch and convey why he has been a beloved figure among many Irish fans.

“When I was a teenager, my Dad decided to leave his regular job and security with it to become self-employed,” he wrote.

“At the back of our small house in Tallaght, he built a large shed where he cooked hams and cooked bacon to supply shops around Dublin.

“That soon became too small, so he bought a small butchers in Ballyfermot and worked from there, before space was at a premium and he built an extension on that building, until, ultimately, with new increased EU regulations,  deemed this building to be too small to work in.

“My view had always been that a large industrial unit was the way to go but money was tight and you had to survive week to week whilst trying to grow.

“Vision and ambition are important. It’s imperative to have clarity of thought, to see what can be achieved on many different levels.

“Ambition can take you to the darkest of places, it’s difficult to undertake a radical rebuild without setbacks. You have to show conviction amidst the criticism and adapt if required, but nurture talent, develop and believe in it.”

The metaphor is obvious. Kenny has overseen the most daring shift in Ireland’s playing style since Jack Charlton took the job.

Unlike the Englishman, the Dubliner has not been handsomely rewarded for his significant gamble.

Yet this fresh approach was still badly needed.

There is a sense of unity now in Irish football at all levels across various age groups.

For years, whereas progressive football was encouraged at underage level, the senior side was a law unto itself and insistent on consistently serving as a Charlton tribute act, as if football had scarcely evolved since the 1980s.

Kenny may have failed, but he did so with an abundance of promising young players — fielding 21 debutants in total during his reign amid a desperately needed rebuild — gaining invaluable and extensive experience at international level under his watch.

Ireland’s youth has been reflected by a naivety of performance at times, notably in Saturday’s dispiriting defeat to the Netherlands. And while they now are among the youngest squads in world football, experience is not necessarily a guarantee of success — the Boys in Green had the oldest average age squad at both the 2012 and 2016 Euros, but only managed to win a combined one out of seven games at those tournaments.

For multiple reasons far deeper than the identity of the senior team manager, the road ahead for Irish football remains extremely challenging to navigate, yet there is no doubt that Kenny overall has left the squad in a far healthier position than he found it.

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