As his first full qualifying campaign beckons with a trip to Serbia, Ireland boss Stephen Kenny’s reboot can begin in earnest.
The Euros. Nations League. Slovakia.
It’s time to forget about all that. Being parachuted into the Ireland hotseat for the Euros play-off was never going to be easy.
Now, though, the Stephen Kenny reboot can begin in earnest.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Irish camp under Kenny without a series of setbacks, and this week has predictably delivered on that front with the latest spate of injuries.
With Darren Randolph already absent, Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher has been ruled out, with Burnley defender Kevin Long, Bristol City winger Callum O’Dowda and Swansea City midfielder Conor Hourihane joining the young stopper on the treatment table.
Far from ideal, yes, but Kenny still has plenty of experience to work with as he hunts his first win since replacing Mick McCarthy.
Let’s be honest: given recent form and injury troubles, a draw away to Serbia would be a positive result, although Ireland should have enough to see off Luxembourg at home, while the friendly against Qatar offers the chance to experiment before the players head back to their clubs.
Here, ahead of Wednesday’s encounter with Serbia in Belgrade, we outline four things we want to see from Ireland during this international triple-header.
In other words, a bloody goal. Forgive me for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but it’s good craic watching Ireland score goals.
Alas, they’ve been hard to come by during the embryonic stages of the Kenny era. In fact, Shane Duffy was the last man to get one: an injury-time header to rescue a 1-1 draw away to Bulgaria in Kenny’s first game in charge.
Since then, nada. 700 odd minutes of pain.
And look, we’re realists. We’re not expecting the Serbian goalkeeper to be bombarded on Wednesday, but a few enterprising attacks in open play surely wouldn’t go amiss.
Remember the Slovakia game? Alan Browne missed a great chance, while Hourihane spurned an even better one, firing his effort from six yards straight at a Slovakia defender with the rest of the goal gaping.
Ireland are not Manchester City. Kenny doesn’t have the invention and firepower to demand three or four goals from his side. But the openings they do manage to fashion need to be finished with the composure and aplomb that has been absent so far to have any chance of reaching their first World Cup in 20 years.
Having Troy Parrott available is a start. He’s a natural finisher, as proven during his stint in the Under-21s under Kenny.
Cullen the man for Ireland midfield.
Ireland’s midfield is a cause for concern, but given the current injury list, Kenny has the chance to blood Josh Cullen.
Cullen, who is playing his club football in Belgium for Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht, has just four caps to his name, with his two appearances under Kenny late cameos against Wales and Bulgaria.
With Kenny possibly entrusting Alan Browne with an attacking midfield berth in Hourihane’s absence, and with Jeff Hendrick likely to be given then nod for his experience over form, Cullen will compete with Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight for the other midfield spot.
While he signed off for Anderlecht inauspiciously with a red card on Sunday, Cullen has enjoyed a steady debut season in Belgium, where he has started 15 league games.
Compare that to Molumby, who hasn’t exactly been a regular at Preston since joining the Championship side on loan from Brighton, and Cullen seems an attractive option.
Knight should get at least one start during the three games, too, after his steady full debut against Bulgaria in November. He’s been ever-present for Derby this term, and while they’ve struggled, Knight should be as sharp as anyone in Kenny’s midfield.
Forgetting club woes.
Journey back to September 2019, and there was a fair amount of hype around Aaron Connolly. The Galwayman burst onto the Premier League scene for Brighton with two goals against Tottenham.
Since then, he’s often resembled a player wrestling with the burden of expectation. It’s important to remember that Connolly is still only 21, but given he’s in the midst of a trying season with the Seagulls, he must use this international run as a means to breathe new life into his fledgeling career.
The same could be said, of course, for Hendrick and Shane Duffy, two senior Ireland players bearing the scars of a difficult domestic season.
Duffy has lost his place at Celtic while Hendrick has spent a good chunk of the last six weeks staring at the back of Steve Bruce’s head from the Newcastle subs bench since his red card against Southampton.
A dramatic reversal of fortunes is perhaps unrealistic, but with 101 caps between them, Kenny could do with two of his more seasoned campaigners rediscovering their confidence.
Which goalkeeper will stake his claim?
Kelleher will have to wait for his senior bow. With Randolph already out, the Liverpool youngster was unable to recover from his abdominal injury in time to debut against Serbia.
That leaves Kenny with three keepers who have four caps between them. And while Randolph has repeatedly proven his shot-stopping pedigree, this triple-header offers Kenny the chance to experiment with a different style of goalkeeper.
As Alisson’s understudy, Kelleher has shown an eye for a line-breaking pass at Liverpool, but who can offer a similar brand of assertive goalkeeping? Travers is the most likely starter in Serbia, but Luxembourg, or more likely Qatar, should be the time to hand Gavin Bazunu his debut.
The 19-year-old received his first senior call-up having ably put into practice what he learned from Ederson and Scott Carson at Manchester City before joining Rochdale on loan.
He may be the most untested at this level, but with Randolph set to turn 34 in May, it would make sense to hand minutes to Ireland’s shot-stoppers of the future sooner rather than later.