The road to the World Cup starts here.
Right, here we go again, then. Another qualifying campaign for Ireland.
It has been four months since the instantly forgettable scoreless draw with Bulgaria in Dublin. Given the state of the world at the moment, it seems like a lifetime.
Stephen Kenny may have felt similarly about his first seven months in the Ireland job.
Having succeeded Mick McCarthy earlier than expected in April, the former Dundalk boss saw his preparation for games ravaged by a combination of injuries, coronavirus protocols and the now infamous ‘videogate’ episode that threatened to derail the Kenny era before it had even truly begun.
Since Ireland last played, there have been personnel changes, of course, with Alan Kelly and Damien Duffy stepping away from their roles as goalkeeping coach and assistant coach respectively.
However, with Dean Kiely and Chelsea coach Anthony Barry having since been recruited to Kenny’s backroom team, Ireland have the opportunity to extinguish the memory of a painful 2020 with the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
Their first assignment is a tricky one: an away game against Serbia, with whom Ireland expect to tussle for second place (it’s difficult to imagine Portugal failing to secure top spot in the group).
In other words, it’s an important game, and while defeat would unlikely spark panic in the Irish ranks, it is important that Kenny’s side produce the kind of enterprising performance that his appointment promised, but was sadly absent during his first three international windows at the helm.
“It’s a World Cup campaign, it’s incredibly exciting…”
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny can’t wait to get going in the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign 👌
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) March 18, 2021
Kenny will hardly take solace from historical meetings with the Serbians, either. While Daryl Murphy’s late header was enough to clinch a 2-2 draw on the last visit to Belgrade, Serbia’s 1-0 win in Dublin in September 2017 struck a cruel blow to Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia.
After a series of uninspiring displays in 2020 – most notably in the Euro play-off semi-final defeat by Slovakia – Ireland will be desperate to set the tone for a more positive qualifying campaign as they bid to reach their first World Cup in 20 years.
With that in mind, here is the starting XI Kenny must select to secure three points in Serbia, in his trusted 4-3-3.
There are no two ways about it: losing Darren Randolph to injury is a major blow. The West Ham keeper has been as consistent as any Irish player over the last few years, and while his shot-stopping prowess will be missed over the next week or so, his absence paves the way for the next generation.
It was heartening to see 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu called into the squad, and it would have been great to see Caoimhin Kelleher win his first senior cap.
But the Liverpool goalkeeper has been ruled out through injury. That leaves Mark Travers, who spent the first half of the season on loan with Swindon Town in League One, in line to win his third senior Ireland cap.
Seamus Coleman (captain)
A stalwart at this stage, it’s easy to forget that Coleman is yet to feature under Kenny, who opted for Matt Doherty ahead in his first game in charge.
Coleman then suffered a hamstring while playing for Everton, forcing him to miss the play-off defeat by Slovakia.
The 32-year-old was also an unused substitute against Bulgaria and Finland, but given his steady form for the Toffees, and Doherty’s underwhelming start to life at Tottenham, we’re expecting to see the skipper restored to the line-up in Serbia.
Another Irish defender who has struggled to adapt to new surroundings, Duffy has recently lost his place at Celtic, where he is on loan from Brighton for the season.
However, with Kenny having backed the 29-year-old to rediscover his best form during his squad announcement press conference, it seems unlikely that he would risk further knocking Duffy’s confidence.
Another player yet to debut under Kenny, Clark’s involvement in 2020 was hampered by ankle and thigh injuries, and while he recovered to make the bench against Wales and Bulgaria, we’re expecting the Newcastle centre-half to line up alongside Duffy in what would be a vastly experienced partnership at the heart of the Irish defence.
While Stevens has endured a difficult season at Sheffield United (who hasn’t?), we can’t see him losing his place at left-back under Kenny.
With Conor Hourihane ruled out through injury, Molumby has a chance to win his sixth Ireland cap. The industrious central midfielder will add a lot of energy and quality to Kenny’s engine room.
Cullen made a bold move in the summer, opting to part ways with West Ham for an intriguing opportunity in Belgium with Anderlecht.
And while such a move could have easily backfired, he’s enjoyed a stellar debut campaign playing under Vincent Kompany with the Manchester City legend praising the 24-year-old’s mentality back in January.
While Hendrick hasn’t exactly set the Premier League alight with Newcastle recently (his last three outings have finished with him twice being hooked around the hour mark and a 49th-minute dismissal against Southampton, given the calibre of opposition, Kenny will likely refrain from throwing Jayson Molumby or Jason Knight into the mix.
So, by process of elimination, we get Hendrick.
Connolly is fast becoming the most frustrating player in the Irish ranks. It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 months since he exploded onto the Premier League scene with two goals against Spurs in a 3-0 win for Brighton.
Since then, the 21-year-old Galway native has found the back of the net just three times for the Seagulls, while he is still awaiting his first international goal.
Connolly hasn’t played for Brighton since February 27, and was this week sanctioned by the club for a breach of coroanvrisu restrictions, so his preparation for the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign has been far from serene.
But Kenny seems convinced that he can shape the winger into a player of genuine international pedigree. Assuming he’s fit, Serbia will be an interesting examination of his credentials.
One of the more depressing throughlines during Kenny’s first eight games in charge was a consistent lack of pace and creativity in wide areas, something his Under-21 side showed in abundance.
Callum O’Dowda was originally in this team, but the winger is ruled out through injury. This provides an opportunity for Callum Robinson to stake his claim on the flank. The winger has fallen out of favour at club level for West Brom, but he has shown flashes of quality for Ireland.
Where are the goals coming from? Yes, everyone’s thinking it. David McGoldrick’s retirement leaves a hole in attack, of that there is no doubt.
Shane Long has scored twice on loan at Bournemouth, while James Collins and Callum Robinson have had limited time on the pitch at Luton Town and West Brom respectively.
Parrott was a success story in Kenny’s Under-21s, and while his senior career has yet to ignite – for either club or country – his first goal for Ipswicin their recent win over Plymouth will have given him a much-needed shot in the arm.
Still young and in need of refinement, Parrott is a bold enough option, but given the lack of alternatives, Serbia may be the game in which the 19-year-old launches his Ireland carer in earnest and ends Ireland’s near 700-minute wait for a goal.