“Everybody can pass, everybody can move, but you have to encourage it.”
Stephen Kenny’s reign as the Republic of Ireland manager has so far consisted of 13 games, one win, six losses, six draws and one massive debate about the future of Irish football.
Ireland missed out on qualification for Euro 2020 and look to be out of contention to reach the 2022 World Cup. But the main talking point around the national team remains Kenny’s attempts to implement a progressive, expansive style of play.
For decades, the national team has predominately played in a direct fashion. This has brought success but it has also looked outdated in recent years.
Kenny is attempting to implement a new way of playing for the Ireland senior team, at a time when the talent pool has arguably never been as shallow.
Eamon Dunphy: Stephen Kenny is right to try to play in a more progressive way.
“Yes, I do,” Dunphy told Pundit Arena when asked if he believes Ireland currently have the footballers capable of playing a possession-based game.
“And the reason I do is if you look at all of those players, even the young players, the players we don’t really know – if we look at their club game in England now, all the way down the divisions, everybody is playing (this way).
“All of the goalkeepers are passing out to the full-backs and the centre-half – everyone is trying to pass the ball and passing and movement are the keys to the game.”
Eamon Dunphy: Playing direct football is no longer viable.
Dunphy argued that the “agricultural” way of playing is now outdated and that “maybe Sam Allardyce is the last man standing.” The former RTÉ pundit said that Kenny is merely asking the Ireland squad to “play football the way football was designed to be played.”
“Everybody can pass, everybody can move, but you have to encourage it. And in a way, we were unfortunate with Martin O’Neill and (Giovanni) Trapattoni, they didn’t believe in our players, they wanted the ball lofted upfront, they wanted to win second balls and all that old stuff. That is over. And somebody had to say, ‘That’s over, lads’.”
Some of Kenny’s critics have pointed out that the national team have had success in the past by playing in a direct fashion, and the current coach is wrong to deviate from this. Dunphy also notes that one of Ireland’s most famous goals came from an aimless long-ball up the field.
However, the former Ireland midfielder believes that, ultimately, it is time to move beyond this approach.
“Ironically, one of the iconic goals Ireland scored in the O’Neill era was against Germany and the goalkeeper lofted the ball, it went 70 yards and the German defenders got mixed up and back of the net,” Dunphy said about Shane Long’s goal against Germany in 2015.
“But it’s not the way to go. It does take courage (to play possession-based football). Someone has to show it. And the question you asked specifically about are our players good enough to play it? Of course, they are. These are players who are playing football for a living. They’re representing their country. They’ve come all the way through the leagues.
“Of course they are… There’s no future in long ball football. It’s over.”
Neither extreme will work for Ireland.
In the midst of the culture war surrounding the Ireland team, there are some who believe that there is a middle ground to be found. Ireland should, of course, move away from the hit-it-long-and-hope approach of previous regimes.
Yet, the current iteration of rather slow, passive, possession-based football might not be the best fit for the current team or the optimum way to get results – an aspect that seems to have been forgotten amid the constant talk of “positives” and “encouraging signs” after every match.
The former Dundalk manager was the right choice to be the national team boss because he has proven to be a very good coach with an eye for a player and a strong man-manager. Kenny represents the best of Irish football and he needs at least one more qualification campaign in the role.
But he wasn’t appointed to be an Irish Pep Guardiola, or to overhaul the entire playing style of a country. Revolutions begin from the ground up and such a task is too great for one coach.
Ireland must be pragmatic.
Ultimately, Ireland have been somewhat easy to play against under Kenny so far. Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland achieved great success and punched above their weight for years by being a well-coached team who kept the score-line down, used possession wisely and capitalised on chances from counter-attacks and set-pieces. They were one of the best-coached sides in international football.
There is merit in this approach, a third way that blends the best of the old world and the new, particularly at international level. This is how France won the World Cup in 2018, despite having a galaxy of world-class players capable of excelling at possession-based football.
But, according to Damien Delaney, Kenny must not change course.
The former Ireland and Crystal Palace defender told Pundit Arena that the question about whether the footballers at Kenny’s disposal are good enough to play possession-based football is ultimately “irrelevant” as the team simply must get better at this one way of playing.
Damien Delaney: Ireland must get better at possession-based football.
“We’re going to have to get better at it,” Delaney told Pundit Arena.
“We’re going to have to work at it, it’s going to take a certain amount of time. Obviously, people want to see progression markers along the way. And I’m sure that Stephen will get that. All of these players are playing at clubs where they do pass the ball.
“But for Stephen, the task will be a huge undertaking of shifting the whole focus of Irish football that has been neglected for the last 15 years. Neglected in the sense that we’ve just played a certain way, and I agree with Eamon that that agricultural way is dying out.
“Now, I played in many teams that were agricultural and it was fine. But based on percentages, if the opposition have 70 or 80 per cent of the ball, and you only have 20 per cent and you’re lumping it forward and giving it back to them.
“Those days are gone where you can have the majority of the ball and you can really create enough pressure because teams now won’t give it back to you, they’ll keep it and that’s a way of them defending, retaining possession.
“We have to learn to be (better on the ball) and we have to get there. It’s very early days, baby steps, but I think the sky is the limit with this new route that we’re on and the other way the ceiling was very, very low.”
Dunphy: Stephen Kenny encourages the Ireland players.
Regardless of the road Kenny and the Ireland team take over the next few years – the aimless long-ball or a possession-based approach or a more pragmatic route which factors in the lack of technically gifted players available – Dunphy mentioned a positive attribute Kenny has which previous Ireland managers have arguably lacked.
The former Dundalk manager believes in the talent of Irish footballers and, more importantly, is willing to encourage his players, which breeds confidence. For this reason alone, Kenny arguably warrants the time to get things right.
According to Dunphy, Kenny’s positive approach was evident in the performance of Troy Parrott against Andorra, when he scored twice in a 4-1 win.
“You have to encourage it. And that result the other night, the four goals we scored, is huge,” Dunphy said.
“The fact that Troy Parrott had the character to make the intervention he made. A lot of guys would’ve been hiding at that point. He wasn’t, he was looking for it, looking to take responsibility.
“And that’s because he has a relationship with Stephen Kenny from the Under-21 set-up, he wasn’t afraid, and Stephen has given him confidence. That can spread. I really believe that.”
Damien Delaney and Eamon Dunphy unite to ask fans to cheer for England at the Euros.
For every goal England score, Paddy Power will donate €10k to Irish football. #SaveOurGame.