Stephen Kenny is the new Republic of Ireland manager, having replaced Mick McCarthy with immediate effect.
Kenny has stepped-up from the Under-21s and McCarthy has stepped away with the Euros postponed until the next year and the playoffs postponed indefinitely.
The FAI, ultimately, saw no logic in delaying the scheduled handover between managers. It certainly represents a new era for Irish football. Here are some of the winners and losers from the situation.
In November 2018, in the first press conference of his second stint as manager, McCarthy said one of his motivations to take the Ireland job again was that he felt he had “unfinished business” from his previous spell. Almost 18-years later, his second tenure has ended with a familiar feeling for the Barnsley-native.
The last time, the fallout from Saipan ultimately ended his reign. On this occasion, a global crisis has prematurely ended his second spell and he’s unlikely to be back for a third stint. He is, once again, a former Republic of Ireland manager.
McCarthy didn’t record a big victory in his second spell as manager, there was no standout game. Ireland only lost once – a humbling defeat away to Switzerland – but they could only record competitive victories over Gibraltar and Georgia under him. Other than the home win over Georgia, the football was terrible to watch and equally ineffective.
The former Ireland captain was aiming to bow out at the Euros in Dublin this summer, or in a playoff game in March, where his fate would have at least been sealed on the pitch. Instead, McCarthy said his goodbyes via a recorded video message from his home in England.
The ‘We don’t have the players’ brigade
This will be a tough blow to those who claim that the identity of the manager is irrelevant. In their view, Ireland do not have enough good footballers, so it doesn’t matter who the manager is.
They have spent years espousing this. In the comment section of every article, video or tweet about the Ireland team, they were there. Their commitment never wavered. Yet, Kenny’s reign could prove problematic to this worldview.
Ireland will now be coached to play in a proactive, aggressive and progressive manner. The talented young players will be integrated into the squad and the squad will be rejuvenated. They won’t be the second coming of the Spain team that won the World Cup and two European Championships, but they will, at least, attempt to maintain possession and not needlessly squander it. The ball won’t be aimlessly hoofed towards journeymen centre-forwards. Players will be selected on merit. Ireland will look like a modern football team.
A coach has the power to make a team more than the sum of their parts, as Kenny’s career thus far has proved. Hopefully, he will show that as Ireland manager.
The new FAI appear determined to avoid the many, many, many mistakes of their predecessors. They acted quickly and decisively when Ireland’s playoff against Slovakia was indefinitely postponed. McCarthy’s time was up, and the FAI would honour the terms of Kenny’s contract, which was due to begin on August 1.
The new FAI have avoided the fumbling of the previous regime, they were transparent and acted in the best interests of the sport in the country. Kenny was always the right choice to be the manager.
For the first time in a very long time, the association made the correct decision. There should be no indignation towards them over how they handled McCarthy’s departure either.
In truth, they couldn’t have handled the situation much better. The new era, on and off the pitch, has had a promising beginning. This represents something of a clean break with the past.
He should have been appointed Ireland senior manager in November 2018, but the situation arguably could not have worked out any better for Kenny. He got to spend 16 months as the Ireland Under-21 manager, helping to develop the most promising crop of players the country has had in decades.
Kenny has earned their respect and trust and will be a key figure in the next stage of their career, promoting and integrating the standout players from the underage teams.
The former Dundalk coach has done stellar work as Under-21 coach, exceeding the expectations of many. Now, he has a chance to qualify Ireland for a major tournament on home soil, in his home city, with a crop of brilliant young players, playing exciting, aggressive, attacking football.
Kenny will also have a few games in the Nations League to prepare for the Euros playoff. It really couldn’t have worked out any better for him. He has ascended to the top job in Irish football and fully deserves it. Kenny represents the best of Irish football – an excellent, homegrown coach who believes in the best qualities of Irish footballers.
Young Irish players
McCarthy spoke about young Irish players as though he was a sceptical television pundit. He was also borderline dismissive, wondering aloud why he was being asked about these youngsters who had yet to play 50 professional games. Why was he being asked about Jayson Molumby when he had Glenn Whelan in midfield? Yes, Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott were exciting young players, but had either played in the Championship, like James Collins and Scott Hogan? McCarthy was stubborn and he seemed unsettled by the clamour to include some of the young players.
There won’t be such an issue with Kenny. He believes in the talent of young Irish players and will gradually promote the most promising to the senior side. For the first time in a very long time, there will be a pathway through the underage teams to the senior side. There will be a cohesive, holistic approach to the development of Irish teams, with the senior side as the last step on the ladder.
Kenny replacing McCarthy is the best result Ireland fans could have hoped for. The chance to qualify for the Euros remain and the team will be better equipped to reach the finals. If Kenny can get the senior side to play as though the Under-21s did, then the wider ambivalence towards the Ireland team from more casual fans may also end. Watching the senior team will be worth the admission fee.
At the very least, the ball won’t be aimlessly hoofed towards an isolated centre-forward as the team huff and puff their way through matches. The swift, decisive and transparent decision by the FAI to change managers also bodes well.
McCarthy said his departure was bittersweet and he’s not wrong. Yes, it is bitter because he has to vacate the position immediately and won’t get another game as Ireland boss. However, he also comes out of the situation with his reputation intact and his bank balance significantly increased.
On current form, Ireland would not have won away to Slovakia under McCarthy. Even if they had somehow managed to record an upset victory, would they have beaten either Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Herzegovina away in a playoff final? Considering McCarthy’s team won three competitive games in a year, winning two in a week was an extremely tough ask. The only away victory they recorded was a 1-0 win over Gibraltar.
McCarthy emerges from this situation in a much better position than he entered it. He won’t be tarnished by his failure to qualify for a 24-team European Championships and can walk away holding his head high, a victim of circumstance, thwarted by a convoluted plan and a pandemic.
Yet, McCarthy’s results now count for nothing. Ireland have a playoff place because of their results under Martin O’Neill in the Nations League. If they qualify now, it will be because Kenny successfully navigated the playoffs. Objectively, McCarthy’s stint as manager was ultimately pointless.
However, he will receive a one million euro golden handshake for walking away, another deal made by the previous regime at the FAI. If Ireland qualifies for Euro 2021, he will reportedly earn another million euro as a bonus. All the while, he saves face without having another playoff defeat on his record. He certainly has not have been given a raw deal.