Stephen Kenny is now the Republic of Ireland manager and it is a new era for Irish football and the FAI.
The former Dundalk coach has been Ireland Under-21 coach for the last 16 months but has stepped up to the top job sooner than expected after the Euros were postponed until next year and the playoffs delayed until later this year at the earliest.
Mick McCarthy is a former Ireland manager once again. And, like in 2003 when Brian Kerr succeeded him, he has been replaced by a coach who forged his career in Irish domestic soccer.
Kenny is a modern football manager who wants his team to play aggressive, attacking football. At the end of 2018, he outlined exactly how he wants his Ireland team to play and it sounds promising.
“Do I think that I could take charge of the next generation of Irish players and turn them into a really cohesive team; combining the best virtues of Irish sides – the honesty, work-rate and passion that we’ve shown down the years – but introducing a more European style of play, a more fluid and expansive way? Yes, I do.”
For those doubting this is possible, that’s exactly how Kenny got Ireland Under-21s to play.
His first match as Ireland senior manager is due to be on September 3, away to Bulgaria in the Nations League, before they host Finland at home three days later.
Here are three ways Ireland could line out for that game against Bulgaria. Expect evolution rather than revolution for Kenny’s first few matches.
Darren Randolph starts in goal behind a familiar back four. Shane Duffy has been Ireland’s most influential player over the last few years. His ability in both boxes can’t be questioned. Duffy is a supreme defensive stopper at the back, capable of decisive last-ditch interventions and effective when a team is defending on the edge of their box. He is also a goal threat from set-pieces and free-kicks.
However, as evidenced by his campaign with Brighton and Hove Albion this season, Duffy isn’t a natural fit for a team looking to play out from the back and with a high line. It is possible, if Kenny takes a similar approach to Graham Potter, the Brighton manager, that Duffy’s spot with Ireland could come under threat. But, for the first couple of games, the Derry-native will get the chance to show what he can do.
Dara O’Shea has excelled for the Ireland Under-21s, as has Conor Masterson, and at least one of them will be in the Ireland squad for Kenny’s first match as manager. John Egan should keep his spot in central defence after a brilliant campaign with Sheffield United. Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens are at full-back in this team and every selection we have made. They are two of the best players in their position in the Premier League and should be automatic choices for Ireland.
Midfield will be the area that needs the most improvement under Kenny. McCarthy didn’t seem keen on James McCarthy after he withdrew from a few squads due to fitness concerns. But the Crystal Palace midfielder still has a big role to play for the Ireland team and could be an important player for Kenny.
This has been a problem position for Ireland. Glenn Whelan has been an excellent servant but will be 37 when the Euros come around. Conor Coventry is a great prospect but should remain with the Under-21s for now. McCarthy is the best defensive midfielder available to Kenny and would undoubtedly improve the team.
Alongside him in midfield, Jayson Molumby should, and most likely will, earn a call-up to the senior squad and a start in midfield. The Ireland Under-21 captain is ready to start for the senior team after impressing at underage and on loan from Brighton with Millwall in the Championship.
Molumby dominates games with his personality as much as his excellent ability on the ball and reading of the game. He has all the attributes needed to make a mark at senior international level and should start Kenny’s first match as senior manager.
Jack Byrne starts alongside Molumby and McCarthy in midfield in this team. Byrne is Ireland’s most creative midfielder and has already shown he doesn’t look out of place on the international stage, while some of his best performances for Shamrock Rovers have come in the Europa League. He shouldn’t be discounted simply because he’s not playing in England.
The Dubliner’s ability, rather than where he is playing, should be the only consideration. Kenny’s first match is scheduled to be away to Bulgaria. Byrne made the difference against the same opponents on his debut last year, helping to set up two goals.
On the wings, this team features Robbie Brady and Callum Robinson. Brady has had a tough few seasons due to a long-term injury and subsequent fitness issues and he was a peripheral figure under McCarthy. However, he could become a key player for Ireland again, either in a wide-forward position or possibly in a midfield-three. Callum O’Dowda is another player who was on the fringes under McCarthy but could get a chance now that Kenny is the coach.
Robinson deserves a chance to excel in his best position on the left. The Sheffield United forward is a dynamic, intelligent footballer who should thrive under Kenny’s more progressive gameplan.
In this team, Shane Long starts up front, but David McGoldrick could retain his place as he has been one of Ireland’s best players over the last year. Kenny won’t be short of options for the centre-forward position and Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah and Troy Parrott will also have a part to play.
Here is one of the ways Ireland could line out in Kenny’s first match:
Kenny could also opt for more wholesale changes by bringing Parrott and Idah into the team. The pair combined brilliantly when Ireland Under-21s hammered Sweden 4-1 in Tallaght last November.
Norwich City forward Idah has the physicality, the technique and the goalscoring ability to become an elite striker. While Parrott perfectly suits playing in the number 10 position.
In the team below, the Spurs forward is flanked by Brady and Robinson, with Molumby and McCarthy in midfield. The back-five remains unchanged.
Connor Ronan, a wonderful footballer who has excelled for the Under-21s, could also play in the position behind the striker. The Wolves midfielder is currently on loan at Blackpool.
This is another way Ireland could line out for Kenny’s first game.
And here’s how the team could look if Kenny was to deploy a 3-5-2 formation.
Dara O’Shea comes into a back-three alongside Egan and Duffy. Doherty and Stevens move into their best position as wing-backs. Jeff Hendrick comes into midfield alongside Molumby and McCarthy, but Brady or Conor Hourihane could also play in that position,
Shane Long and Troy Parrott start upfront. Long isn’t a prolific goalscorer. But his work-rate creates opportunities for others as he disrupts the opposition attempting to play out from the back.
It may not seem like a new dawn under Kenny looking at these teams, as many of these players remain from McCarthy’s stint and Martin O’Neill’s era included.
However, the manager’s instructions and the team’s approach will be completely different. Ireland could end up switching system two or three times in a match, deploying all of these formations. They will build from the back and won’t lump it aimlessly towards an isolated centre-forward.
Kenny’s approach will bring the best out of existing players. He will, hopefully, raise their games to levels we have yet to see for Ireland as he steadily integrates the crop of extremely promising young players.
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