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Kenny’s Kids: Jamie McGrath shows his class in Ireland exhibition

Jamie McGrath

Jamie McGrath is proving to be a game-changer for Ireland

I only really had one concern for Stephen Kenny when he first took over as Ireland manager. I never thought he was “unqualifed” or that he would struggle for respect from the players. I never thought his vision would fail long-term either, but short-term he did face a big challenge.

As a manager who always played a variation of a 4-3-3 in his League of Ireland days, Kenny had a lot of square pegs for round holes to deal with. The positive use of wingers and attacking midfielders with overlapping fullbacks, ultimately, earned the former Dundalk manager his shot with the international side. It was that distinctive style of play that helped him win four league titles and two FAI Cups for the Lilywhites – not to mention its great success in the Europa League in 2016.


Ireland’s transformation over the last twelve months

The national pool however, was clearly at odds with that kind of set-up. Wing-backs Enda Stevens and Matt Doherty suggested a five at the back was the way forward while the absence of high-profile wingers and number tens was also far from ideal for a 4-3-3 shape. Kenny initially did the sensible thing and tried to make his tried-and-trusted work during the Nations League campaign, but without the specialists required in the final third, Ireland scored just once in the Dubliner’s first eight matches.


Fast forward a year and we’re looking at an Ireland team who have scored ten goals in their last five fixtures. The 3-5-2 implemented against Serbia in March improved the look of the side drastically, but without an advanced midfielder in possesion of Wes Hoolahan-type “guile”, there remained a box or two to be ticked in order to convert good performances into good results.

Ireland spent a week in Spain last June and invited Danny Mandriou (Shamrock Rovers), Sammie Szmodics (Peterborough) and Jamie McGrath (St Mirren) along to training in an attempt to find that man. In the end, only one of the three midfielders saw gametime during the Summer friendly window.

Jamie McGrath brings a lot to this Ireland team

Last night against Qatar, Meath man McGrath was excellent in possesion, intelligent with his movement and ever-willing in defence. Just like in his performances against Portugal, Serbia and Azerbaijan, the St Mirren playmaker looked entirely at home on the international stage. His first touch and ability to excel in tight spaces has brought a new attractive dimension to Ireland’s play.

Tucked in behind Callum Robinson alongside Chiedozie Ogbene, McGrath frequently upset the visitors’ defence with sharp runs and sharper thinking. His ability to find pockets of space and link the midfield with the forward line is impressive, making life incredibly enjoyable for Jeff Hendrick and Callum Robinson in particular.

Jamie McGrath stars for Ireland against Qatar

The 25-year-old had a 92% pass success rate (34/37) at a sold out Lansdowne Road, the majority of which were in the opposition half. His work-ethic to receive the ball in good positions was relentless and it felt like he made every contribution count. The combination of pace and precision behind a central striker has a lovely dynamic to it which suits the personnel perfetly.

McGrath was also fouled three times and won the penalty for Callum Robinson’s second goal of the evening. His performance married the trinity of invention, intelligence and industry together beautifully to bring big value to this Ireland team. His first touch, turn of pace and use of his body to win the penalty in the twelfth minute was especially excellent.

Jamie McGrath helps Ireland strike perfect balance

Heaven knows it’s been a long gruelling year for the Republic of Ireland men’s national team, but a multi-dimensional 3-4-2-1 shape complemented by a technical midfielder like Jamie McGrath certainly looks to be the way forward. This is a united group, their togetherness off the pitch is obvious and now things are coming together on the pitch too.

To reference Tommy Martin, Stephen Kenny has survived the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Tougher battles lie ahead but this team has a lot to be proud about at the end of a perfect week.

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