Analysis: The twisted truths behind Stephen Kenny’s divisive Ireland tenure
For those of you who don’t know – I have a pretty unique job. I became admin of the ‘Kenny’s Kids’ Twitter account in March 2021 and I have tracked every Irish international and every Irish player under the age of 24 every day since.
That means midweek League One games, it means tracking Premier League under-21s games on Friday nights and it means pulling information and footage from as many sources as possible to develop as educated an opinion as possible on every one of those Irish players.
I don’t claim to be a football expert – there’s no coaching badges or qualifications – but through the nature of my work I have developed a highly-contextualised understanding of what to expect from the players at the Irish national team’s disposal. You would be the very same after two-and-a-half years of doing this stuff.
Tracking the young players like Bazunu, Collins, Knight and Ferguson has made me optimistic for the national team’s future – they’re good and they’re only getting better – and the next generation following them through the Irish system has me certain that we’ll get back to qualifying for tournaments in two to four years time, barring any more disastrous draws.
For the last while though, knowing that our young players are still learning for both club and country, knowing that there should be modest expectations of McClean, Stevens, Doherty, Browne, Hendrick, Manning, O’Dowda and most of the senior cast, and knowing the hyper-frustrating nature of Ireland’s positional squad profile…I have found Kenny’s results to align with, and sometimes exceed, my expectations of this group.
The kids are alright ❤
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) June 11, 2022
I expect frustration (especially within the awkward but necessary 3-4-2-1 framework given the players available) so when we are quite competitive with France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium I am delighted, and when we’re battling with Hungary, Serbia, Greece, I’m more than content. Ireland haven’t blown anyone away against teams of their own level but I think suffering is part of the deal when you back so many inexperienced players to take on the responsibility of doing an international jersey justice. You just hope it stands to them.
Two phases: (1) Development Stage and (2) Transformation Stage
There is an awful lot to reflect on and analyse so just to organise where this is going. I want to breakdown the ‘Kenny project’ through the lens of two different phases.
Phase one – development: Nations League, Luxembourg, Hungary, Portugal and the unbeaten run
This section will look at the 2020 Nations League and the World Cup qualifying campaign. The next section will look at the 2022 Nations League and the European Championship qualifiers. Both phases presented very different challenges for Ireland.
The 2020 Nations League, as we will discuss more below, called for the management team to instill their style of play and gradually regenerate the squad. Ireland’s attacking approach was certainly in contrast to the football of predecessor Mick McCarthy, but there were also expected teething problems as players like Randolph and Duffy had some difficulty with the possession-orientated build-up play
Injuries, more Covid-19 cases than opponents and even retirements affected results further, but more frustratingly, they disrupted development. With social distancing, masks, and everything in between, Ireland needed to gel as a new team at that time but given the restrictions in place and the chopping and changing of personnel, it was virtually impossible to create any kind of team dynamics.
On the morning of the home match against Wales, for instance, Kenny had to make five changes to his team because of a Covid-case and four related ‘close contacts’. In short, the first phase of Kenny’s Ireland tenure was all about moulding a new identify but it was far from as simple as that. He had to do so through the most impossible and demoralising of circumstances.
A lot of individual errors have cost Ireland across a number of games.
– Error from throw in vs Finland
– Randolph vs Finland (away)
– Christie gifted England 2 goals
– Duffy also vs England
We definitely need to find a balance,
but previous regimes couldn’t do that. https://t.co/YF1NZ210av
— Kieran (@TheIrishKieran) November 18, 2020
The defining characteristic of the Phase One was introducing new young players like Jayson Molumby, Adam Idah, Jason Knight and Dara O’Shea into a team which already had lots of international experience. Doing so was made almost impossible during the Nations League, causing the team ‘s pursuit of chemistry and understanding to drag into the World Cup qualifiers.
When Luxembourg caught Ireland while they were vulnerable alarm bells were ringing – the team really was in the pits – and it wasn’t until the following summer that the team really began to take shape thanks to a Covid-free summer training camp. A first win against Andorra (4-1) followed by a 0-0 with an impressive Hungary team looked like the real beginning. More young players like Kelleher, Ogbene and McGrath came into the mix and, helped along by strong performances by Shane Duffy, John Egan, Matt Doherty, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean, it was no surprise that Ireland suddenly looked competitive – and continued to be against Portugal a few months later.
During that perfect meeting of competent senior pros and youthful talents within a 3-4-2-1, Ireland lost just once in eleven consecutive matches – that defeat came away to the Portuguese when Ronaldo broke hearts with two last gasp headers. Another way to frame it is that Ireland went eight games unbeaten after that Faro game. Ireland 1-1 Azerbaijan / Ireland 1-1 Serbia / Azerbaijan 0-3 Ireland / Ireland 4-0 Qatar / Ireland 0-0 Portugal / Luxembourg 0-3 Ireland / Ireland 2-2 Belgium / Ireland 1-0 Lithuania. It was a beautiful time but nothing lasts forever.
I think I speak for everyone when I say I was so impressed by these fresh faces tonight 🇮🇪⚽️👏
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) September 1, 2021
Phase Two – transformation: Changing dynamic since the Armenia away loss, young players now carrying the old.
The 1-0 away loss to Armenia marked a new phase in the Kenny project – it showed three or four next-gen players (as was the case in Ireland Vs Portugal) won’t be enough, it showed that most of the older lads who were previously guiding the new blood were now being carried by them. There is a noticeable difference in the output of senior pros Duffy, Stevens, Robinson, Hendrick and Coleman (mostly fitness reasons in his case) between the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign and the 2024 Euros qualification campaign, lumping extra pressure on the young guns to step up to the plate and enforce themselves as leaders. Nathan Collins won RTÉ’s Man of the Match prize in that Armenia game on what was his first competitive start – an indicator of a new beginning in itself.
Team News | Armenia v Republic of Ireland
Goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher retains his spot from March whilst Troy Parrott gets the nod in the forward line 👏
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) June 4, 2022
The downside to this is that the value of experience in international football is huge. Watching Jason Knight develop into such an intelligent midfielder since then has been so satisfying and the strides Jayson Molumby made in that 2022 Nations League were striking. Others will take that bit longer to learn all the dark arts.
Therefore, the trend continuing with, say, Bazunu developing the same presence as Darren Randolph, Collins the same authority as Shane Duffy and Cullen the same defensive awareness as Glenn Whelan, would and should be transformative for Ireland’s competitiveness in time. Different players will develop at different rates but it’s important to remember many of them had different starting points – Collins didn’t debut until a full year after Dara O’Shea, for example, and there’s usually a symmetry between club progression and first international call-ups.
ABSOLUTE MADNESS FROM NATHAN COLLINS 🤯🔥
This might just break the internet.pic.twitter.com/Y01KDqn7eS
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) June 14, 2022
Ideally, this team would have the equivalent of a prime Coleman, a prime Duffy, a prime Stevens, a prime McClean, a prime Brady and a prime Hendrick in the mix but a missing generation of talent through the FAI pathway means the only players guiding the young through this transitional phase are past their best or not good enough to start. John Egan might be the only senior player from the 2020 World Cup qualifiers who hasn’t deteriorated enough to have his starting position questioned.
The result is an “emerging team” with a lot to still figure out being forced to battle against France, the Netherlands and Greece with little to no help. That’s in massive contrast to the aforementioned games against Portugal, and it’s a massive point that is massively overlooked.
Does this mean we’re in some way back to square one? Not at all, but it is a speedbump. It’s a new challenge but one that the next wave of players are responding to okay (Scotland games, Ukraine away, France games) It’s also worth remembering that the Ireland squad is stronger than it seemed in the last window against France and the Netherlands as Evan Ferguson, Mikey Johnston, Michael Obafemi, Troy Parrott, Seamus Coleman and others were considerable losses.
Their availability, their development, maybe mixed with the emergence of new players, should mean (1) Ireland’s already positive 3-5-2 / 3-4-2-1 performances against better seeds naturally improve and (2) Kenny will get the chance to play a 4-3-3 against lower seeds – the formation he is better at implementing – which should lead to better results.
1.0) Early days with the 4-3-3
Slovakia and “but we didn’t win”
Slovakia play-off: The first big match of Kenny’s reign came in the behind closed-doors Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia. Ireland lined up with a 4-3-3 team full of Premier League experience but it was also a team full of players who had a tendency to frustrate supporters over the years: Randolph; Doherty, Egan, Duffy, Stevens; McCarthy, Hourihane, Hendrick; Robinson, McGoldrick, McClean.
Without a single ‘next generation’ player in the lineup, Ireland were as competitive as they were under Mick McCarthy in the previous campaign (that’s the value of experience), except with the added bonus of some relentless attacking play. Inspired by McGoldrick, Ireland created four big chances (compared to Slovakia’s one) but missed all four of them. They also had more shots, crosses and corners than their opponents. In terms of management, you couldn’t have asked for more from Kenny, Andrews and Duff – they did enough to make their team win, but some terrible misses by Browne and Hourihane cost them dear.
Despite the penalty shootout loss, it showed just how a good a tune Kenny can orchestrate out of average players when they play his way. It was an exciting performance, but the steep decline of the starting players between then and now justifies why he felt the urgent need to blood almost a new squad entirely.
The Slovakia match was where the “but we didn’t win” arguments started and unfortunately they were here to stay. If you want a good moan about the team I think that’s a perfectly fine point to make, but if you’re saying it to criticise the management team, I don’t even think it should be entertained. Sadly, Ireland’s main media broadcasters entertained it throughout Kenny’s reign and it made every draw and loss feel more worthy of moral panic than was ever necessary. The manager controls the process and the process, as XG would tell you, was typically enough to win those Nations League games.
When you are creating more chances than you are conceding against your opponents, when Ireland pass the “had the better chances” eye-test, the manager’s job is complete.
The only real criticism you can have when the team still aren’t winning is around selection but considering the options were poor and then made worse by injuries and numerous Covid cases, the Irish management team’s hands were truly tied. Nobody complained about selection at the time either. He used what he had.
You might win arguments about how poor Ireland are with the “but we didn’t win” remarks, but you don’t win arguments about the manager. Not when it’s missed chances and individual errors that cost the team.
Irish xG for the week
Ireland 1.74 v 0.81 Slovakia
Ireland 0.67 v 0.37 Wales
Ireland 1.33 vs 1.27 Finland
Total for the week
Ireland 3.74 v 2.45#COYBIG
— Football Analytics Ireland (@Irish_Analytics) October 15, 2020
The Nations League and Kenny’s record
Throwing out Kenny’s record as an argument against him is therefore, in my view, a pretty worthless exercise. The raw numbers don’t carry the nuances, the set-backs, injuries, covid-cases, expected goals, refereeing decisions, missed chances, the standard of opponent played. It’s just a shortcut to summarise his tenure and I get that.
Supporters don’t have the time or energy to dissect his past matches in detail before coming to a consensus, but people working in the Irish media landscape should, and the FAI absolutely should. If they make footballing decisions based on cold statistics rather than considering the many factors that define every chaotic game then we have reason to worry. The 2020 Nations League campaign, when Ireland’s playing options were at an all-time low while Kenny was trying to simultaneously introduce a new generation and a new style of football, does of course account for a lot of his Ireland record but detractors know that.
Ireland now tied 2nd for Pass Completion among all 55 Nations League sides. Poor result but the process is underway. Molumby (21), O'Shea (21), Knight (19), Idah (19), Connolly (20), Manning (24), Cullen (24) etc… right to be brought in now so they can thrive later#COYBIG pic.twitter.com/6UvrEuYAuw
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 15, 2020
Since crowds returned though, Ireland’s record is 10-6-9. One defeat to be ashamed of (Armenia) and one win to be proud of (Scotland). Five draws to be proud of (Hungary. Serbia, Portugal, Belgium, Ukraine) and one draw to be ashamed of (Azerbaijan).
Wins: Andorra, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Scotland, Armenia, Malta, Latvia, Gibraltar
Draws: Hungary, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Portugal, Belgium, Ukraine
Defeats: Portugal, Armenia, Ukraine, Scotland, Norway, France (X2), Greece, Netherlands
Look at some of the teamsheets from Ireland’s first Nations League campaign under Kenny and you will understand why the results that preceded the above fixtures weren’t so impressive. Ireland played good football but the “it’s a results business” tagline was truly born when the likes of James Collins, Shane Long and Ronan Curtis spurred glorious chances and Ireland’s winless run thereby extended, and extended, and extended.
The 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation was what Kenny used to such great effect throughout his club management career and as a matter of process it worked on the international stage. Kenny’s football – as seen with his under-21s side – is characterised by brave wing play and overlapping fullbacks.
We briefly got to enjoy that for the senior side too: at times we saw Kenny’s football in full flow in those early days – all it lacked was the finishing touch. Two of the Nations League front three selections were: Horgan-Collins-Curtis (Bulgaria) and Connolly-Maguire-Horgan (Finland) – which, with respect to those players, is a far-cry from Johnston-Ferguson-Ogbene or any front three Ireland are likely to field in the next decade.
Personnel available led to an extended run of unfavourable results however (winger and fullback options unideal and a conversation about the lack of a goalscoring striker was prevalent), pressure mounted and Kenny was left with no choice but to rejig his team to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-2-1 – a shape he definitely wasn’t renowned for prior to getting the Ireland job. Somehow, it could now be the shape that his Ireland career will be remembered by.
See below: Players in red were unavailable for Serbia, Luxembourg and Qatar window. Players available weren’t especially inspiring, forcing Kenny to change his formation for the first time.
Remember too, unlike now, Matt Doherty (Wolves) and Enda Stevens (Sheffield United) were thriving in the Premier League and it was considered important to utilise their abilities in that wing-back role. By 2023, both players diminished considerably and the idea of switching to a front three of Mikey Johnston (switched from Scotland), Evan Ferguson (underage product) and Chiedozie Ogbene (switched from Nigeria) was seriously considered by Stephen Kenny.
The very determination of Kenny to sort the paperwork of Johnston, Ogbene and Mark Sykes (Northern Ireland) in itself suggested a silent desperation to formulate a squad that fit his jigsaw. Same applies for his recruitment of Sammie Szmodics for the attacking midfield position.
Typical of Kenny’s luck – of the five games played in this qualifying campaign – all three of Johnston, Ferguson and Ogbene were only available at home against France. That, of course, was a game where playing with five defenders was essential. Ogbene missed matches against Greece and Gibraltar in the summer, while both Johnston and Ferguson missed the heavy-weight ties against France and the Netherlands in September. Callum O’Dowda – who could have been a left-wing candidate, was also ruled out for the latter fixtures.
When you consider the sprinkling of Champions League and Europa League quality in European teams we once expected to get results against (Serbia, Norway, Switzerland, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, Austria, Denmark), you would have to say Ireland would need everyone fit to ever have a chance of qualifying with the current resources available.
Stephen Bradley reckons Ireland could have beaten Holland with Evan Ferguson on the pitch and uses that as an example as to why he believes results should not be only basis upon which Stephen Kenny is judged https://t.co/y4h3vgR7B8
— Neil O'Riordan (@noriordan) September 14, 2023
Except that would be the case if Ireland got a normal draw – to complain when a depleted Ireland fail to qualify from a group with France and the Netherlands is just daft. One prominent journalist went on record pointing out that teams as weak as Ireland will be at the Euros in 2024 so Kenny can’t complaint about his playing options. I would politely suggest that those teams don’t have France and the Netherlands in their group!
The importance of flexible expectations.
That brings me onto the admission that I want to hammer my head against a wall every time a pundit says “he has to qualify from this group”, or “he can’t fail in two consecutive campaigns?”. Yes he can fail to qualify. He really can. The difficulty of qualifying is completely flexible, depending on the strength of your squad and the strength of the countries you are drawn with. There are so many better lenses and metrics to judge a manager’s performance by.
Anecdotally, I do believe listening to that rhetoric so repeatedly made Kenny supporters compromise their own positive opinions for something more subdued. A single-mindedness was needed at the best of times. Kerr, Delaney and Dunne have been sceptical on Virgin Media from early on, while Richie Sadlier, Liam Brady and RTE colleagues are/were fairer but strongly opposed Kenny being offered a new deal when the question was raised. When presenter Darragh Maloney firmly challenged his panel about unfair expectations of Kenny in September 2023 it felt a lot more refreshing than it should have.
Without saying names, I found my long-standing favourite sports radio broadcaster, favourite Irish football print journalist and favourite Irish football digital journalist all incredibly more reasonable over the last few years. It’s a shame those measured voices didn’t get to reach the same influential audiences of RTÉ and Virgin Media. The Irish public – and Kenny – deserved that much.
🗣️ "Why wait? The air has gone out of the balloon."
🗣️ "If we can get Lee Carsley before the next set of fixtures, absolutely do it."
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) September 12, 2023
The failure to qualify from a group with the vastly superior France and Netherlands wasn’t the only time critics ignored the contrast in resources at Kenny’s disposal. During the 2022 Nations League, Ireland lined out in Hampden Park with 3 Premier League players, 7 Championship players and 1 League One player, while Scotland started the match with 7 Premier League players, 1 Serie A player, 1 Championship player and 2 Scottish Premiership players. That was before even considering the inexperience of 7/11 Irish players as a factor.
Unsurprisingly, from a purely player-orientated focus, Ireland lost the game. Less predictably however, Ireland were agonisingly close to securing a result only for a big miss from Troy Parrott and a late handball from Alan Browne. Was the gap between the two teams closed by the gameplan of the Irish management team? Well it certainly was against Portugal, Belgium, Hungary and Serbia before that, so I would think the same happened on that occasion. It was a special case where I really felt the gap between expectations and what expectations should be was at its widest. That was a night for the coaching team to be proud of (once the initial disappointment of defeat wore off).
Credit where it is due.
If you’re going to slate the manager when his team underachieve, acknowledging his influence on overachieving performances should be a bare minimum. Again recently, after Ireland’s results against Netherlands and France, Richard Dunne said: “When you’re talking about losing games by only one goal, that’s a small detail in games and that’s small things which can be changed and maybe a manager with the experience, with the know-how of winning games can be the one to do that”.
That’s generally been the Virgin Media pundits’ stance on Kenny’s results. One that completely takes Ireland’s competitiveness as some kind of god given right. One that never considers that maybe the manager is dragging an inferior team closer to opponents (France are the only team to beat Ireland by more than one goal), than they ever ought to be on paper.
Ireland took three points from their two games against Scotland in 2022. Under Martin O’Neill in 2014, despite the quality of the two teams virtually reversed, Ireland picked up just one point. It made me think: If Kenny’s Ireland can compete this well with Scotland when seven of the starting XI are under the age of 23, then how good will they be over the next number of years?
Reserve criticism for when he potentially fails to qualify from a group Ireland should be qualifying from.
I'm probably inviting some backlash here but as someone who has been tracking our players every week for a few years, I personally don't think we have a manager who has underachieved with the group over the course of these last ten competitive scorelines. It's an "emerging team". pic.twitter.com/y9dpBpfC3D
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) September 11, 2023
3.0) Man Management and Irish Embarrassment
Media Coverage and misunderstanding.
Is there something very Irish that makes failing while trying that makes it more embarrassing. Are we more comfortable losing while “knowing our limitations”?
Criticising Kenny for hypocrisy is another dumb stick used by men who should know better. Saying his ambition is to qualify for the World Cup in a group with Portugal and Serbia was thrown back in his face when they failed to do so, and so too was his stated desire to finish in the top two against France and the Netherlands.
This naturally created a misinformed narrative that the Ireland manager is falling short of realistic targets, which just was never true. It all adds unjust pressure and intensity to discussions but really, qualifying for either tournament would have been a really exceptional achievement.
Likewise jabs were made about Kenny talking up his players and promising so much from his team. I do really think some pundits would prefer a manager who talked down his players like O’Neill or “We are Ireland” Trapattoni and lowered expectations of what the group could achieve. Maybe we could all be comfortable in our mediocrity then. Maybe we’d prefer a non-Irish manager too so we don’t make an eejit of ourselves.
"I find it difficult to talk about it even…I've known Brian a long time."
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny talks to Dion Fanning about the criticism his Ireland side has received from Brian Kerr. pic.twitter.com/sVjGcnQxPf
— The Currency (@thecurrency) October 22, 2022
Kenny knows the limitations of the team as well as the rest of us but he is giving himself the best chance of overachieving by (A) putting a fire in the team’s belly by filling them with belief and confidence that we can qualify (in sync with the ambition of his play-style) and (B), the reason he never criticises his players or talks them down is because he obviously wants them to be as assured as they can possibly be each time they take to the pitch. Man management 101.
I would almost understand if he bit back at the media slander of the job he’s doing by commenting “this is what I’m working with right…” but that never happened and never should. When Kenny wants to broadcast that message he takes the angle that the team is inexperienced rather than short on quality.
Kenny has always had dreams and is willing to work tirelessly to make his dreams turn into reality. Speaking this way helped get Dundalk FC to the group stages of the Europa League where they beat Maccabi Tel Aviv, drew with AZ Alkmaar and went toe-to-toe with Zenit. It’s also how he managed to get Dunfermline to the Scottish Cup Final and it’s how he managed to get his Derry City team to earn a draw with PSG. We could go on here but let’s not.
Kenny, once Ireland manager, arrived with a burning spirit to destroy the shyness of Irish football but I don’t think the establishment was ready for it. Losing to the Netherlands after a hundred defensive headers? Fine. But lose to them after trying to press them and attack them? Insecure mortification. The inflammatory reaction after every single game is tiresome – we all agree – but I think it is for this very reason.
The anxiety about Ireland failing while trying is enough to stir up a referendum on the manager’s future every single time a result doesn’t go our way. How I wish we were more secure than that…
4.0) Attack of the clones
How will Kenny fare with an improving attack?
I wonder if, when Ireland do go to the next level in Phase Two (as young players improve and more come through), will Kenny have what it takes to get the most out of them? When, for instance, we have the second best squad in a group – or at least close to the second best squad -and could qualify. It’s a big question.
I wonder because we don’t yet have enough evidence to know. He’s done relatively well within the conservatively-tweaked 3-4-2-1 to make Ireland compete with better teams for now, but going in as challengers with a good team will be a different challenge. The counter-argument here is Ireland’s tendency to fare poorly against lesser nations. The optimist in me says those days will be put behind Ireland thanks to the arrival of Ferguson, Smallbone, Obafemi, Connolly 2.0, Johnston (Moran to come soon?) – but that theory needs more time to be proven.
xG created under Stephen Kenny 46.99
Goals scored under Stephen Kenny 41
xG conceded under Stephen Kenny 33.45
Goals conceded under Stephen Kenny 33
Will the tide turn against the French🇫🇷 and the Dutch🇳🇱? pic.twitter.com/3DOas4488U
— Éire Analytics (@EIREAnalytics) September 4, 2023
Ireland struggled against lesser teams on a handful of occasions under Kenny – Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Armenia – which in my view is the biggest black mark against his credentials. When things weren’t working in those games Kenny showed little to no flexibility, perhaps not particularly well versed on how to tweak the 3-4-2-1 shape (although Anthony Barry was there for two of those results and he seemingly didn’t have the answers either).
A take-away from those games I can’t help but keep thinking about though, is how almost every Irish player who started those fixtures must have played at Championship level or higher at that point in time because of their energetic work-rate, their defensive qualities, their athleticism, leadership, pressing and so on (McClean, Hendrick, Knight, Browne, Molumby, Parrott)
Basically, I’m not sure those players’ attacking attributes were/are much better than the defensive attributes of the lower seeds they face. When I write about the weakness of the squad this is a huge reason why – there’s a lot of similar Championship players in the squad with the attacking capabilities of League One players. Hence why it sometimes feels like the Irish management need to conjure up the perfect gameplan just to get their team scoring even one goal – there was/is nothing automatically creative about Ireland’s midfield/attacking make-up and it’s frustrating. At least that was the case before Ferguson and Johnston came into the fold but neither were available for the last international camp.
STARTING XI | Malta v Republic of Ireland
Five changes to the side as Ogbene leads the line with McGrath, McClean and Kelleher come in as Seamus Coleman captains the side ©️
KO 7pm (8pm local time) for our final match of 2022 🇮🇪 pic.twitter.com/cMz3DDudQX
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) November 20, 2022
In terms of game-changing ability, creativity and guile…it’s otherwise just not there and it’s badly needed against low blocks. I think this point isn’t spoken about half as much as it should be. It’s why Ireland have been better in matches when they have to defend and counter-attack. It’s not a squad profile Kenny would ever assemble as a club manager so he’s had to be flexible to make his team more about athleticism than skill. It’s important to note here that things are improving on this front as more players emerge/improve, but options were undeniably blunt in all of Kenny’s poor results against weaker teams.
I would expect Kenny to speak about this issue whenever he leaves the job, but he’s not going to talk down his players while managing them – no matter his frustration. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Jamie McGrath improved our fortunes against Malta and Mikey Johnston did likewise against Gibraltar. They are the type of players Ireland would have really benefited from during the goal-shy 2020 Nations League campaign. We also saw Smallbone tear up Latvia on a night when Ferguson scored his first Ireland goal – two other players Kenny would have loved to have had back then (and against Armenia, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg).
Ireland 2-0 Latvia:
A first senior international goal for 18-year-old Evan Ferguson
📺 Watch live on @RTE2 and @RTEplayer
🎙 Live commentary on @RTERadio1Extra:
📱 Live updates: https://t.co/3IjoDyki0I #rtesoccer #IRLLAT pic.twitter.com/IINgkHooTS
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) March 22, 2023
4.1) The patent on good football
What should we be expecting move forward?
As we approach the end of 2023, attacking options in the Ireland mix finally look to be improving – and all I’ll say is: thank god.
In and around the next squad, we could have:
STRIKERS: Ferguson (PL – Star player), Idah (Championship – in good form), Parrott (Eredivisie – back from injury), Armstrong (Championship – improving)
WINGERS/FORWARDS: Connolly (Championship – in great form), Ogbene (PL – in form), Ebosele (Serie A – playing regularly), Johnston (SPFL – back fit), O’Dowda (Championship – doubt), McClean (League Two – playing regularly)
CREATIVE MIDFIELDERS: Szmodics (Championship – in great form), Knight (Championship – in good form), Smallbone (Championship – playing regularly), McGrath (SPFL – playing regularly), Moran (Championship – in good form),
MIDFIELDERS: Cullen (PL – playing regularly), Browne (Championship – in great form), Molumby (Championship – playing regularly).
And playing with wingers means you need fullbacks covering for them
FULLBACKS: Scales (SPFL – in good form), Manning (Championship – playing regularly), Seamus Coleman (PL – injured), Matt Doherty (PL – making sub appearances)
That standard of players isn’t elite (far from it) but that make-up of wide players, creators and strikers is almost alien to where we were just last year against Armenia and it will only continue to change over the next year. Most felt Andy Moran was still a year way from being involved but after his two goals and two assists for Blackburn in the EFL Cup, conversations are happening at FAI HQ.
Countries with the youngest average age of players used in 2024 European Championship Qualifying
Bulgaria 🇧🇬 23.8
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 🇮🇪 25.6
France 🇫🇷 25.7
Lithuania 🇱🇹 25.7
Wales 🏴 25.8
Patience 🟢⚪️🟠 pic.twitter.com/gu11bW7bWG
— Éire Analytics (@EIREAnalytics) September 11, 2023
It’s at that point – maybe even in this window – when I feel the ‘Kenny isn’t the only manager who plays good football’ argument can fairly come into the discussion. To date, Kenny can only be judged on his performance within the complicated and frequently unlucky circumstances he has found himself in. However, he now has three home games against Greece, Gibraltar and New Zealand where, for the first time in his entire Ireland career, he could have the chance to play his trademark formation because of the players who should be available (and the level of opposition).
Finally has the materials to do what he was hired to do?
Ask a painter to create a masterpiece with a restricted palette (average players who can play 4-3-3) – he’ll embrace the challenge. Hand him a box of rubber ducks (average players who can’t play 4-3-3) – he’ll probably propose a different project (3-4-2-1). Next week, for the first time ever, Kenny will have a palette at his disposal. Yes, it will be restricted, but he’s used to making masterpieces with very little. That’s what he’s here to do.
He was, after all, hired to replicate what he did at Dundalk. That was to select an Ireland team to play his way and, just as with Dundalk, overachieve within that shape. For players to play beyond themselves (like against Slovakia). To make Celtic reserve Mikey Johnston sparkle like a Europa League quality player just like Daryl Horgan did for the Lilywhites in 2016.
Within a 4-3-3 shape, Kenny showed a capacity to elevate players, and if he can do that with Ireland in that formation, then we will stop thinking about the leagues they play in or the clubs they are contracted to. Relegation battlers Ogbene, O’Shea, Egan; Championship players Molumby, Browne, Smallbone; they will need to believe they are better than the European counterparts they face.
🗣 The first 15 minutes of the second half, I sat there, I looked at Stephen [Kenny] and I said to myself:
'Gaffer that's probably the first time I've seen your team play your way.'
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) June 20, 2023
As much as squad options are improving, you look at the leagues that the players play in and you compare them to most of the teams at the Euros in 2021 or the World Cup in 2022, and still, you think that Ireland in terms of quality available, are well off it. That could be the case for another while too.
That’s unfortunately why we are obsessed by managers. Until the production line is improved, we need managers to overachieve, and that’s what Kenny was hired to do. He should be able to that in this window and the next. Evan Ferguson, Mikey Johnston, Andrew Moran, Troy Parrott and Liam Scales could be among those to come into the fold after missing the last window and allow the team to play front-foot attacking football.
Kenny’s precise vision for Ireland when he got the job was to play with wingers in front of an excited crowd at Lansdowne Road but – for a myriad of reasons – that has never happened bar the three-goal second half against Gibraltar last summer. After that performance, Kenny’s old Dundalk assistant Vinny Perth commented: “Gaffer, that’s the first time I’ve seen your team play your way” – which I found really striking.
(I think Perth means since crowds returned because there were similarities to Dundalk and the Ireland U21s in the 2020 Nations League – but it’s amazing how long Ireland have been playing a formation that Kenny never really played previously).
5.0) The pursuit of happiness.
The intangible ingredients.
Last month, Joe Molloy and Dion Fanning queried on Newstalk whether it is (as we were told so often) “all about results”, or if the Irish national team is about the “pursuit of happiness”. Every Irish match under Kenny brings an assurance that Ireland would be playing some passing football, you go to matches with a sense of possibility, and you knew you would be respected with an intelligent gameplan rather than park-the-bus panic. An Irish coaching team that spend most of their days at FAI HQ rather than their houses in England or Italy.
There was never a reason to believe Ireland could get points at home to France or Portugal but Ireland were a jaw-dropping save from Mike Maignan (Ireland 0-1 France) away from drawing with the 2018 World Cup champions and a dubious refereeing decision (Ireland 0-0 Portugal) away from beating the 2016 Euros champions. Kenny and his coaches bridged the gap. They made attending those mismatch games something to truly look forward to, no matter what else was happening in your life.
I’m fairly adamant that there could be a happy ending to all of this. Even if Kenny was to underachieve in the future, the team – by nature of its progression – will be in a much better place for whoever might come in. Perth’s comments would suggest it’s still early days if only now he has the pieces to “play his way”.
Today’s young players (remember Kenny has capped 20 new players) will be better and could be joined by up and comers within an entertaining 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 team that can revert to a 3-5-2 when necessary. While, irrespective of changes to shape or personnel, Ireland are already closer than people might think – as said, simply add Ferguson to either the France lineup or the Netherlands lineup and results could well have been different. That, despite the weakness of the team in other areas of the pitch.
What could’ve been.
Some great performances from Ogbene, Molumby and co.
The second Maignan save here from Nathan Collins is an all-timer.pic.twitter.com/IfeIw8HKxm
— Daniel Hussey (@DanielHussey2) March 27, 2023
Giving a potential replacement the best chance possible.
For that very reason, sacking him this winter without having a perfect candidate to continue his project seems hasty and misguided. I look at the current candidates for the job and worry they could all face all the same tough lessons Kenny did when he started out about the squad’s attributes, thus wasting more time unnecessarily.
If a change is going to be made, we need to make sure it’s at a juncture that sets the next manager up for a positive start and subsequent success. That, for me, is when the new generation fully fill the leadership holes left behind by their elder (ex) teammates. When there is enough experience to get back to the level of competitiveness seen during the eight game unbeaten streak.
Republic of Ireland 0-0 Portugal
Matt Doherty did have the ball in the net in injury-time but the ref had already blown for a foul by Will Kean on Patricio
💻 https://t.co/gKUO2jcTtR #RTEsoccer #IRLPOR pic.twitter.com/FnySA5D6D5
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) November 11, 2021
If there is no exciting manager available for the gig then Kenny should be the default choice. As much as he mightn’t like the comparison, in some ways Kenny is a modern version of Brian Kerr – he should now be considered as one of the true Irish football men whose unique understanding, knowledge and passion for the Irish game will be near impossible to replace. Like Kerr before, the FAI should want him involved one way or another even if that’s starting now as something of a ‘holding manager; until the time is right to smoothly transition into the next stage of developing the national team (with or without him).
Scotland 1-1 Rep of Ireland
56' Parrott spurns a glorious chance to put Ireland back in front
📺 Watch @RTE2 and @RTEPlayer https://t.co/2W5kFtUgZE
📻 Listen @RTERadio1 https://t.co/PgUgJjltge
📱 Updates https://t.co/cNTdXLNQvo#SCOIRL #COYBIG #NationsLeague pic.twitter.com/ebh9QB5apm
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) September 24, 2022
Finally, it’s important not to take Kenny’s greater-than-football contribution to the position for granted. The things that have no metrics – the connection with supporters, the synergy with underage teams across the country, his remarkable knowledge of the Irish player pool.
The contagious passion he has for the job that you can only applaud. Even the ambitious nature of his vision has spoiled us with, at best, an enthusiasm for, and, at worst, an interest in, every Irish game.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) March 27, 2023
Dead and gone is the sinking feeling of ‘results business’ international football Fanning and Molloy mention.
I just hope – whether or not he’s the man to take this team forward – the feeling of Kenny’s Romantic Ireland is here to stay.