After failing to reach the European Championships, Ronán Daly considers the beginning of the Stephen Kenny era
To say the reaction to the beginning of Stephen Kenny’s reign as Ireland Manager has been mixed would be an understatement. Five games into his career as Ireland manager he has yet to win a game, drawing three and losing two. One of those draws resulted in a 4-2 penalty defeat to Slovakia in a crucial Euro 2021 qualifier which saw Ireland miss out on a chance to play a major tournament in Dublin next summer.
While the results have yet to impress the Irish faithful, many fans have taken comfort in the style of play Kenny has tried to implement. For a long time, Ireland has been a team that prides itself in its ability to defend and have traditionally relied on ‘route-one’ football as opposed to playing out from the back and attempting to play a slick passing game. Under Kenny, Ireland has tried to change this - as was evident in all 3 of the games played during October’s international break.
In the UEFA Nations League, only Spain recorded a higher pass completion rate than Ireland’s 88%. In their play-off defeat to Slovakia, Ireland recorded 612 passes in the game, and at home to Wales they recorded 546 passes. Compared to the two games Ireland played this time last year against Switzerland and Georgia that’s a remarkable improvement. At home to Switzerland Ireland recorded 342 passes and away to weaker opposition in Georgia they only recorded 383 passes.
Despite these notable improvements in Ireland’s passing game and the positives to draw from this, many of Kenny’s doubters will point out Ireland’s inability to score. In over 300 minutes of football under Kenny Ireland has only managed to score once for all their impressive passing football. Many would have you believe that much like the Covid-19 test that kept Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah out of the Slovakia game - this improvement in Ireland’s passing game is a false positive.
While it is true that Ireland has failed to make much of an impression on the scoreboard, this isn’t a problem Stephen Kenny is at fault for; it is one he inherited. In last years Euro 2020 (now Euro 2021) qualifying campaign Ireland only managed to score more than once on one occasion, at home to bottom seed Gibraltar where Ireland struggled to a 2-0 victory. You have to go all the way back to the 9th of October 2016 to find the last competitive game that Ireland score more than 2 goals in when they defeated Moldova 3-1 away from home. While Ireland hasn’t been scoring under Kenny this isn’t a new problem.
Along with this Kenny had to deal with missing a large number of his first-team squad for the Nations League matches against Wales and Finland. While the forward duo of Connolly and Idah was back after the false positive in Slovakia, Ireland was without three of their starters in Bratislava, namely John Egan, Callum Robinson and Alan Browne. The squad was again weakened for the Wales game, but there were many positive performances in an empty Aviva, particularly that of Jason Molumby and Matt Doherty.
While Mick McCarthy was quick to point out on commentary that performances don’t matter when you aren’t getting results, it’s worth remembering that in McCarthy’s first five games in his first stint as Ireland manager they lost four, drew once and had a -7 goal difference. While the man he replaced this time around (Martin O’Neill) did win his first game 3-0 against Latvia, his next 5 matches after that resulted in 3 draws and 2 defeats. It isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for Ireland managers to struggle to make the immediate impact everyone expects.
Kenny hasn’t made Ireland world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination, but people aren’t wrong to be encouraged by Ireland’s recent performances. Ireland was desperately unlucky in Slovakia, with Alan Browne missing a 1v1 and then hitting the post in extra time, Conor Hourihane squandering a sitter from close range, and the normally reliable James McClean unable to convert a guilt-edged chance in the first half. The play-off had a feeling of 'just one of those nights'.
Ireland’s passing play saw them create a number of chances they weren’t creating before and despite struggling in front of goal at one end, defensively they looked solid as ever. If it weren’t for a loose pass from goalkeeper Darren Randolph in the 1-0 defeat to Finland, Ireland might have come out of the international break with 3 consecutive clean sheets.
Kenny hasn’t made the immediate impact many thought he would, but there are harsh expectations people are placing on the new Ireland boss. The people who see the positives of Ireland's new style of play aren’t imagining it. While those who are critical of Ireland’s inability to score and their lack of positive results have a right to be annoyed, these aren’t problems Kenny created, they are ones he inherited. For now, it’s important to put his early results as Ireland manager in perspective as only time will tell whether Kenny’s side can start to turn positive play into results and doubters to believers.