Stephen Kenny has finally got some wins under his belt as Ireland Manager, but does he deserve a chance to prove himself beyond this World Cup qualifying campaign?
After Ireland’s impressive victories against Azerbaijan and Qatar Stephen Kenny has helped his case in the conversation of whether he should stay beyond the 2022 Qatar world cup qualifying campaign. 17 games into his Ireland managerial career Kenny has finally got the ball rolling, but does he still deserve to be manager despite taking 12 months to win a competitive game of football?
This time last year I wrote about Ireland’s unsuccessful Euro 2020 qualifying campaign which saw Ireland bow out to Slovakia on penalties in the play-offs. Despite the defeat, Ireland were desperately unlucky not to win that night in Bratislava as Kenny seemed to have changed the status quo on how Ireland typically play. Just 3 games into his Ireland career and in what was his first real test Kenny’s side played attractive football and did so throughout the early games of his tenure while not getting the results. Writing it at the time I was adamant that if he was given time to get the players playing his style of football the results would come. One year and 12 games the results have finally come.
there are a lot of people who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game
So, is this too little too late, has this been a failed experiment of trying to change Ireland from old fashioned ways of playing unattractive football hoping they can score one on the break or should we trust the process? Kenny certainly gave his thoughts on it in his pre match conference against Serbia last month.
On whether or not Kenny should be more focused on results or changing the football culture in Ireland, Kenny said “there are a lot of people who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’. That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat. You’re trying to build something tangible over a period of time and that can be successful. That’s how I see it.”
Kenny is right and that’s why he has so many people who think he is the right man to carry this Ireland team forward past this qualifying campaign. Kenny claims the plan has always been to qualify for the next major tournament, the 2024 Euros in Germany. In truth the results against Azerbaijan and Qatar should mean little in the long term plan anyway, even if they do help. While football is a results based business Kenny is right in that Ireland have stagnated in the last 10-15 years, beating the teams they should be beating but always seeming to fail to make the next step up.
Players like Gavin Bazunu and Andrew Omobamidele have been hugely impressive so far
Of course fans have to be realistic and Ireland will probably never be the best football team in the world but what would reverting to the old ways of sitting back and grinding out results really achieve? Qualifying for the 2022 world cup was always going to be a gargantuan task for Kenny and while Ireland should be beating teams like Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, Ireland currently have a squad that has no middle ground. Players like Gavin Bazunu and Andrew Omobamidele have been hugely impressive so far but the current crop of Ireland players are either young players who are just starting to make their name in senior football or players like James McClean and Jeff Hendrick who are in the twilight of their international careers.
This is why Kenny is right at aiming for the 2024 euros. Firstly the Euros are currently easier to qualify for, with 24 teams qualifying as opposed to the world cup where only 13 European teams qualify. Making it to the world cup should be the long term goal but expecting the most inexperienced Ireland side in decades to do something Ireland haven’t managed since 2002 was always unrealistic. Not only is the Euros a more manageable qualifying campaign, by the time the qualifiers come around this Ireland side should be much more experienced at a senior level and be more equipped to implement Kenny’s vision.
The 3-0 and 4-0 victories over Azerbaijan and Qatar respectively have shown why Irish football fans should keep the faith. Callum Robinson made headlines for all the wrong reasons building up to the games but finally delivered on the promise he had shown in previous games. His first half double in Baku set Ireland on their way to Kenny’s first competitive win and he stole the show with his hat-trick against Qatar in the Aviva.
they are starting to find their feet, as shown by the hugely impressive displays from largely inexperienced players
Robinson wasn’t the only reason to get excited as an Irish fan. Players who are just starting to make their breakthrough in this Irish team put in great performances over the 2 games. Jamie McGrath, who Kenny previously managed at Dundalk, has had a brilliant 18 months since joining Scottish side St Mirren. McGrath impressed against Portugal, assisting John Egan’s header that put Ireland in front in that game and was hugely impressive in both games over this international break, coming off the bench in Baku and starting against Qatar. Chiedozie Ogbene capped a brilliant cameo off the bench against Azerbaijan with his first international goal and the young goalkeepers, Bazunu and Caoimhin Kelleher, kept clean sheets in both games. Andrew Omobamidele looked composed once again at the back along with the increasingly reliable partnership of Shane Duffy and John Egan.
Kenny has had a number of promising performances of late against Portugal and Serbia and the game against Azerbaijan has seen Kenny pick up his first competitive win. The current squad is inexperienced but they are starting to find their feet, as shown by the hugely impressive displays from largely inexperienced players at International level like Bazunu, Kelleher, Omobamidele and McGrath.
With more senior players like Egan and Shane Duffy, who looks like a new man after his return to the Brighton starting XI this season, stepping up there are lots of reasons to be positive about this Ireland team going forward. It may be hard to buy into when people have been telling you to trust the process for over year but Kenny deserves time to prove himself beyond this qualifying campaign and to prove Irish football doesn’t have to stick to its old ways.