Ireland’s struggles continue under Stephen Kenny

Stephen Kenny courtesy SportsFile

David Prendeville

Ireland’s Nations League campaign, their first under Stephen Kenny, came to a grimly uninspiring denouement with a 0-0 home draw with Bulgaria on November 18th. This followed equally eye-bleeding displays against Wales in Cardiff, where we lost 1-0, and the 3-0 loss to England in a friendly at Wembley. Ireland haven’t scored a goal in over eleven hours of football. He is yet to win a game as manager. The winless start to his reign as manager is the longest a manager of Ireland has had since their very first manager, Mick Meegan, who didn’t win any of his 12 games in charge.

Yes, Ireland and Kenny were unlucky in the amount of injuries, Covid-mishaps and suspensions they accrued, which resulted in Kenny having to field weakened sides. The bad luck started with the Aaron Connolly/Adam Idah debacle in our Euro play-off in October and culminated in Kenny having to field virtually a second-string eleven for the game against Bulgaria last month. It’s worth noting that despite the overwhelming gloom, we did manage to avoid relegation from our Nations League group. That was really the extent of the positives on show in this last round of games, however. Likely to have much more of a negative impact long-term is the fact that a third-place finish in the group means we will be put in pot 3 for World Cup 2022 qualifying, and will have to face teams from pots one and two to get there. To be honest, right now, there are few prospects that seem less likely than Ireland taking part in a World Cup again any time soon.

The most glaring problem this Ireland side has is scoring goals. This isn’t a new problem. It hasn’t been helped by David McGoldrick’s recent, surprise retirement. The fact we were so reliant on a thirty two year old who only ever scored one international goal, tells something of its own story. McGoldrick’s qualities, though, extended far beyond goal-scoring. He was one of the few players we possessed who had an attacker’s vision, was neat and tidy on the ball, and could link play well. His retirement came as an undoubted blow but also highlights again some of the bizarre decisions Kenny has made. Why on earth was Shane Long left out of the squad for these matches? Also Kenny’s unwillingness to call up Long’s Southampton teammate Michael Obafemi is another bone of contention. Sure, Obafemi seems to have dropped down the pecking order at Southampton this season, but a player who was getting in the team of a very decent Premier League team only a few months ago surely deserves a shot in a team with as poor an attack as this.

It was nice to see Troy Parrott come on in the final moments against Bulgaria and one has to hope he can put his injury problems behind him and kick on with Millwall this season. One other faint spark of hope in these recent games was Derby’s Jason Knight, who looked lively against Bulgaria and made a number of intelligent runs into the box. West Brom’s defender Dara O’Shea also gave a decent account of himself in this recent round of games. These young players and the likes of Aaron Connolly, Obafemi, Southampton’s Will Smallbone (another one who may have been worth calling up), are what Kenny is going to have to focus his attention on. In reality beyond Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman, the fortunes of other irish players have been pretty abysmal this season. Shane Duffy has had a wretched start to life in Celtic. Jeff Hendrick’s form has tailed off after a bright start for Newcastle. At least he’s still getting in the team though, the same cannot be said for Conor Hourihane, who cannot get a kick since Aston Villa signed Ross Barkley. Robbie Brady is similarly struggling to get games at rock bottom Burnley.

There was, of course, a twinge of what could’ve been, seeing Jack Grealish line out against the Republic, for England in our 3-0 loss. He was terrific in that game. He and Declan Rice look certainties for Gareth Southgate’s Euro squad next summer. What a difference those two players, particularly the effervescent Grealish, would make to this current Irish team. The fact we yearn for these players is, however, just another indictment of the shambolic way in which all aspects of Irish football have been managed under the FAI. The reality is that Ireland’s tactic for far too long has been to nick players off England and other countries, based on the granny rule. We can have no complaints now that it has come back to bite us. That was never going to be a sustainable tactic. Investment in grassroots and the League of Ireland is an absolute must if we are going to turn our nation’s fortunes around in the long-term.

The current plight of the Irish team is the inevitable conclusion to the years of mismanagement by the FAI. Whoever is in charge would have an unenviable job. Kenny will certainly get the full World Cup campaign before his tenure is reviewed. The FAI’s ludicrous succession plan fiasco of giving Mick McCarthy the job, with Kenny waiting in the wings to take over, continues to haunt us. We were never going to do anything under McCarthy but stagnate. If Kenny had been given the job to begin with things would have been far more straightforward and we’d be in a clear position to see how he had progressed the team now, rather than possibly having to write-off two qualifying campaigns.

It’s been a fairly woeful start for Kenny. Luck has been against him to a certain degree but one can’t help but wonder if he may also be out of his depth at this level, in what is a very difficult job, with a very limited group of players. For now, we have to hope that there are brighter days ahead and, going forward, his strong history of working with young players, will see us transition to a younger, more exciting team. Things, surely, can not get much worse.