Inauspicious start for Stephen Kenny

Above: Stephen Kenny
Photo: WikiCommons

David Prendeville

Ireland’s dream of playing in next year’s rescheduled European Championships is no more, after they were beaten on penalties by Slovakia in the play off semi-final. The boys in green had played out a 0-0 in Slovakia before it was decided on spot-kicks.

Despite the disappointment of going out, and while the performance from the Irish team was hardly the thrilling spectacle some pundits have suggested, there were some positives to take from the game.Ireland attempted to play more of a passing game and had more possession than was the norm under Mick McCarthy or Mar-tin O’Neill. Here, I look back on Kenny’s first two games in the Nations League, against Bulgaria and Finland, as well as the defeat to Slovakia, and see what we can gleam from these performances as to what the future holds for the Irish soccer team.

In Kenny’s first game in charge, against Bulgaria, there were things to be cautiously optimistic about. The style of football that Kenny was trying to implement was clearly different to the long ball dross of the McCarthy era. There was much more of an attempt to pass the ball through midfield.

Unfortunately, while it was great to see James McCarthy back in the green shirt after a long lay-off with injury, he struggled in the role of deep playmaker earmarked for him by Kenny. McCarthy attempted to spray the ball around, but his passes just didn’t come off in the game.

The midfield area was also at fault for the goal Bulgaria scored. It’s heartening to see Kenny play a more offensive-looking central midfield as he did, but Bulgaria were given far too much space, after pickpotting McCarthy’s midfield partner Hourihane, even allowing for an uncharacteristic mistake by the big centre back Shane Duffy.

Still, despite conceding a soft opener, Ireland showed spirit to fight back and earn a richly deserved point. In fact, Ireland were probably the better side against Bulgaria.

Profligacy in front of goal was as much, if not more, of a concern than the unbalanced looking midfield. Again, it was great to see Kenny trusting in youth, when not just McCarthy, but so many Irish managers of the past have valued experience above all else. Adam Idah toiled hard in both games, but truthfully he didn’t look quite ready to lead the line at this level, just yet. With Norwich relegated from the premier league last season, Idah should get more game time in the Championship.

A young player who fared much better than Idah, and was the bright spark for Ireland in both Nations League games was Brighton’s Aaron Connolly. Connolly has also impressed for his club Brighton in the early part of the season. He scored against Newcastle in Brighton’s 3-0 win and also looked dangerous in their 3-2 defeat to Manchester United.

For Ireland, his pace was a constant outlet on the left and he looked a threat every time he got the ball. However, it is interesting to note that in their games so far this season Brigthon have played Connolly as a striker a 3-5-2 system, while Kenny has deployed him wide-left in a 4-2-3-1. A switch to a 3-5-2 formation or 3-4-3 would benefit Ireland in other ways as well, helping us get the best out of Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens, while also making room for skipper Seamus Coleman in the team.

Matt Doherty has started all three games of Kenny’s tenure. At long last his terrific form over the last two years earned him a starting spot in the green jersey. While I’m delighted to see Kenny finally giving him the chance Mick McCarthy should have, it’s still disappointing to me that it came at the expense of Seamus Coleman.

I feel it should be near the top of any Ireland manager’s to-do list to get both Doherty and Cole-man playing in the same team. To be fair, Coleman was unavailable through injury for the Slovakia game, after sitting on the bench for both of the Nations League games.

Coleman has started the season terrifically with Everton, and he was another player Ireland could have done with in such an important game. A much-changed Irish team were poor and looked bereft of ideas against Finland in Kenny’s second game in charge. They were certainly much improved from that showing for the crunch game against Slovakia.

Considering how Kenny had very little time to work with his players, the showing was definitely encouraging. It would have been difficult for anyone to get their ideas across and imprint their style on the team with such little time on the training ground.

Considering the performances in the Nations League games, Ireland performed better than I had expected in the Slovakia tie. It seems as if the players are on board with Kenny’s vision, and had we a little bit more luck on the night, we could be celebrating what would’ve been seen as an unlikely victory.

A huge blow was dealt to Ire-land before the Slovakia game. Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah, were forced to quarantine after being deemed to be a close con-tact with a member of the back-room staff who tested positive for Covid 19.

Connolly would have made a huge difference to the team and would have given the Slovakia defenders more to think about. For him to have to withdraw in the manner he did, just before kick off, was a headache Stephen Kenny could have done with-out. It is likely Connolly would have played in place of James McClean, who was poor on the night.

Despite this setback, Ireland still carved out their fair share of chances. Conor Hourihane missed a great opening as the ninety minutes were drawing to a close. Alan Browne hit the post in extra time. The fact that Ireland grew into the game was encouraging, and they showed bravery in trying to go for the win.

Kenny also showed nous in his substitutions, with Alan Browne making a big difference when he came on for McCarthy, with Kenny getting Brown to make more forward runs than the Crystal Palace man had been doing. Robbie Brady also made an impact when he replaced McClean.

Another encouraging sign from this Irish side is how com-posed they look at the back. Shane Duffy and John Egan were both superb, Duffy with one spectacular clearance off the line. Randolph also looked as re-liable as ever in goal.

Doherty still looks more comfortable going forward then he does defensively when playing in a rigid back four. But it was encouraging to see him grow into the game and start to influence it more as the game went on. He was desperately unlucky with the spot-kick he smashed into the crossbar, to confirm Slovakia’s progression.

At the other end of the pitch, David McGoldrick was out-standing. He worked tirelessly and showed flashes of silky skills when setting up Browne for a shot that was well saved by Rodak in the Slovakia goal.

Slovakia and Ireland are ranked 36th and 37th in the world respectively and the game reflected this. The result really could have gone either way, with penalty kicks always being a lottery. It won’t be until next year’s qualifiers for the World Cup in Qatar that we get a real handle of how the team is progressing under Kenny. There are certainly some encouraging signs, despite the poor results. Hopefully with more time to work with the team and implement his ideas, and young stars such as Connolly and Parrott being a year older and hopefully benefiting from more game time, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about Ireland going forward