Double Defeat Throws Ireland’s World Cup Hopes into Disarray

Dara O’Shea
courtesy ©INPHO_Laszlo Geczo

David Prendeville

Oh dear. The good will and faint causes of optimism to be taken from Ireland’s gutsy 3-2 defeat in Serbia evaporated but days later with the 1-0 loss at home to Luxembourg, one of the worst results in Ireland’s history. Pressure is already starting to mount massively on Stephen Kenny. After ten games in charge, he is yet to taste victory.
Let’s start with the positives. Kenny was courageous in his team selection for the away trip to Belgrade. It was refreshing to see him drop the woefully out of form Shane Duffy, and also leave Jeff Hendrick out of the midfield. Kenny’s emphasis on youth and his fearlessness in throwing in young players like Dara O’Shea, Josh Cullen and Jayson Molumby, was quite the tonic for fans used to the inherent conservatism of the likes of Mick McCarthy, Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapatonni. Also, finally we got to see Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty in the same team, since the attempt to fit the two best Irish players into the same eleven was abandoned after half a game in McCarthy’s miserable Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
Ireland looked sharp against Serbia and put some nice moves together. It was altogether far more aesthetically pleasing than the bilge served up by McCarthy. It’s also possibly fair to say that we looked more open defensively than we would have under Kenny’s predecessor. Critics will argue that despite the attempts to play good football, Ireland would have stood a better chance of getting a result under McCarthy’s dour pragmatism. One could imagine McCarthy’s Ireland grinding out a 0-0, though I would wager that a 1-0 defeat would have been a more likely outcome. Maybe we looked more naive but we certainly showed an ambition we’re not used to seeing in this game, and in terms of the long-term future of the team, that is very important indeed.
The sad reality is Serbia are a vastly superior team to Ireland and we really had little chance to ever qualify from this group, with Portugal and Serbia looking like shoo-ins for the top two positions. With that in mind, this campaign must be judged beyond results. It is clear that Ireland have a poor crop of players currently, as a result of years of mis-management and short term fixes by the FAI. Kenny’s job really has to be to bring a new generation of players through and to modernise the way Ireland play.
Beyond the blessed relief of breaking our scoring drought and nabbing not one, but two (!) goals, there were passages of play that were very impressive by Ireland in Belgrade. The first goal by Alan Browne was a superb team move. When Serbia equalised, Ireland’s heads didn’t drop, and they actually began to dominate the game at the beginning of the second half. If VAR was being used, there’s every chance Aaron Connolly may have gotten a penalty in this period of the game. The players also looked comfortable in the 3-4-3 formation adopted to accommodate getting both Coleman and Doherty into the team. Coleman was excellent as the right-sided centre back. Doherty provided a good outlet at right wing-back but sadly his crossing was wasteful on the night.
The game turned when substitute Aleksander Mitrović caught out the inexperienced Mark Travers, with an excellent lob over the ‘keeper, who was stranded off his line. It was cruel. It was harsh on Travers and indeed Kenny. But it was also a moment of quality from a player of whose calibre Ireland simply do not have. And he was only a substitute for Serbia, remember. When it went to 3-1, Ireland fans may well have had flashbacks of the World Cup play-off against Denmark in 2017, and expected a hammering. But again, Ireland showed guts and character to reduce the deficit and stay in the game. Even in defeat, this was the first time in a long time where the Irish team were actually good to watch. Dare I whisper it, but it was actually quite a good game. When was the last time you could say that about an Ireland match?
On the contrary, to say the Luxembourg debacle was bad is something of an understatement. It really was an atrocious performance. The single positive that could be taken from it was the fine performance of 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu in goal. Ireland put together one good move that James Collins really should have finished off in the first half. They offered absolutely nothing beyond that. The lack of any urgency or tempo in the Irish performance was astonishing. This was a game they desperately needed to win, against very limited opposition. Yet the Irish players looked frightened of the ball and totally bereft of any confidence. Where had the gutsy performance of just a few days earlier gone to? Luxembourg fully deserved their win. It was as bad a performance as I’ve ever seen from an Ireland team and there have been a fair few nadirs over the years.
The big question is, where does this leave Kenny? Some pundits have already called for him to be sacked, prematurely in my opinion. Ireland looked clueless and hopeless against Luxembourg but we can’t just throw everything out the window because of one bad game. The FAI have long made short-term, damaging decisions, and there is no quick fix to Ireland’s current malaise. Kenny should be given until the end of the qualifying campaign, at which point we will be able to assess whether any progress is being made and whether or not it seems he can realise his vision of what the Irish team should look like in its style of play. Of course, there are legitimate doubts about whether Kenny will be able to achieve these goals. He’s vastly inexperienced at this level of football management. There has been very little to cheer in general since his appointment. However, for now we must cling to the morsels of hope put forth by the impressive, albeit losing, display in Serbia and the bold team selections and decisions Kenny has made.
Hopefully at the end of this campaign, the future will look a bit brighter for Irish soccer. Surely, it can’t look any worse?