Review of September World Cup Qualifiers, Preview of October

Image: Gavin Bazunu,

David Prendeville

There was a clear sense of déjà vu for Stephen Kenny and his Irish team, after the latest international break in September. The team performed admirably and only narrowly lost in a tough away game (this time Portugal, in the previous round of qualifiers it was Serbia). This was then followed by a deflating result at home (this time we drew 1-1 with Azerbaijan, after previously losing to Luxembourg 1-0). While that qualifying round in March ended after two fixtures, our September fixtures featured a third clash – a home tie against Serbia where Ireland got a creditable draw. Prior to that draw with Serbia speculation was rife that the FAI were losing patience with Kenny. The battling draw against the Serbs should certainly stave off any potential sacking of Kenny for another little while at least.
This incarnation of the Irish team is somewhat bewildering to analyse. In the away clashes with Serbia and Portugal, the team gave genuine cause for hope, with stylish, spirited performances, the kind that Irish fans have been yearning for for years. There was a vibrancy in Kenny’s youthful teams in these games that genuinely felt like a positive change of direction for the team. But it is also true, that despite low expectations for the team going into the qualifying campaign, results have been rather abysmal by anyone’s standards. Despite the obvious lack of Premier League quality in the current Irish team, an eleven made up of a few jobbing top-flight players, Championship players and even some League One players, should be beating Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at home. It is quite the conundrum for Irish fans. At times it seems like Kenny is doing a demonstrably good job – playing youngsters ahead of more experienced heads (unheard of for any recent Irish manager to do), playing a neat passing game – and then other times one looks at the results and can’t but think that Kenny is clearly out of his depth.
Hopefully that draw at home to Serbia can prove a turning point for Kenny. It’s the first real positive result he has had in a competitive game. It’s ironic that the performance on the night was inferior to that of the excellent displays against Serbia away and Portugal away. Serbia were the better team at the Aviva, but Kenny and his team will feel they were due a bit of luck. In terms of individual performances across the three games there were some real standouts amongst the youngsters playing. Gavin Bazunu in goal continues to look an extremely accomplished keeper, particularly at only nineteen years of age. The highlight for him over the three games was undoubtedly his penalty save from Cristiano Ronaldo against Portugal. What a shame that he and the team were undone by the Manchester United man’s brace so late on. Bazunu is currently plying his trade at Portsmouth in League One, on loan from Manchester City. One hopes he can start breaking his way into that City squad over the coming years. He certainly looks as though he has the talent. His excellent ball distribution is another indicator of why City think so highly of the youngster. It’s hard to believe in fact that Caoimhin Kelliher, the genuine number two at Liverpool, is being left out of this Ireland team but such is Bazunu’s form in the green jersey of late, it would be very difficult to justify dropping him.
Another youngster who really impressed over the games was Norwich defender Andrew Omobamidele. Kenny too deserves credit for his bravery in bringing Omobamidele on for the injured Dara O’ Shea against Portugal, when he could have easily gone for a more experienced head in Ryan Manning or Ciaran Clark (if he hadn’t omitted him from the squad entirely – another brave call). The 19-year-old looked a natural at this level. He’s been in and out of bottom placed Norwich’s team so far this season, but looks to have the potential to develop into an extremely accomplished player. Adam Idah, also at Norwich, showed glimmers of why he’s so highly regarded at both club and country. Aaron Connolly, who has maybe regressed at Brighton a little, also looked very bright against Portugal. While praising Kenny for his bravery in bringing on Omobamidele, I would also suggest that his decision to substitute Connolly with James McClean in the Portugal game was a poor one. From that moment on, Ireland lacked an outlet to take the pressure off, which the pacy Connoly provided. Both of Portugal’s goals also stemmed from McClean’s side.
It wasn’t just the youngsters who shone for Kenny either. In what is a massive boost for Ireland, Shane Duffy looks back to his best both in the green of Ireland and at Brighton, where he is enjoying a superb start to the season following his nightmare loan spell at Celtic. His partner, John Egan was also imperious against Portugal and scored Ireland’s goal. There were also solid performances from Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman over the course of the three games.
Had Ireland pulled off the unlikely victory in Portugal, which they were within minutes of achieving, it could have reignited an unlikely push for qualification. However, following that defeat, along with the draws against Azerbaijan and Serbia has put paid to those hopes, to the surprise of few. What it means is that the rest of this group is now the exercise in experimentation and blooding youth that many of us saw it as, in truth, from the outset. If Kenny makes it to the end of the campaign, to survive beyond that what he will need is to have shown progress. The team will need to be in a demonstrably better place come the end of the campaign than they were at the start and at some of the nadirs that have followed. Kenny’s team will need to put in a good performance and, ideally, a winning result in their next fixture away to Azerbaijan on October 9th. This is the first time that Kenny will have faced one of the weaker group teams away from home. Given the positive performances against the big boys on the road, there remains a lingering suspicion that Kenny’s team may be set up in such a way that they perform better away. This fixture will really put that theory to the test.
After the Azerbaijan game, Ireland have a friendly against next year’s World Cup hosts Qatar in the Aviva on October 12th. They then return to competitive action in November. They host Portugal at the Aviva on November 11th, before the group concludes with the away clash with Luxembourg on November 14th. One really hopes that Kenny can build on the small shoots of positivity to come out from that Serbia game. There is an excitement to watching this young Irish team and seeing Ireland play a different, more progressive way but Kenny also now needs to find a way to win and get results. Nobody really expects or demands that Ireland beat the likes of Portugal, but Kenny needs to engineer wins against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg or at least four points to have any chance of keeping his job beyond this campaign, one would think. It would really be sad if attempts to play a passing style and an emphasis on youth was abandoned before it even began. Looking at the favourites to be next Ireland manager, should Kenny be relieved of his duties, then it’s a safe bet that he will be replaced by a conservative coach.

We wish Kenny and the boys in green the best of luck.