Stephen Kenny’s World Cup Campaign Ends on a High Note

David Prendeville

Ireland’s World Cup Qualifying campaign finally concluded last month, leaving fans with a genuine sense of hope for this team and what Stephen Kenny can do going forward. It would have been nigh on inconceivable last March, when Ireland reached their nadir losing at home to Luxembourg, that this campaign would end on such a buoyant note, with the vast majority of fans all aboard the Stephen Kenny train. Of course, Ireland did not qualify for next year’s finals in Qatar, nor come anywhere near it. However there has been undeniable progress made over the course of the campaign.
Kenny has overcome a dreadful start to build an exciting, youth-oriented, possession based team. Ireland still do not boast the quality of individual players other countries do, but rather than use this as an excuse to play the type of dreary, soul-destroying football favoured by the likes of Mick McCarthy, Kenny has sought to improve his players through coaching and encouragement. He’s united a fanbase that were disillusioned after the mess of the John Delaney era. For the first time in a long time it feels like there is some genuine cause for optimism at what the future holds for the Irish team. Having covered the team’s turbulent exploits throughout this campaign it gives me great pleasure to be able to end on a positive note.
Probably the biggest success of Kenny’s tenure has been in his introduction of promising youngsters into the squad. Giving youth a chance has long been something Irish managers seemed to fear. Kenny has a totally different outlook and has been true to his beliefs, often making bold choices in preferring youth over experience in important games. The biggest success story has probably been Gavin Bazunu in goal. The 19-year-old, currently on loan at Portsmouth from Man City, grabbed his chance after making his debut in that debacle against Luxembourg in March. He has been superb, making a string of fine saves along the way, including a penalty save from Cristiano Ronaldo in the away tie against Portugal. He concluded his campaign with another stunning stop against Luxembourg when the scoreline was at 0-0.
Another youngster who has looked really impressive of late is Chiedozie Ogbene. The Rotherham forward looked unplayable at times against Portugal and Luxembourg. His pace and trickery caused all sorts of problems for the opposition backline. His selection in these games was also an example of Kenny being bold in his selections, picking a league one player ahead of possible alternatives plying their trade in the Premier League or Championship.
A player who has more quietly cemented his place in this side is Josh Cullen of Anderlecht. He has been an assured, disciplined presence in the middle of the park. Also, while he didn’t play in the last two games due to injury Norwich’s Andrew Omobamidele has looked a real prospect at the back, not least his superb performance in the away tie against Portugal in September. Let’s hope Norwich’s new manager Dean Smith, known for his track record in developing players including Jack Grealish, will give the 19-year-old more opportunity in the Norwich first team. The same could also be said for his team-mate Adam Idah, who has shown flashes of his quality during the campaign. All in all Kenny gave debuts to 11 players since taking over. In doing so he has revitalised and overhauled a jaded squad.
While not exactly a youngster, one of the other standout performers in the latter stages of the campaign has been West Brom Striker Callum Robinson, who’s been on red hot scoring form. While we won’t get ahead of ourselves, it’s great to see somebody emerge as a possible regular scorer for this Irish team beyond the big centre-back Shane Duffy. Duffy is another player who’s shone recently under Kenny and who has been enjoying a huge rejuvenation at Premier League high-fliers Brighton, following a poor loan spell at Celtic last season.
One of the other big conundrums Kenny was faced with was getting Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty, probably our two most established Premier League performers, into the same team. Regular readers will know I’ve been banging this particular drum for quite some time, going back to the bleak McCarthy days. So imagine my delight to see Kenny deploy Coleman in a back three with Doherty as the wing-back. Doherty’s fortunes have changed somewhat since the days in which I was particularly vocal about this point. Back then he was one of the standout wing-backs in the league with Wolves. He then got a big move to a (semi) elite team in Spurs, struggled for form in his first season there and now finds himself sat on the bench (at best – he sometimes hasn’t even made the bench) most weeks, having not started any Premier League game for Spurs this season.
Doherty has played regularly for Spurs in the Europa Conference League, however, and in an Irish team bereft of real Premier League talent he is undoubtedly still one of our more accomplished performers. One slight piece of encouragement might also be the appointment of Antonio Conte at Spurs. The Italian brought Doherty on for roughly the last half hour of his first game in charge at Everton. His predecessor, Nuno, was reluctant to use Doherty at all in the Premier League. We also know that Conte loves a good wing-back and plays the 3-5-2 formation that suits Doherty. He’ll face stiff competition from Emerson Royal for the right-wing back spot but hopefully Conte will give him more opportunities and may even lead to a turnaround in his club fortunes. He should certainly benefit from the elite coaching that the greatly decorated manager will undoubtedly offer.
The offering of a new contract to Kenny to take him through the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign is now, surely, a formality, despite some idiotic claims to the contrary by certain pundits. It will be fascinating to see the evolution of this team under Kenny. For the first time in a very long time, there’s hope of a brighter future for the Irish soccer team. It may be the hope that kills you, but we are entitled to cherish it while it lasts.