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Kenny needs his side to hit right note in quest for historic result

Aidan Fitzmaurice


Adam Idah has tested positive for Covid-19

Adam Idah has tested positive for Covid-19

Adam Idah has tested positive for Covid-19

Wembley Stadium has always been, for the Republic of Ireland, a place that was frightening or forgiving, with nothing in between.

Stephen Kenny is likely to learn this evening that there is a massive gulf between what a manager wants to do at Wembley and what he can do, especially as he takes an injury-hit side to face an opposition 32 places ahead of them in the world rankings.

Ireland, under Kenny, could come up with a result along the lines of the last Irish visit here, when England had to come from behind to earn a 1-1 draw in 2013 against a Giovanni Trapattoni-coached side, or two earlier 1-1 draws, one under John Giles and the other under Jack Charlton, when Ireland deserved to win.

Or it could be a convincing defeat, like the 2-0 loss here in 1980 which hastened the end of Giles' time as Ireland manager, his second-last match in charge. By that stage of his reign, the Irish media, and the public too, had lost patience with Giles as the 2-0 loss to a Kevin Keegan-inspired England was roundly criticised back home.

"At the end of this sad night, it only served to add to the sense of Irish humiliation when the only Irish invasion was an idiot flaunting a green and white scarf who invaded the pitch. In everything else, England were the rulers," was the harsh view of this newspaper on the day after the game. Within a month, Giles was gone.

A loss tonight would not usher Kenny towards an exit but the nature of a defeat, if it's a heavy one, would see the pressure mount ahead of Sunday's competitive game in Wales, as defeat there really would see the heat come on before next week's game at home to Bulgaria.

Similarly, a loss to England would do some, limited, damage to Irish hopes of being second seeds for the World Cup draw next month, but as competitive games carry more weight, failure to garner points against Wales and Bulgaria could be fatal, Ireland facing relegation in the Nations League and demotion to third seeds, making World Cup qualification look even more remote.

So what's key for Ireland is how the side, and the staff, have learned lessons from the last five games. England away is a test but if the goal is to try to get to Qatar 2022, exams like this will have to be taken, no matter how daunting.

There was the whiff of a school teacher from Kenny yesterday when he said, pre-Covid of course, he'd considered music and history as distractions for players bored by the tedium of a camp. "I had this idea when I took over, I'd bring in musicians, really good musicians, because there is a lot of downtime. There is an interactive museum in Dublin, bring them [players] into that, a sense of identity, all of that. Link all that in," Kenny said, in an unexpected response to a question about Covid protocols in the team hotel as the virus again caused problems with the absence of Callum Robinson.

Few would expect Ireland to win at Wembley for the first time ever, as the squad lists alone underline the power available to Gareth Southgate and the limited options available to Kenny. The strikers in the England squad have 60 international goals between them: the Irish front line (Maguire, Collins, Idah and Curtis) have two.

Covid has resulted in Kenny being denied access to Robinson, with the Ireland boss ruing the fact that issues with the virus, last month and now this week, have robbed Robinson of five starts with Ireland.

England, if they are on form, have the potential to do real damage to Ireland this evening, so Kenny's theories will be put to the sternest of tests. He made one judgement call by opting, he claims, to play England tonight instead of taking on a lesser side to "try to get goals and a victory". Bulgaria went for the cheaper option, deciding to play Gibraltar last night. They scored more goals in the first 15 minutes than Ireland have managed in 2020 and got what was only their second win in 19 games. Whether that's worth more to Bulgaria than whatever Ireland can take from Wembley remains to be seen, but a heavy loss tonight would be scarring for young, inexperienced players.

Kenny steeled himself for this challenge in London tonight with a reminder that he had gone into managerial battle in areas like Hampden Park and the Parc des Princes before, but this is his first time to visit the venue in any capacity. "I haven't been to Wembley. I said if I was going to go, I'd better go as a manager, that's the best time to go," he says, relishing the task.

His comments about museum trips and musicians in the hotel have already raised eyebrows, particularly among the cadre of ex-international players who remain to be convinced. Five games in and yet to win, Kenny's Ireland are unlikely to defeat England, but they need to show signs of lessons learned from last month's goal-free spell if the project is to be a long-lasting one.