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Testing times for Irish boss

Covid chaos leaves many questions to be answered


Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny at squad training

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny at squad training

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny at squad training

At numerous stages across a difficult, nerve-shredding, sleep-depriving week, Stephen Kenny must have been forced to use the f-word a lot.

The bad f-word, not football. Because events beyond the control of the Ireland manager have transpired to leave him with the most chaotic build-up to tomorrow's Nations League game against Finland.

Kenny, as meticulous a coach as there is on these islands, would have put his focus on who would be playing for Finland against his side tomorrow.

Instead, things change at a head-spinning pace to the extent that he begins each day not knowing what players he has available to himself, let alone his opponent.

Kenny went to bed last night not knowing if the player, who had tested positive and then retested as negative, would be allowed to board the plane. How can he pick a team when he doesn't know who is on the flight?

We can only imagine that Kenny and his staff, when told that for the second competitive game in four days they would be missing some key players due to coronavius (five had to sit out the 0-0 draw with Wales, on top of the two who were forced to miss the match in Slovakia), would have turned the air blue.

Clear vision

When he mapped out this international window, Kenny would have had a clear vision of what he wanted from the games against Wales and Finland.

On Sunday morning, hours before his tactical tussle with Ryan Giggs, he had no clear idea of who would be available to him and he ended up with just five outfield players on the bench, only one of them in the original squad.

Football talk had to take a back seat to other, more serious conversations involving flight paths, social distancing, mask-wearing and isolation spells.

So much of his time has been eaten up by meetings and phone calls with medics, HSE and UEFA staff and others related to Covid-19.

Kenny did find time most days to chat to his successor as Ireland U-21 manager, Jim Crawford, who was in Italy for a qualifier but going through a Covid drama of his own.

"We connect every few days just to gather information," Crawford says.

"I can only imagine what's going on with the senior camp.

"I spoke to Stephen on Sunday and it does come as a shock when someone tests positive and then the whole close contact thing. It is very disruptive."

Disruption does not begin to describe the chaos with which Covid has infected international football.

Instead of flying out to Finland on Monday, the FAI delayed departure until this morning as they awaited results of Covid tests carried out by UEFA in Dublin on Sunday evening.

Those test results brought more bad news, confirmation that another squad member had tested positive. But more confusion: a retest was negative, yet the player was still not clear to travel, as the FAI needed the HSE and UEFA to accet the retest.

It's very hard to keep track of. Of the 25-man squad named by Kenny just 14 days ago, four will miss tomorrow's game in Finland through injury, one due to suspension but eight others have been unable to play or train, or both, due to Covid-19 complications.

The only positive to emerge from a bad week was the fact that Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah, prevented from playing in Slovakia due to a positive test which turned out to be erroneous, have returned to the squad.

But it has been a bad week for the Irish team and the Irish game and Kenny was known to be very frustrated at how events transpired to deny him access to Connolly and Idah in Bratislava.

The sight and sound of Gary Owens - Kenny's boss, in effect - flatly contradicting the senior team manager on radio an hour before kick-off against Wales was not good for the association.

The 'one voice' policy of the association in the previous regime was unhealthy, as debate and dissent were discouraged, but to have the most senior official in the organisation saying Kenny was wrong, while Kenny was on the field preparing his team at the Aviva, is poor.


And amid a global pandemic, where lives and jobs have been lost but there has also been pain for football, such as Kenny losing two players for a game, Owens telling Newstalk that debate over their seating arrangements for the Slovakia flight were a "red herring" was also misjudged, especially when seating arrangements for the trip to Finland have been changed.

The FAI have handled much of the Covid crisis well but the last week will need an investigation into how so many things went so wrong.

Two decades after Saipan, we were back to talking about where players sat on planes again.

There already has been a blame game, some of it in public.

Niall Quinn, no longer working for the FAI but clearly representing their view, spoke on Virgin Media and blamed UEFA and the testers in Slovakia; Kenny appeared to blame the addition to the official team flight the member of the communications team who tested positive, leading to the Connolly/Idah absence.

The FAI, bereft of cash and depending on a bail-out from the state to even stay in business, have endured a non-stop battering of its image for the last 18 months.

But the association had actually weathered the storm of Covid-19 pretty well.

After a long delay, the League of Ireland season was able to resume, behind closed doors, and the streaming service for games was a success, popular with fans and good value for money.

The senior game was left relatively unscathed, and the tut-tutting over crowd behaviour at some GAA matches was not repeated in soccer, clubs behaving themselves and crowds staying away.

Only a vaccine can defeat the virus but it looked as if the FAI had done pretty well in the battle.

But in a week, with two League of Ireland games called off, the domestic league and now the international team have suffered.

To query how Covid was able to poke a hole in the FAI's so-called bubble is not simple FAI-bashing: Liverpool's players are surrounded by the the best medical and security measures on the planet and yet men like Thiago and Sadio Mane were able to contract the virus.

But once the final whistle goes in Helsinki tomorrow, Kenny and his employers will be faced with questions more serious than the stuff we've just seen on the field.