As the FAI’s search for a new main sponsor continues, it was their old one that sprung to mind in Glasgow on Saturday evening.
Three was the magic number for Ireland against Scotland in June, yet on this instance it was more of a recurring one to sum up where Stephen Kenny’s side stand right now.
Faced with an opponent with a three-year edge on experience when average ages are calculated (24.3 versus 27.2), it’s possibly unsurprising that Scotland showed more composure at the business end of a frenetic, high-tempo affair.
While the improvement in Ireland’s displays from the beginning of June to here is clear to see, a return of three defeats from five UEFA Nations League games is a difficult statistic to grapple with.
It ensures that Kenny’s charges will be in pot three for the Euro 2024 qualifying draw in Frankfurt on October 9 and, with England an example of a nation bound for pot two, Kenny’s charges could find themselves in a very sticky spot.
There is encouragement that they have performed well against higher-ranked nations, yet Hampden Park is the third time they have taken the lead away from home in a competitive encounter and suffered defeat following on from the World Cup qualifiers in Serbia and Portugal.
It is often said that the first goal proves decisive at this level, yet it hasn’t proven to be the case. We frequently joke about 1-1 being the staple score of the Irish international team, but Kenny’s managerial record on continental fields could be told through the story of agonising 2-1 defeats, the wrong side of a three-goal game.
Dundalk exited Europe in 2015 after an encouraging loss by that scoreline to BATE Borisov. A year later, when they did knock BATE out of the way en route to the groups, they finished up with a 2-1 defeat at the base of Maccabi Tel Aviv in a group where a pair of 2-1 losses to Zenit St Petersburg, fixtures that could have swung in either direction, proved costly.
Kenny’s final Champions League game was a 2-1 reverse at the hands of Rosenborg in Norway, a lively affair where the League of Ireland champions took the lead but eventually ran out of steam.
There was little wrong with the performances aside from the outcome. In a job with higher expectations, and a better calibre of player, Kenny is at the point where promise has to be consistently turned into points. In the aftermath of the summer, the hope was that winning would start to become a habit but the ability to close games out remains a concern heading into the 2023 games that will define his tenure.
Knee-jerk reactions to Saturday should be dismissed as such. Judged in isolation, it was a decent performance against an in-form opponent. The starting selection was vindicated, and there’s no sign that morale or motivation is an issue in the camp, the problems that come to light when a regime is nearing the end of days. The away support were appreciative of the efforts.
What Ireland have to do from this point onwards is get on the right side of the narrow margins, which is easier said than done. Steve Clarke referenced Ireland’s strengths as a counter-attacking side and this has been a gradual evolution under Kenny.
What they now possess is a threat to hurt teams in this manner without the necessary killer instinct to pull it off. Troy Parrott’s pivotal second-half miss is the case in point.
The burst from Michael Obafemi to set it up, following on from a first-half break which led to the corner for the opener, highlighted how a system with two up front can be so effective. When Kenny’s side travel away to face stronger sides next year, they will know to expect more than a team just defending their box.
What is troubling, however, is how Scotland steadily managed to wrestle control of the midfield battle. Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor and John McGinn grapple with more accomplished opposition on a regular basis and when Ryan Christie and Ryan Fraser started to take up better positions, their movement pulled Ireland out of shape.
Perhaps it didn’t help that Josh Cullen was on a booking and walking a tightrope, while Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight couldn’t sustain their first-half contribution. Kenny’s substitutions and game management will naturally come under scrutiny and, while Obafemi was clearly unhappy to be replaced by Chiedozie Ogbene, the new man did make an impact.
“Chiedozie has been terrific,” said Kenny. “It was just a period of the game where we felt Chiedozie could have an impact. Obviously Michael has not played in the last two (or few) weeks, so to play an hour he did fine but we felt Chiedozie would make a good impact. Initially he did but we probably didn’t get the service to him after that.”
Alan Browne was clumsy for the decisive penalty incident, yet it could be argued that Ireland were slow to recharge the engine room when Scotland were gradually getting on top. The momentum was with the locals before the goal.
All stats can be deceiving and twisted to suit an argument, yet the Scottish corner count, which reached eight before the delivery that led to the winner, was borne from Irish blocks that protected Gavin Bazunu.
Midfield depth is a problem for Kenny and there might have been derision if he’d turned to Jeff Hendrick or Conor Hourihane but Scotland were calmer in this crucial period. Kenny acknowledged Ireland lost their cohesiveness and began to labour when it came to negotiating the Scottish press. Lessons will hopefully be learned from this experience.
Armenia will be something completely different. A five-goal home defeat to a second-string Ukraine in Yerevan highlighted just how bad a result it was for Ireland to lose there.
Kenny continues to reference the fact that 44,000 tickets have been sold for the match, a campaign-type statement that is leaving him open to jabs because it would be a surprise if all season ticket holders showed up for what is effectively a low-key relegation battle. Senior women’s internationals are an example of the danger of leaning too heavily on the evidence of assigned seats.
In truth, an attendance in the 30,000 to 35,000 bracket would be perfectly respectable but, similar to targeting a Nations League win before the draw took place, Kenny has built himself up for a fall. Press conference words matter little in the greater scheme of things, but there are sceptics who will be happy to seize on misguided proclamations.
Actions render all this stuff irrelevant, though, and an assertive showing at home to a weaker opponent is required to draw value from this window.
If Ireland are to make it to Germany, they simply have to demonstrate a cut-throat approach at home to a lesser opponent, and invention will be as important than energy. Both of those things were absent as Luxembourg and Azerbaijan were able to take points away from Dublin.
Once was bad, and twice was enough. Three would be a catastrophe. Three points is the only acceptable result.