Stephen Kenny’s Ireland are prospering in the present and giving hope for the future by looking to the past.
Shane Duffy’s opening goal in Luxembourg showed how much Ireland’s recent revival has been based on values once presumed to have been wiped out by the Kenny revolution. A well-flighted dead ball and a header from a big centre-back had an unmistakably traditional feel to it.
It showed the pragmatic nature of a manager whose idealism has been tempered by realism over the past year. That ability to learn from experience is why he deserves a new contract and the opportunity to see how far he can go with this team.
Kenny tends to be depicted as having stuck to his principles no matter what. But Ireland are a changed team now and some improvements have as much to do with switches in personnel as with the players suddenly buying into Kenny’s philosophy.
The idea that the manager has stubbornly stuck to his guns is disproved by the fact that only five of last night’s starting line-up began the home defeat by Luxembourg seven months ago. Among the half-dozen who’ve come in since is Duffy, who rivals Séamus Coleman as our outstanding player of the campaign thanks to a colossal effort in its second half.
In the Aviva defeat by last night’s opposition which marked the nadir of Kenny’s reign, Duffy was on the bench, omitted in favour of Dara O’Shea and Ciaran Clark and not even brought on to help find a late equaliser.
Jeff Hendrick sat out that game too with Jason Knight getting the nod ahead of him as a starter and Jayson Molumby as a sub. The Newcastle United midfielder has also improved the side since returning and his return is further evidence of a sea change in the manager’s thinking.
Hendrick and Duffy’s omission were seen as proof that the manager was scrapping a discredited old guard in favour of an exciting new brigade of players he’d worked with at under 21 level. The fact that he was building a team for the future was the main argument made in Kenny’s favour when results went against him.
Yet the return of Hendrick and Duffy and James McClean indicates a tempering of the devil-may-care adventurous spirit with which Kenny initially approached the job. The future is all good and well but results must be earned in the present. The time of Molumby, Knight, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly is not yet quite at hand.
Kenny’s decision to return to the players favoured by his predecessors shows a pragmatic spirit also evident in the way Ireland’s game has evolved under his watch. He reacted angrily when Luxembourg manager Luc Holtz suggested Ireland had returned to our traditional ‘English style’ game but there was an element of truth to it.
The almost obsessive passing of the earlier games, which sometimes seemed to be indulged in for its own sake, has been replaced by a more measured approach which perhaps owes something to the more experienced nature of the team being fielded.
There’s no shame in this. Some Kenny fans appear to have a romantic investment in the idea of the manager as an unworldly soul unwilling to compromise his vision one iota. But if that was true, the critics who insist Kenny is too naïve for the job would be right.
Instead, he’s proved increasingly willing to adapt to circumstances. The switch to three centre-backs is a prime example of this and Kenny deserves credit for finding a system which enables Ireland to get the best use out of both Séamus Coleman and Matt Doherty. Mick McCarthy’s insistence that perhaps our two best Premier League performers of recent years couldn’t be accommodated in the same team was a luxury Ireland couldn’t afford.
Kenny’s punt on Chiedozie Ogbene has also proved an inspired gamble. In drawing a yellow card from his marker for the second game in a row last night the Rotherham United player showed the extra dimension his pace and directness has added to the team. His superb finish for the second goal was the icing on the cake.
Ogbene should play a major role in the European Championship qualifying campaign. His recent form suggests that one solution to Ireland’s goalscoring problems might, somewhat incredibly, turn out to be a winger who’s hardly scored at all in his professional club career. The Cork man has been like a secret weapon for Kenny.
Adam Idah, on the other hand, who more than any of the other youngsters once seemed the standard-bearer of the Kenny revolution, was again an unhappy marginal figure last night.
Idah’s great appeal was that his ability to hold the ball and involve other player was ideally suited to the way Kenny wanted the team to play. Ogbene’s ability to get in behind the defence demands a more direct game and Ireland looked most threatening last night when they employed it.
Callum Robinson’s goal confirmed his standing as threat in chief. The creation of that goal by a cross from old warrior McClean and a lay-off by young gun Knight seemed to epitomise the way Kenny has found the ideal formula for Ireland by combining the best of old and new.
Ireland are very different from the team which lost to last night’s opposition on that dreary evening in the empty Aviva. So is their manager.
You’ve come a long way, baby.