Kenny’s ‘radical overhaul’ shows no signs of slowing
Time waits for no man, but even Stephen Kenny admits to a little surprise when he looks at how the Irish football squad has evolved over the last two years.
The 27-strong group that Kenny will call on for four Nations League matches next month is so very different to the one he inherited from Mick McCarthy this time two years ago.
He used the words ‘radical overhaul’ when talking to the media at the announcement of the squad. Maybe it wasn’t Kenny’s intention to change things so quickly, and so comprehensively, but that’s the way it has happened.
Ireland will play Armenia and Scotland, as well as Ukraine twice, during June with a young squad that would surely be even younger if the likes of Andrew Omobamidele, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly were fit.
It’s an assortment of players which has a quality that we rarely associate with Irish football — searing pace. Chiedozie Ogbene, the returning Michael Obafemi, and new boys CJ Hamilton and Festy Ebosole are all lightning quick, as fast an any player whoever pulled on the green shirt.
Even in the current football era, one of tactical study and settled defensive systems, pace is the one quality that still scares the living daylights out of any defender —no matter how good or quick they are themselves.
Kenny hasn’t gone blindly for speed over the ground, insisting that each of the quartet is technically excellent and ready for international football, it is just that he has had to call them up as others have drifted away.
“Look at the spine of the team back then (when he took over). Darren Randolph has not played a lot of football in a while, David McGoldrick decided to retire, Glenn Whelan is 37 now, and Richard Keogh had been in the accident at that time, so that was all coming to the end.
“Obviously some key players in that period like Robbie Brady have had a difficult time with injury and just getting matches because he’s someone I do regard highly, and if he’d have had a run of matches he would be in my squad now,” says Kenny.
“So those players now have come through and some journeys have been different than others and some players have setbacks, because football is a tough business.
“Some players’ ascension isn’t as quick as you’d hope but then some players like Andrew Omobamidele and Gavin Bazunu move so quickly, their development has been accelerated for different reasons, and that’s the way it is.”
Kenny’s scouts, one of whom will be former international Jon Walters, will watch Scotland and Ukraine play next Wednesday, but his first thoughts are on Armenia who Ireland face next Saturday.
“Armenia got promoted to this level by being top of their last Nations League group. Their results have been up and down lately. They took four points off Iceland in the World Cup qualifiers and beat Romania. But then Germany beat them heavily, which can happen to anybody, and North Macedonia beat them quite well.
“If they get the first goal they can be very dangerous because they’re quite an attacking side too, and will hit you with speed. That’s how they leak a few goals, but they’ve won a few matches too.”
Even though he won a Europa Conference medal with Roma on Wednesday night, Armenian star Henrikh Mkhitaryan seems to have opted out of international football and will not be playing next weekend.
Kenny has prepared for four unusual international matches, not ones where teams defend vigorously when away from home.
“No, I think the games will be stretched, against Scotland and Ukraine particularly, and Armenia too. They’ll be very stretched, and speed will be a factor for sure.
“I don’t see any team sitting in and it being a cagey affair, while the home team tries to break down a packed defence. I don’t see the games like that. I see teams going at each other.
“And with that you need speed. The need for speed is crucial in international football when you look at the top teams, unless you’re Spain and you can absolutely pass someone to death.-
“For all the top teams, speed is a vital component. But it’s only one aspect of the game. We have other players with different qualities, different attacking players like Callum Robinson and Troy Parrott, Will Keane too, who have different attributes.”