The huge hopes invested in Stephen Kenny’s brave new world for Irish football are dying on the vine
Ireland must beat Serbia on Tuesday to prevent this qualifying campaign from degenerating into one of the greatest fiascos in our football history.
Shane Duffy’s late equaliser can’t disguise the utter poverty of one of the worst home results in living memory.
Azerbaijan came to Dublin off the back of a defeat by Luxembourg, their second in a year. In the last three years, they’ve also lost to Montenegro, Moldova, Kazhakstan, Kosovo and Belarus; their manager is on the verge of being sacked; and they are ranked 112th in the world, between North Korea and Mozambique. Most of their team play in a domestic league rated 30th in Europe.
Ireland could not have hoped for weaker opposition unless they’d arranged another friendly against Andorra. Yet they came within four minutes of a reverse, which would have made the loss against Luxembourg seem a minor mishap.
There were some gallant attempts to dress up our last home loss by portraying Luxembourg as a team on the way up. You can’t do that with Azerbaijan. They are indisputably a poor team yet perhaps our main rivals in the group. We are more likely to end up disputing last place with them than battling for a qualifying spot.
The huge hopes invested in Stephen Kenny’s brave new world are dying on the vine and could perish altogether, barring a redemptive victory in two days.
There seemed something grimly symbolic in the double substitution which took place just after the hour yesterday. The subbing of Troy Parrott and Jayson Molumby, and that of Aaron Connolly at half-time, meant that three of Ireland’s brightest young stars had been replaced by three much more seasoned campaigners in Daryl Horgan, Conor Hourihane and Callum Robinson.
Dealing like this with three players who’d starred for him at under-21 level seemed an admission of defeat by Kenny. The impression of a visionary being mugged by reality was enhanced when, seeking to save the game in the final 20 minutes, Ireland resorted to the traditional tactic of lashing hopeful crosses as the centre-backs joined the attack.
It worked in the case of Duffy’s goal. Yet, there was a striking similarity between that goal and the one scored by Matt Doherty. which brought down the curtain on Mick McCarthy’s Irish reign. Another cross from the left, another defender getting on the end of it.
It was the 85th minute then and the 87th minute yesterday. The big difference, though, is that while there was some small glory in equalising against Denmark, there’s none in scraping a draw against Azerbaijan.
The sad truth is that this game seems a truer reflection of where Ireland are at the moment than the match in Portugal. A gallant defeat may be quite continental, but actual victories are a manager’s best friend.
The epochal nature of the performance in Faro was somewhat exaggerated. In the past week, Bulgaria drew with Italy, Bosnia with France and Norway with Holland. All three of those underdogs are, roughly, where Ireland should aspire to be internationally and they closed out the deal against teams stronger than Portugal.
Liechtenstein are probably proud of holding Germany to 2-0 on Thursday as well. Yet, the real challenge for teams is to beat opposition on the same level as themselves.
The situation of Adam Idah, the best of our youngsters in the past week, sums this up to a certain extent. His ability to hold the ball up against Ruben Dias and Pepe led to declarations that the Norwich City player had proved himself as an international striker.
Yet Idah’s primary task is to score goals and twice yesterday he missed with headers from just outside the six-yard box. The Cork man is energetic and intelligent and promising, but he’s a long way from the finished article.
Yet, you’d forgive him a lot for the enthusiasm, which seemed strangely lacking among some of his senior colleagues. Ireland’s enervation was most graphically illustrated by the moment just before half-time when Séamus Coleman and Josh Cullen ambled out towards Emin Makhmudov as though daring him to shoot in the belief that some dude from the Caucasus could hardly sink one from 25 yards. But he did and he almost sank Ireland as well. Makhmudov plays for Neftci Baku, recently walloped 5-2 in the Europa League by mighty HJK Helsinki.
How has it come to this? Ireland have now gone 15 competitive games in a row without a win, scoring seven goals in the process. Not even the harshest critics of Kenny’s appointment would have dared to predict such a scenario.
What about those of us who believed the new boss could achieve great things? If Ireland don’t beat Serbia, We Need To Talk About Stephen. Because if the manager suffered a lot of unfair criticism when he first took the job, he’s benefitting from some unfair praise now.
The bête noire of a certain kind of Real Football Man has become the great green hope of a different variety of the breed. It’s as though the manager must be defended at all costs because he’s ‘good for the League of Ireland’ or because, in some weird way, supporting him is a politically progressive position. You’d swear he was the footballing equivalent of Michael D.
The reality is that those of us who supported him did so on the basis that he was a talented manager with the potential to achieve great things. Ignoring how things are actually going at the moment means we’re no better than those who used to say that ‘Mick McCarthy has put the smile back on the face of Irish football’.
The situation is desperate but not entirely hopeless just yet. Ireland have one more shot. On Tuesday night, they have to show that they’re going somewhere. The only way to do that is to win a match.
It’s the one thing we haven’t tried yet.