In the course of his animated eve-of-game press conference, Stephen Kenny ended up getting drawn into discussion about the standard of his immediate post-match communications.
There was a suggestion that, perhaps, the Ireland manager would be better served by giving a more detailed conference the following day to articulate his views more clearly.
It was one of those questions that other bosses might have taken offence to. Indeed, on a bad day, Kenny might have too, but he nodded along and listened.
“You’re deflated after the game from a bad result,” he reflected. “Maybe that’s something I need to be better at. I find the Zoom more difficult than a real-life conference. You don’t project as well.”
The irony is that he was making the statement on Zoom, just minutes after a passionate answer where – whether you are a Kenny fan or not – he did clearly articulate his standpoint on how he views his job.
In a way, it succeeded in framing an element of the debate around his position. Kenny thinks this team can peak in the Euro 2024 campaign and the current struggles are part of the growing pains towards that. A section of his critics would argue that international football is about the here and now.
“There are a lot of people who say, ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’,” he said. “That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat.”
This line might be the hill he dies on, but there really is no sense that day is coming. The FAI board is no longer a one-man show, and there are different factions within it, but talk of an imminent departure for Kenny is beyond premature. Influential members of the top table remain steadfast in the view that giving the project more time to breathe is the prudent thing to do for the sake of the game at all levels.
It may not be a unanimous feeling, yet it remains the prevailing one barring a calamitous game-changing thumping of some description. Azerbaijan was a worrying struggle, but Portugal three days earlier was promising. The wide variance of views provoked by those matches argue against suddenly reaching a definitive verdict, much as the noise will continue if Serbia depart with three points.
Despite all the black and white pronouncements about camps, the reality is that there is a considerable portion of Irish fans in the middle ground who can be swayed either way. It’s possible to both think that Kenny has inherited an extremely difficult job, but could still be making a better fist of it.
And while each fixture becoming a referendum on the manager is draining – indeed this is why some in FAI circles hold the view that taking contract uncertainty out of the mix would help – there is truth in declaring that every match really matters at the moment even if the rest of the year is just a series of World Cup dead rubbers.
For Kenny, this evening’s encounter is about rebuilding confidence after Azerbaijan.
He needs to provide clearer evidence of the progress which he thinks will inevitably lead to a stronger team for the Euros campaign, whether he’s in charge or not.
Team selection will be interesting. The manager spoke at the beginning of the week about balancing the demands of triple-headers and Saturday suggested that he is still coming to terms with that.
Aaron Connolly’s retention was a mistake, given he ran out of steam in Faro and didn’t really raise a gallop before he was hooked at half-time. Reshuffling the back five was questionable too, and the subsequent loss of Séamus Coleman to a muscle injury has presumably derailed any three-game strategy in that area.
Jeff Hendrick and Jamie McGrath will have strong claims to come back in after sitting out Saturday, although the availability of Alan Browne may complicate things for McGrath. Callum Robinson wasn’t deemed ready to start on Saturday following his Covid hiatus but he’s the logical replacement for Connolly with Troy Parrott vulnerable to the inclusion of Browne or McGrath.
To retain the same shape with minimal disruption, Kenny would have to turn to Norwich’s Andrew Omobamidele for a home debut and the brave call might also be the pragmatic one in this instance.
He could switch to a back four with Shane Duffy and John Egan as
centre-halves but there has to be a temptation to try and replicate the good points of Belgrade when Ireland’s two strikers Robinson and Connolly, with Browne breaking through, did give Serbia’s back three some difficulty.
For all the talk of the Irish approach, a key element of this fixture will be managing the Serbian threat and concerns around the well-being of Aleksandar Mitrovic are tempered by the fact that their Plan B, Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic, was a €70m target for Manchester City in the recent transfer window.
“It’s a tactical challenge for us which we have to rise to,” said Kenny. “We need to have a good out-of-possession plan for sure.
“In possession, we have to be comfortable and gain some control as well,” he added.
Essentially, it will be a different animal to the Azerbaijan brief and it might suit the skillset of his squad better, with Adam Idah a threat on the counter if he is fit and ready to go again.
While Mitrovic is the goal threat, Dusan Tadic is the key provider who can start wide and drift centrally and this is where Ireland have to be vigilant and compact to avoid gaps appearing between the lines. Hence, the need to choose their attacks carefully.
The crowd will have a role to play and they will have their say afterwards, with Kenny conscious of the “volatility” in the scale of reaction that comes with this gig.
After the good and bad of this window, his task is to make this test the unambiguous best-of-three.