Fans will be the ultimate arbiters of Stephen Kenny’s regime and the Euro draw represents point where his reign ceases to be a project and settles into a cold audit
How close were we to the indignity of Tuesday’s late anxieties metastasising into jeers? Too close, categorically.
So much so that there seemed little redemptive or consoling in VAR’s eventual intervention to rescue victory against the 92nd-ranked team in the world, one programmed to perform a ponderous, 90-minute line-dance in front of goalkeeper David Yurchenko.
Armenia’s two goals within 90 seconds suddenly fed the threat of relegation into a humdrum night. And right before our startled eyes, Ireland looked haunted, a team running towards the depths of panic.
That they survived the almost delinquent energy of that wild passage between the 70th and 72nd minutes was never logically going to be the slant of post-match debate.
It was just after 10.33pm when Stephen Kenny left the media auditorium, his half-smile/half-wince expression that of a man mildly affronted by the tone of questioning he’d encountered. The Ireland manager continually repeated his assertion that the performance had been “very good”, that the night had just been tainted by “a few minutes of absolute madness”.
He even deployed that coaching manual abomination of there being “learnings” on offer for a team who more than flirted with humiliation.
Kenny is a deep and interesting man who has never been the best to elucidate his thoughts with tape recorders running.
But the soundtrack around the national team has seldom felt more rational or intellectually nuanced. In cold statistics, his first two years have been underwhelming. The language of potential still resonates, but some believe we should by now be well beyond the age of asterisk and any concept of labour pains.
In definition, the Nations League pits equals into combat. It is, in structure, at least, the very essence of a level playing field.
Accordingly, Kenny’s initial suggestion that his team could top League B’s Group 1 didn’t sound remotely high-minded or innocent.
That the six games played left us drifting so far beneath that watermark represents an entirely valid reason to ask stiff questions.
There is an old golf expression that you can tell how somebody’s doing by the way they walk. On some level, you can tell how Kenny is doing by the way he talks.
After Saturday’s defeat at Hampden Park, he seemed so keyed up to repeat old lines of positivity (support of the crowd; chances created; young players developing) whilst railing against imaginary injustice (a ‘contentious’ penalty award that was anything but contentious). You got the sense almost of a man fighting an unnecessary war.
Ireland had played well, at times even thrillingly in Scotland. Why they lost the game was a story worth exploring in level, grown-up terms.
There has been something resolutely refreshing in the style of Kenny’s Ireland, in the sense of a team interested in representing an actual football philosophy as distinct from some kind of regimented resistance to one. Because some of us in the press box have spent what feels like a lifetime essentially chronicling set-piece opportunities.
This Ireland team plays as if interested in space rather than simply fearful of how others might exploit it. And personalities have been emerging within the group – Gavin Bazunu, Nathan Collins, John Egan, Dara O’Shea, Chiedozie Ogbene, Michael Obafemi – suggesting a core of young men broadly uncowed by reputation or intensity of circumstance.
They certainly don’t look like people in need of protection from the kind of debate triggered by such stark unravelling against a glaringly poor international team. At another time, Kenny and his players might have anticipated a sour symphony from the accepted big dogs of punditry here.
But so much of what passed as cutting-edge analysis in the past comes back now as performative guff, opportunistically sweeping and self-serving.
Kenny and his players don’t encounter that echo chamber today because intelligent punditry has moved past any taste for a Punch and Judy acoustic.
In other words, losing a game you could have won doesn’t automatically get passed off as a travesty now.
So long as misfortune doesn’t meld into habit, the Irish manager can – these days – at least anticipate general understanding whenever that is his due.
But football at this level often feels less about arcane strategy than about nerve, and on some level, this regime now approaches a point in its existence where the idea of patient nurture begins to lose traction.
The manager’s entire programme notes for Tuesday’s game were devoted to a declaration of appreciation for the public’s enduring support for his team.
He referenced “feelings of goodwill”, the “connection” between player and supporter and he wrote of a determination to do that connection “justice”.
All laudable and welcome, yet he must know too that the looming October 9 draw for Euro 2024 qualifying represents a point of intersection in this story where it ceases to be a project, as such, and settles instead into a cold audit of achievement.
The crowd will be the ultimate arbiter for any such audit. They always are.
And for those riotous 90 seconds on Tuesday evening when, before our eyes, a broadly hopeless Armenian team suddenly came alive as gannets going after fresh mackerel, the tone in the Lansdowne air rippled somewhere between irritability and outrage. You knew from Kenny’s waxy expression that he wasn’t deaf to it too.
Gala’s Freed from Desire blared out from the stadium tannoy once the smoke cleared and twice diminished opponents had finally been subdued.
But freedom seemed the last thing anyone was feeling.