It is time for the Ireland boss to control the message in a tenure that continues to be walked on a tightrope
In Stephen Kenny’s ideal world, he is only approaching the halfway point in his term as Ireland manager.
He started two-and-a-half years ago in April 2020, deep in a Covid lockdown which meant it would be over four months before he met his players collectively.
Two-and-a-half years from now, Kenny would love to be in the middle of the 2026 World Cup campaign, a likely reward for bringing his country to the 2024 European Championships in Germany.
The reality, of course, is that if Ireland fail in their mission to reach those finals, it’s difficult to see how Kenny would remain in situ.
Germany was the job that he was effectively hired to do, the campaign that will make or break him.
Ireland have a pair of friendlies in November against Norway and Malta but when those are out of the way, Kenny will be entering matches where no consolation can be taken from near-misses.
It’ll all be about the here and now rather than relevance for the future.
Perhaps we have reached the stage where Kenny’s backers and detractors can agree that 2023 will decide everything. Speculation that a bad start in March will spell the end should be water off a duck’s back to Kenny at this stage.
It’s difficult to keep track of all the times he was apparently one or two games from departure, if even that.
At various times, he might have read that he could be gone after the ‘Videogate’ investigation, gone after losing to Luxembourg, gone if Ireland lost to Serbia in Dublin, gone if Ireland didn’t challenge for a World Cup play-off, gone if they didn’t finish third when the playoff was dead, gone without a positive result against Scotland in Dublin, gone with a midweek loss to Armenia.
Cats would be envious of this bounce-backability if all the threats were real. There remains a sense, though, that influential FAI figures with reservations are more strident about their concerns in bar rooms than in board rooms.
In saying that, it wasn’t a good September window for the manager. That seemed an implausible conclusion at half-time in Scotland seven days ago when Ireland were delivering a performance that screamed evolution if not revolution.
A year ago in Portugal, the interval discussions were similar in Faro. When false dawns stack up, they become problematic. Scotland wasn’t the problem, though. The horrible five-minute window at the Aviva Stadium that made the Armenia match unnecessarily interesting poured fuel on a fire that was burning itself out. Kenny’s press conference musings afterwards didn’t help.
Describing periods of the play as “exceptional” and the victory as “convincing” was not reading the room, that room being the attitude of the public as opposed to the faces posing queries.
Kenny might feel that sliding-doors moments which go against him lead to a dramatic over-reaction. If Troy Parrott converts a simple chance in Scotland, it’s a different window. If Conor Hourihane anticipates danger before his terrible pass, the Armenia game would probably have been old news within hours.
It was his worst moment in an Irish jersey since the close-range miss in Slovakia in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final, which might have taken Kenny’s early months in another direction.
Alas, managers honing in too much on their misfortune are like golfers telling you about the putts they missed rather than the lucky bounces that helped them get there. Everything that could have went wrong for Kenny did go wrong in his first year. But the VAR episode on Tuesday was a massive break, following on from the debatable awarding of a corner and Jayson Molumby avoiding a second booking.
It would play so much better for Kenny if he’d come out and declared his side got away with one.
To be fair, he did acknowledge his side lost their structure in the second half, following on from the admission that there was a lack of cohesion at the business end in Glasgow. Without consistent 90-minute displays, Ireland will fall short of their ambitions.
Still, there remains an obsessive focus on the manager and the things he is saying rather than the nuts and bolts of what he is actually doing.
Wherever we are in Kenny’s journey, we now appear to be at the stage where there is something close to a settled side and an identity. A back three, two strikers and three energetic midfielders look to be the way forward.
Kenny has found a way to utilise pace on away days and Ireland are now much more equipped to ask questions of strong opposition on the their travels.
For all that the Scotland matches were memorable, it’s actually home form that is most concerning when making the case that a genuine top-two challenge can be mounted next year.
Team selections have not been contentious. Chiedozie Ogbene’s midweek exclusion raised eyebrows, but he’s a player that Kenny included in senior squads when there was zero clamour.
His absence was a surprise because of the Dubliner’s regard for him, so it’s not a case of management being blind to his abilities.
Tricky issues such as the exclusion of Séamus Coleman and Shane Duffy appear to have been managed without any fuss. Big crowds are attending relatively low-key games. All of Tuesday’s starters were born on the island of Ireland and the majority are 23 and under.
There have been darker times in Irish football, even if the senior men’s team had a better win ratio during them.
Life under Kenny hasn’t been as good as he claimed midweek, but it hasn’t been as bad as those prone to a knee-jerk reaction would tell you either. The end of the Nations League closes a chapter of his Irish journey. His team, and their manager, still have the future in their own hands.
It’s hard to put a positive spin on the bottom line, with the Scotland win and draws with Portugal, Serbia and Ukraine improving the competitive record, but his tenure will end if the next campaign delivers similar results to this one. Drawing a six-team World Cup qualifying group might have boosted win ratios but it’s actually games against lower-ranked sides that have caused most damage.
Team Selection (B)
Aside from familiar jeers when Jeff Hendrick is picked, and minor outcries related to marginal calls, the era has been noticeable for the absence of outrage over the exclusion of a player a la Wes Hoolahan/Andy Reid. Favouring younger players in his early days has been the main gripe. Dropping Séamus Coleman and Shane Duffy last week was hard to argue with.
Game Management (C)
Kenny will likely bristle at this becoming a talking point as there’s a degree of recency bias, and the introduction of Chiedozie Ogbene and Jason Knight off the bench in games last year had an impact. However, the concession of leads has made the timing of changes in matches turning against Ireland a talking point, with Kenny not a fan of using the bench too readily. Gary Breen has argued on this website that assertive action in Hampden Park might have changed things.
There are people within football sceptical of Kenny who would still acknowledge that the work between windows is a step above what went before and there will be a tangible legacy of that in terms of scouting reports, attention to detail and a database of other work. Better-known predecessors may have worked off instinct but nobody could accuse Kenny of having an old-school approach to homework.
Retaining Alan Kelly didn’t work out, and the messy departure of the ex-goalkeeper and Damien Duff plunged Kenny into crisis territory early doors. Deserves credit for attracting Anthony Barry but then lost him, and John Eustace’s short-lived visit was far from ideal in terms of stability – even though the Barry/Eustace exits are very different to Kelly/Duff. There is now a recognition that if a new name is hired, they need certainty about their commitment. Comings and goings are disruptive for players who already had to get to know a whole new backroom team at the outset of Kenny’s takeover.
Squad Building (A)
It would be wrong for Kenny to hog credit for the production line coming through but it’s laughable to suggest that his predecessors would all have taken the punt of phasing out older players to make room for a new crop. The exclusion of players such as Darren Randolph, Shane Long and Ciaran Clark amongst others were necessary parts of the transition – and that’s no reflection on the individuals involved. It doesn’t appear to have caused much strife. Whatever happens with Kenny, he’s made life easier for whoever his replacement eventually proves to be. Blooding players to the extent that he can start seven players under the age of 23 in a competitive fixture is brave.
Media Management (C-)
The idea that a 50-year-old could become a different person via some kind of intense media training course continues to be trotted out, when it’s laughable. Kenny is his own man and was always going to be in this regard and, when results are poor, the prolonged pauses and idiosyncratic delivery invite criticism. All of that is irrelevant in the broader scheme of things but where he hasn’t helped himself is sweeping statements about winning the Nations League group and other lofty targets that provide easy ammunition for voices that were on his back suspiciously early. While Kenny is always positive about his players, there’s a niggling sense that the glass-half-full take on every performance is borne out of the belief he’s always been fighting to save his job.
Fan Relations (A-)
Living in the country makes life complicated for an international manager but Kenny seems to have used that to his advantage in the sense that he remains visible at games of all levels and is quite popular on the ground with the match-going public. He is unlikely to ever be accused of being aloof while collecting a large pay cheque from the FAI.
Entertainment Value (B+)
It would be disingenuous to claim that every game has been thrilling. There have been a few dull ones along the way, especially early doors, but the two games with Scotland, the Ukraine away game and the draw with Belgium are four examples of enjoyable 2022 encounters. Significantly enough, doomsday predictions of attendance drops have not come to pass yet. More than 41,000 people attended a ‘wooden-spoon’ tie with Armenia on a school night and tickets for one-off attendees aren’t exactly cheap. There’s no doubt that large swathes of paying punters are enjoying Ireland games a lot more.