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The FAI have gambled the house on a novice

Roy Curtis


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Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny

Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny

SPORTSFILE

Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny

A COVID-19 hush hung over Aintree even as, on a stillborn Grand National Saturday, the FAI gambled the house on a novice, Stephen Kenny, being equipped to leap over a looming Becher’s Brook.

Irish football yesterday reaped the hazardous, sour-tasting, potentially poisonous fruits of an outlandish, two-for-the-price-of-one managerial pre-nup that was John Delaney’s price for walking Mick McCarthy down the aisle.

That, and the blizzard of uncertainty whipped up by a microscopic pathogen, have compelled the FAI to take the kind of punt that the Sundance Kid himself, JP McManus, might have thought freighted with considerable risk.

A World Cup captain and manager cut down in mid-sentence; his robes of office passed on, at a critical juncture in Ireland’s Euro 2021 journey, to a coach who forged his reputation in Europe’s 42nd ranked league.

In summoning Stephen Kenny from a low-key off-Broadway playhouse, in handing him the keys to the national theatre even as the curtain prepares to rise on the season’s most lavish production, the FAI remind us of a timeless truth.

It is the one that announces there is but the thinnest line between genius and madness, a cigarette paper bandwidth distinguishing an act of bravery and one of folly.

Of course, it is true that exceptional circumstances – co-authored by Delaney and Mother Nature – have compelled the FAI to explore uncharted territory.

Tumbled

Undeniable, too, that the communion between terrace and pitch had tumbled precipitously to the lowest ebb.

McCarthy’s second coming failed abysmally to locate the spark of inspiration that might re-light a fire that had gasped and expired in Martin O’Neill’s final fraught days.

Ireland were a study in tedium: Seven goals in eight games (Denmark and Switzerland combined for 42), trumped on artistic merit by the minnows of Georgia.

Incoherent even against a monkey-laden rock jutting out from the Iberian Peninsula.

A play-off with Slovakia – one tossed like a currach on a stormy sea from March to June to, now, September at the earliest – had hardly sent a flare of anticipatory adrenalin across the land.

And, while there is some sympathy for McCarthy, it is significantly diluted by the preposterous million-pound golden handshake negotiated in advance with Delaney.

Beyond the ultras, an Irish population with hugely more pressing, existential preoccupations consuming them in this darkest hour, are unlikely to truly give a fig.

Those that do can only shake their head at the wheeling and dealing which brought us to this point.

Since early 2019, Kenny has been in possession of a contract, legally-binding, that declared a trumpet-blast coronation as Irish manager should be his on August 1 2020.

McCarthy was adamant that he would continue until – as per his contract which stated he would continue until July 31, well after the finals were scheduled to finish – Ireland’s Euro 2020 involvement ended.

Something had to give.

The FAI, cash-strapped and hardly in a position to buy out contracts, have opted for the cheapest option.

Kenny’s outstanding domestic CV – six league and three FAI Cup titles – is bolstered by his success in advancing Dundalk to the Europa League group stages.

His teams have a reputation for delivering the kind of aesthetically pleasing football that stands in sharp contrast to the recent period of Aviva austerity.

Brian Kerr, the last man to climb the League of Ireland ladder to the highest managerial rung, offered a ringing endorsement of his close friend last night.

Kerr is confident Kenny is the real deal, that vertigo will not be an issue as he ascends to these dizzying heights.

Yet for all the goodwill that will accrue from his domestic allies, there are some tricky questions, legitimate cause for regarding the 48-year-old Dubliner’s appointment at this particular juncture as one accompanied by peril.

Kenny will have the sporting equivalent of the blink of an eye to build up a working relationship with his players.

His first game in charge might be the Slovakia play-off: Squad gatherings or friendly matches will not be an option in the condensed, chaotic post Covid-19 world.

A bumbling start has the potential to undermine his credibility with players and the more impatient supporters, leaving him running up a stiff gradient and into a headwind before the World Cup qualifiers even commence.

So there is a clear element of being thrown in at the deep-end, into waters populated by circling sharks.

The role of Robbie Keane will be a cause of further confusion: In another confounding legacy of the Delaney era, the assistant’s contract stretches way beyond McCarthy’s.

Is Kenny handcuffed by that deal or will he have freedom to select his own back-room team, the least any manager can expect?

A brace of noteworthy victories over Sweden have been the highpoint of a widely praised year with the Irish U-21s, though there was also a loss to Iceland.

In the long term, Kenny’s task will be to ease what some deem a golden generation of young talent into senior service.

That is assuming there is a long term.

Because as McCarthy was brutally bulldozed into the margins yesterday, there was only one certainty.

It is that Kenny has been presented with the test confronting every Grand National entrant: Quickly defy gravity or fall flat on your face.

Online Editors