Sunday 25 February 2018

'I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that' - Stephen Kenny dismisses talk of 'limitations' in Irish football

Dundalk v Maccabi, live, eir Sport 1, 8.05

Manager of Dundalk Stephen Kenny in attendance during a Dundalk Press Conference at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Manager of Dundalk Stephen Kenny in attendance during a Dundalk Press Conference at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Stephen Kenny steps out from behind a curtain at the UEFA press conference in Dublin yesterday. Picture: Sportsfile

Just another game? Stephen Kenny doesn't want his players to embrace the cliche.

He views the first 'home' match of their Europa League group stage adventure as the latest chance to advertise their quality.

They are occasions to be relished, and the Dundalk manager is reluctant to take the safe option and play down the significance of the next big evening in their temporary Tallaght base.

Maccabi Tel Aviv are the next box to tick on a run that has carried the Louth club to another level.

"I've said to the players that they should never take the European games for granted," he says. "Because we're living in a very exciting year for us.

"We want to grasp every opportunity that's presented to us. A big European game should be viewed as that; not just another game. We should be able to raise our game again for big victories."

He promised that risks will be taken, similar to the opening night draw in Alkmaar. Kenny grew animated as he spoke passionately about the positive philosophy that has defined their European endeavours.

It brought him on to his views on broader discussions about the Irish style of play that have dominated the post-mortems to recent internationals.

Kenny reckons his Dundalk group present a counterpoint to perceptions about Irish limitations.

"I don't buy into this whole concept," he said. "The train of thought that's going around. . . Many commentators (one example is Richard Dunne) have said that it's in our DNA to play high up the pitch and a more direct style because that suits our psyche. Our level of skill. Or rather, our supposed lack of it.

"I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that. But that's the narrative and people believe that. They are conditioned to believe it. And then we go back and blame how kids are coached at U-10 or something.

"It's about having the ability to pass the ball, the ability to believe in yourself and fulfil your potential as players and seeing where that takes you."

Asked if Dundalk are flying the flag for a new way, Kenny replied: "That's not for me to say. I think schoolboy teams from all around Ireland are connecting with this team. They've been in touch, sending messages. People that love the game.

"I'm not on my own. There are a lot of people that share my views.

"Every game you play as a manager, and particularly in the fickleness of football in Ireland when your livelihood is on the line, you have to be able to take risks and have conviction in your beliefs.

"You can be punished and leave yourself open to criticism. But you are who you are, you play the way you play."

Fear is an obstacle to that ambition and Kenny is sure that his players are on board with his methodology.

He is used to the same type of questions around these fixtures, with stats quoted about the number of internationals in the opposing camp.

Maccabi are no different, stacked with an array of old timers and emerging talent. Veterans Yossi Benayoun (left) and Tal Ben Haim have Premier League pedigree, although the former was left out of the weekend 5-0 derby win over Hapoel.

Kenny referenced Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin - who played in the Euro 2016 play-off against Ireland - and the in-form Tal Ben Chaim, a key figure in the attacking plan of the visitors and the scorer of a fine goal against Italy in Israel's World Cup opener.

Maccabi kicked off this campaign by going 3-0 up and then losing 4-3 to Zenit in a chaotic encounter. They do have weaknesses; Irish fans will know that young Serbian keeper Predrag Rajkovic has vulnerabilities.

"It doesn't really intimidate in the slightest whether a player is an international or not," asserted Kenny. "In my eyes, it doesn't make them a better player.

"We've seen it in the European games, some of the higher-profile players in teams we played weakened them. Sometimes, the lesser-known players can be more of a threat."

Kenny has warned his squad that any drop in intensity will be exploited, but stressed that a home win in the spruced up stadium - extra media and VIP seats and the installation of 14 cameras has reduced the capacity to 5,200 - would not be a surprise.

He is conscious that the other sides in the group will be targeting six points against the lowest-ranked side in the competition.

"Teams will be looking to get their goal difference up," quipped defender Dane Massey. on that theme. "You'd like to think when we get the ball down on play, they realise it's not a typical Irish team."

Maccabi coach Shota Arveladze, their seventh in four years, seems to be aware of that, offering the now popular opinion that Dundalk aren't a "British style team with 4-4-2 and long balls".

"These are two football teams," added Arveladze, a former Rangers player who recalls catcalls from Celtic fans when he played in Dublin for Georgia in 2003. He joked about expecting a few shouts from punters in hooped shirts tonight.

That would disappoint Kenny, whose focus is on Dundalk's history as opposed to that of anyone else.

Before Alkmaar, he showed his players a video package with clips of their European highlights to date. The challenge now is to add to it.

Irish Independent

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