Tuesday 21 January 2020

John Giles: Martin O'Neill should look at how Stephen Kenny and Dundalk tapped into the true tradition of Irish football

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates after the UEFA Europa League Group D match between Dundalk and Maccabi Tel Aviv at Tallaght Stadium
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates after the UEFA Europa League Group D match between Dundalk and Maccabi Tel Aviv at Tallaght Stadium

John Giles

I’VE been watching Dundalk’s progress in the Europa Cup with great interest and the quiet satisfaction that comes from seeing a football team organised in such an excellent way.

In the week that’s in it and with two big World Cup qualifiers in front of Ireland and manager Martin O’Neill, it is worthwhile to explore Stephen Kenny’s approach, particularly given the current debate about Ireland’s football tradition.

There has been a lot written about how Irish players play and much of it is nonsense and Dundalk provide a very handy reference point.

For a start, Kenny’s vision of how the game should be played is crystal clear and matches my own views on the fundamentals of the game.

When you don’t have the ball you must do your best to get it back and when you win it, you must do the best you can to use the ball well.

That’s football at its simplest and Dundalk epitomise the view that you don’t need Iniesta or Messi to play the right way.

In recent weeks, there has been a debate about how Irish footballers are hard-wired to be full of passion, determination and not a great deal else.

Throughout the Euro 2016 finals, the theme was the same and yet, when faced with an all or nothing situation against Italy, Ireland’s players reverted to what I believe is their default position.

They played and they played very well. Their instinct was not to lump the ball up the pitch at every opportunity but to do something much more constructive.

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At Dundalk and indeed, throughout his career as a manager, I think Stephen Kenny has simply been tapping into the true tradition within Irish football and tried to encourage his players’ instinct to play.

I refuse to believe that kids playing in the park are thinking about the long ball or percentages.

They want glory. They want to score a goal and all Kenny is doing is freeing his players to operate in that way.

He is actively encouraging it and by doing so, takes all the pressure off his players.

A few weeks back, Richard Dunne suggested that it’s in our DNA to fight and grapple for points and that we cannot avoid it. I don’t agree and once again, I think Dundalk are supplying pretty incontrovertible evidence that he is wrong.

I have great time for Richard and I know what he is saying but I think his perception of how Ireland should play is based on his experiences with Giovanni Trapattoni who decided what our best players were about before he had even seen them.

This notion only came into being around the time of Jack Charlton. I don’t believe it existed before that.

Certainly in 1950s and 1960s, if you had asked someone from Germany or Italy to profile a typical Irish footballer, they would have described technically good players and in some cases, highly gifted footballers.

The perception was vastly different from what you get now from every manager Ireland comes up against, be it Jogi Lowe in qualifying or Antonio Conte in France.

They all namecheck the fact that Ireland players will die for the shirt and the fact that they will present a strong, physical challenge.

They do not expect to face a passing game and they definitely do not anticipate the kind of challenge Dundalk have been presenting to teams supposedly better than them.

Which brings me to Georgia and Moldova and the task facing Martin O’Neill.

I’m not sure what O’Neill’s vision of the game really is when it comes down to the nitty gritty on a training field but he has had success at a number of clubs so his approach is valid.

I think he sees each game differently and picks a team to cope. As a result, we’ve seen conspicuous inconsistency for most of his time as Ireland boss.

There have been patches of great football but a lot of very ordinary stuff and I couldn’t help but think about that while I was watching Dundalk.

Kenny’s team plays the same way. They never deviate over 90 minutes or from game to game and they are Irish players, born and bred in the system here.

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