Sunday 15 September 2019

Kenny live to the culture change required to transform Irish football

In Step: Stephen Kenny and Ruud Dokter emerge from the tunnel at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
In Step: Stephen Kenny and Ruud Dokter emerge from the tunnel at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Some time after Brian Kerr's promotion from FAI technical director to senior manager in 2003, he was asked by then chief executive Bernard O'Byrne to inquire as to whether Gerard Houllier might be interested in taking up a similar role here.

Kerr and Houllier had become fast friends, personally and professionally, on the international circuit and the suggestion seemed to be that the Frenchman might be an ideal fit.

Kerr mentioned the idea to the former France and Liverpool manager when they next met and, although the proposal was greeted warmly, the ultimate refusal said much about how other countries perceived themselves compared to how Ireland did so.

"You should have people from your own culture doing your own thing," Houllier told him. "Your own culture are the best people to know what to do in terms of football development."

An accident of fate rather than any masterful design has, once more, opened up the potential for Irish football to renew attempts to forge a culture and identity that it has been so suspicious of in the past.

It's own.

But it must do so by presenting a united front.

Burden

And, after a week illustrated by division and conflict over whether Irish football has a future at all, rather than merely a short-term sprint to the next qualification bonanza followed, inevitably, by a return to failure, Stephen Kenny will shoulder much of that burden, but not all of it.

There was an interesting moment away from the cameras during his unveiling yesterday when somebody, innocently one suspects, wondered whether he envisioned an all-Ireland soccer team.

"That is not a question for now," interjected the press officer politely. Indeed. Uniting this part of the island is enough to be getting on with now.

There still remains a suspicion of Kenny's credentials; the lack of playing and managerial experience - in England, natch - his failure in Scottish club management and, to a lesser extent, at one Irish club.

It is a suspicion predicated upon a failure of imagination, an admission that the way things have always been done will remain sufficient unto the next match to be won, without any sense of foresight of planning for when the next match isn't won.

And it is a suspicion which heightens divisions between those whose devotion to Irish football can often be radicalised to nationalist extremes and those whose world-view encompasses a perfect week as a victory for their national side as well as their preferred Premier League outfit.

The twain very rarely meet and Irish football is riddled with the consequences, from Jack Charlton storming an Elland Road dressing-room to the subsequent sundering of the most successful youth development programme at the turn of this century.

The claims advanced by both Kenny and Mick McCarthy offered a referendum of sorts on the future of Irish football; in their wisdom, accidentally perhaps, the FAI decided to tick both boxes at once.

Let us be clear; this is not a pathway being carefully paved by the FAI, rather it appears as if a lorryload of cement has been dumped in their driveway overnight and they are doing their best to smooth it over.

It may still prove a genius move but the commitment of everyone will test its validity; Kenny's sincerity will not be questioned but, as he beavers away in the background, the biggest challenge he will face, even before assuming the reins in 2020, will be to unite everyone behind him.

"This has been the case for a long time," he says of the disconnect that exists in Irish football.

"I'm comfortable with all of that. It's not League of Ireland versus non League of Ireland, it has nothing to do with that.

"Even at Dundalk we were getting letters from grassroots all over the country in relation to how we were playing and people could relate to that. People with nothing to do with the league.

"Schoolboy clubs and managers saying the way your team plays is the way we want to teach our kids to play. That's the way we relate to it. From that point of view there was a groundswell of support from people of all levels.

"I understand people having reservations as well, that's their viewpoint. That is democratic thinking. That is life. But I do think there is a sort of shared vision.

"It will not be instigating revolution in football, the current thinking is there and aligns with the way I think and Ruud Dokter (the current FAI High Performance Director).

"We think very similarly on the composition of teams and the way they should be set up. Hopefully that will eventually be a proper long-term vision.

"You should be able to show the first team how they play and then show that to the 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s and say 'that is how I want you to play'. That is the way I see it as well."

Kenny has often been critical of the umbilical cord to England that continues to be the primary port of call for all our thinking, numbing attempts to develop an indigenous culture.

He speaks of even English players now choosing to go to the continent, wondering if Irish players might do the same. A significant transformation in philosophy is required.

It may represent his life's work but the new job has over-whelmed others; the last two Dublin-based managers have experienced the often sordid downsides to shouldering such a burden

"Maybe I should live in Italy," he smiles, referencing the distant Giovanni Trapattoni, "or walk the empty beaches in Inishowen.

"I suppose I have a lot to learn in that regard, try and live your life as best you can. I understand it won't be the same, I do understand that."

The hope will be that everyone else does, too.

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