Of gnashing and keening there was plenty in the Republic of Ireland. That is compulsory after a home defeat by Luxembourg, even while magnanimously acknowledging the strides made in recent years by the team from that exalted business park. If you felt like punishing the Irish for their feeble performance on Saturday, then you might have ordered them to carry out some undignified and thankless chore, such as going to Hungary to play a friendly against Qatar. Which, as it happens, is what Stephen Kenny and his players must do. Qatar’s last match, for the record, was a victory over Luxembourg.
Things, then, could be about to get worse for Ireland, especially as Kenny has lost yet more players – Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens – to injury before Tuesday’s game. All of which invites one question: so what?
A good case could be made for sacking Kenny right now. The gist of that case is: played 10, won zero, scored just three bleeding goals. With a record like that, one had to admire Kenny for declaring on Monday: “I want to build a team that really exhilarates Irish football people. That’s it. Nothing more than that.”
At this point it would be easy to portray Kenny as deluded, a kind of Seán Quixote embarked on a vainglorious project that can only end in failure and ridicule. The key difference between a doomed fool and a triumphant leader is not so much what they believe, but what they can get others to believe. Kenny is not obviously charismatic like predecessors such as Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy or even Giovanni Trappatoni, who had a knack for rabble rousing even when speaking a unique medley of several languages, including gibberish. But in the past Kenny has led clubs to improbable heights and most of the players in his Irish squad are still convinced by his vision.
At least they say they are, especially the inexperienced ones, who are understandably enthused by a manager who tells them they could become kings and with whom they enjoyed good times at U21 level. Granted, there was little evidence of players determined to follow Kenny’s instructions last Saturday when, despite him demanding a fast start, Luxembourg began and finished as the stronger side. But there was a good reason for that, or rather a bad one: many of Ireland’s players have not been playing regularly at their clubs, because of injury or unimpressive form. “We found out that some of our players struggle to play two matches in three days,” said Kenny after the Luxembourg ignominy. He responded to criticism for not deviating from a back three, which had worked well against Serbia but jammed against Luxembourg, by saying he felt that the players needed to make any other system successful were in an even poorer state than the ones wilting on the field.
Worse, many of the Irish players who are fit play at a lower club level than Luxembourg’s top names. This is what Kenny is dealing with. He has taken over at a time when Ireland’s talent pool seems more shallow than it has been for decades and, before each of Kenny’s matches, has been drained even further by Covid-19 or injuries.
The shrinking skill stock was already apparent under the managers who came before Kenny. Three years ago, Martin O’Neill was so exasperated by the limited technique of some players, he advised them to practice doing tennis ball keepie-uppies in their gardens. His assistant, Roy Keane, resorted to alternative medicine for others, attempting to heal injuries to Jonathan Walters and Harry Arter with a concoction of exotic swearwords. McCarthy began his second coming, two years ago, with a stultifying 1-0 win over Gibraltar that could have gone either way.
Kenny has inferior, or at least less developed, players than O’Neill and McCarthy did and he has had worse luck, losing key influences before each of his matches. Yet he would be preparing for the European Championship now if Conor Hourihane had not missed a near-open goal from six yards in Slovakia in October, or if Doherty and Alan Browne had converted penalties in the shootout. The manager bears no blame for those misses. But it is just as well that Ireland did not reach the Euros because they would not have been ready to do anything other than make a powerful statement denouncing the expansion of the tournament.
All of which amounts to a negative justification for continuing to back a manager who tries to build on positives. Yes, Kenny should be given more time no matter what happens against Qatar. Let us see what he can do when he has something closer to a full squad, and when young players such as Josh Cullen, Jason Knight, Gavin Bazunu, Dara O’Shea, Aaron Connolly and Jayson Molumby have worked with him more and advanced their club careers a little.
Kenny has been mocked for his insistence that he can cultivate an exhilarating style, for a supposed lack of pragmatism. But he is not trying to recreate Brazil ‘82, just to get players to pass and move with speed and precision, as they have done in spells during his reign. Maybe they are not capable of that regularly. But it is surely better to give him more opportunity to fulfil that ambition than to ditch him and hire a manager who will aim to scrounge 1-0 wins from set-pieces, especially as Ireland no longer look particularly well resourced to succeed that way, either.