Here we go, then. France in the Aviva on Monday night. All extraneous noises fall away, all ifs and buts and maybes fizzle out to nothing. Three years to the week since Stephen Kenny became Ireland manager, we finally get to the start line for a normal, straight-up, bog-standard qualifying campaign. It’s been a while coming.
This isn’t the harum-scarum early days of Kenny’s reign, with all the pandemic constraints and the false Covid positives and whatever else. It isn’t the World Cup qualifiers played out in surreal silence when people still couldn’t come to some of the games. It isn’t the Nations League, it isn’t another friendly. It’s 10 matches in eight months and Ireland will or Ireland will not. No in-between.
Though the draw has been brutal it does at least have a clarifying simplicity to it. Very often with an Ireland soccer manager there’s enough of a grey area for the soccer culture war armies to fight over. Whether or not an Ireland team have broken par can often be a matter of opinion. That’s not really the case this time around.
Instead the next few months of Kenny’s reign have a fairly vulgar straightforwardness to them. The pass mark is very specific. Nobody expects Ireland to finish above either France or the Netherlands. Nobody will abide them finishing below Greece or Gibraltar. Anything better than third is a success. Anything worse is a failure. No gerrymandering, no juking the stats. Do it or don’t.
When the imperative is that clear-cut it significantly reduces the space for the “yeah, but” method of supporting the Ireland boss. There have been occasions throughout Kenny’s 31 games in charge that plenty of us reacted to bad nights by reaching for it. Yeah, but at least they’re trying to play decent football. Yeah, but at least he’s bringing through the next generation. Yeah, but look where they’re all playing their club football.
None of that is going to wash over the coming months. Ireland do try to play a more modern sort of game than in times past, we can all see that. But they’ve won just nine of Kenny’s 31 games. For comparison, Brian Kerr’s teams won 17 of his first 31. True, those teams often had Roy and Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and John O’Shea in them but even so. Three years into any Ireland manager’s reign, only results butter parsnips.
And anyway, there’s not as much “yeah, but” to fall back on these days. Kenny’s achievements in building the foundations of the next Ireland team are clear and obvious. The side that faces France on Monday will be predominantly made up of players whose careers are on an upswing. They’ll be mostly either Premier League players or ones who are likely to be headed for the top flight next season.
They’ll also be, a few notables aside, players who are in their early 20s. Or, in the case of Evan Ferguson, even younger. The average age of the team that took the pitch against Latvia on Wednesday was 23.5. That’s a full five years younger than the average age of the teams who played in the qualifying campaign for the last World Cup.
All of this is good. All of it is the work of the first three years. But all of it amounts to is a dutiful and diligent assembling of the means, not an attainment of the end. Any rational and fair analysis of Kenny’s time in the gig has to give him credit for putting it all in place. But now that it’s done his Ireland teams have to produce.
That obviously doesn’t mean giving Kylian Mbappé et ses amis the runaround on Monday night. France have handed better teams than Ireland a thrashing here and then and they will do so again. It’s hard to imagine Ireland will be shamed by the outcome however bad it is.
But what it does mean is going to Greece in June and either winning or at the very least not losing. They are who we are. Nobody’s idea of a fun side to play against, no world stars. Part of European football’s social climbing class. The sort of country Ireland need to start beating regularly if there’s going to be progress.
And that’s all anyone is looking for. It’s fascinating being around the Ireland rugby team these days and feeling the electricity of expectation around them. There’s such a frisson of excitement in seeing an Irish team deal with the dawning reality that they are good enough to win a World Cup. It’s a unique moment in our sporting history.
Nobody places that level of expectation on the soccer team. Nobody sane anyway. That’s why it’s always so bewildering when a below-par Ireland display sounds the outrage air raid sirens. It always puts me in mind of Basil Fawlty asking Mrs Richards what she expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window. Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon?
We are a country that has failed to address soccer in any meaningful, coherent way for generations. A country that has farmed out the development of its best young talent to England forever and is only now, thanks to Brexit, being forced to tackle the job properly ourselves. We have no right to expect anything mega or marvellous from the Ireland soccer team – and in the main we don’t.
But we like to have a bit of hope. A growing sense that if the planets align and the balls go to feet and not every opposition shot from 30 yards goes whistling into the top corner, we might knock a bit of enjoyment out of the whole thing. Bloody the noses of one of the big guns every once in a while and we’re happy enough. It’s not a lot to ask.
And so we go again.