The definition of sanity, Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny might say, is to identify and avoid previous mistakes.
On that note, the Republic of Ireland manager has done everything within his considerable control to address the errors made 12 months ago, ahead of a pivotal European Championship qualifier against Greece on June 16th.
If Ireland lose in Athens, mercifully, a 9.45pm kick-off, Kenny’s team will have failed to register a single point from two opening matches across three competitive campaigns.
Defeats in Serbia and at home to Luxembourg in 2021 ruined any chance of reaching the World Cup in Qatar. This situation reoccurred last year when Irish efforts to top their Nations League group were ruined by embarrassing losses in Armenia and home to Ukraine reserves.
Then, last March, a strike by French full back Benjamin Pavard dampened an electric atmosphere inside the Aviva stadium, automatically making Greece the acid test for an Ireland management that recently added John O’Shea as coach alongside fellow ex-internationals Keith Andrews and Dean Kiely.
The main lesson from summers past is the need to recondition the majority of a 25-man squad that has been inactive since the EFL Championship ended on May 8th. Hence last week’s four-day camp in Bristol.
“The two teams that got promoted, Sheffield United and Burnley, had their tour bus in the city, all the celebrations and then they brought them to Las Vegas for five days,” said Kenny, clearly bemused by the multilayered celebrations of incoming Premier League squads that include key Irish performers in Josh Cullen, John Egan and Michael Obafemi. “We got them back to reality by coming to Bristol and getting them refocused.”
The squad flies to Antalya in Turkey on Monday for nine days warm weather preparation but an uncapped friendly has been abandoned. The Kyrgyzstan under-23s were offered but Kenny is happy to “have a proper [internal] match with gear and referees and linesmen”.
The likes of Matt Doherty, Nathan Collins and Gavin Bazunu genuinely need a game. All three were unable to command regular starts in the second part of the Premier League and La Liga season. Despite clocking just 16 minutes of pitch time for Atlético Madrid since January, Doherty looks certain to start against Greece as Séamus Coleman’s chances of reclaiming the captaincy come September matches against France and the Netherlands have receded.
“It wasn’t a good injury at all,” said Kenny of Coleman’s ugly collision with Boubakary Soumaré last month. “The good thing is it wasn’t a cruciate. It looked a lot worse, but still it was a severe injury and whether he is available or not for September, I wouldn’t be sure.”
Alternatives to Doherty at right wing back are Mark Sykes, Jason Knight and Alan Browne, although the Preston skipper has a medial ligament issue.
Based on previous Kenny utterances, Callum O’Dowda will play left wing back in Athens. James McClean is the alternative, as the 34-year-old can earn caps number 99 and 100 off the bench, with Gibraltar coming to Dublin on June 19th.
Ryan Manning was excused for personal reasons this month so former Shamrock Rovers defender Liam Scales was recalled ahead of Robbie Brady.
The centre-half trio of Nathan Collins, John Egan and Dara O’Shea, despite the West Brom skipper playing no football since damaging his knee against France, will remain intact after Andrew Omobamidele underwent a hernia operation and Shane Duffy failed to make any impact at Fulham.
The inactivity of goalkeepers Caoimhín Kelleher and Mark Travers ensures that Gavin Bazunu’s place is safe despite the 21-year-old slipping behind Alex McCarthy as Southampton sunk out of the Premier League.
Kenny confirmed that Kelleher intends to leave Liverpool this summer, to advance his club and international career, after the 24-year-old played just three matches this season, conceding seven goals.
“Caoimhín has been starved of games,” said Kenny. “He is very, very talented. It is hard to leave Liverpool, such an iconic club, but he’s 24 now and needs to play. He’s behind one of the best goalkeepers in the world [Allison] so it is not going to get any easier. You can’t improve if you are not playing. He’s known that for a while.”
The composition of the Republic’s midfield is a clash of styles, Jason Knight or Will Smallbone, to fit alongside Josh Cullen and Jayson Molumby. But the real loss is Chiedozie Ogbene.
A torn hamstring denies the winger an opportunity to repeat his outstanding display against France with Kenny admitting that a right-footed player in possession of Ogbene’s athleticism and versatility is unavailable.
Fear not, Evan Ferguson is primed to take centre stage, having helped Brighton qualify for European football in his breakthrough season, as the other Irish centre forwards — Obafemi, Troy Parrott and Adam Idah — are lucky that the rise of Everton’s Tom Cannon has been slowed by tonsilitis.
Republic of Ireland squad for Greece and Gibraltar
Goalkeepers: Gavin Bazunu (Southampton), Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).
Defenders: Matt Doherty (Atlético Madrid), Mark Sykes (Bristol City), Callum O’Dowda (Cardiff City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Nathan Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers), John Egan (Sheffield United), Dara O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Darragh Lenihan (Middlesbrough), Liam Scales (Celtic).
Midfielders: Josh Cullen (Burnley), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Jeff Hendrick (Reading), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Will Smallbone (Southampton), Jason Knight (Derby County), Jamie McGrath (Wigan Athletic), Jack Taylor (Peterborough United).
Forwards: Adam Idah (Norwich City), Michael Obafemi (Burnley), Evan Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur), Mikey Johnston (Vitória de Guimarães, on loan from Celtic).
Uefa Euro 2024 qualifying fixtures
June 16th: Greece vs Ireland, OPAP Arena, 7.45pm (21.45pm local time); June 19th, Ireland vs Gibraltar, Aviva Stadium, 7.45pm.