When asked this week to address the Republic of Ireland squad’s glaring lack of match fitness, Stephen Kenny provided a meandering answer that glanced off a myriad of topics.
“It’s something we just have to manage, I certainly don’t want to look on anything as a negative. We’ve taken steps by bringing them to Bristol and going to Turkey [for training camps], we want to make sure we’re ready and we will be ready for the game in Greece. We want to prepare as best as we can and make sure we’re absolutely ready.
“I’ve been looking back at history and I said to Ger Dunne [the FAI’s head of performance analysis] let’s write down previous away victories when [Ireland] teams have qualified. Obviously the best one was probably Scotland [for Euro] ‘88, a famous away win, then obviously the play-off against Estonia for 2012 and in 1990, the away win was Malta.
“I know there’s been big wins in years we haven’t qualified, probably bigger wins against Wales and Austria, so it would be good to have a big away win and that’s what we’d like to have.
“Greece are ambitious themselves, they’ve got good players and a very experienced team. The two main midfield players both play at Fenerbahce, the wing backs, [Konstantinos] Tsimikas at Liverpool and [George] Baldock at Sheffield United, are very athletic and overlap. [Giorgos] Giakoumakis, the centre forward, was at Celtic last year and is in the MLS now [with Atlanta], he’s good in the air, scores headed goals off crosses. They’re 4-3-3.
“Certainly, we have to make sure we’re ready and believe in ourselves,” Kenny repeated. “I think our performances, even in the last camp, the two goals we scored against Latvia, 26 passes and 20 passes, you can see the evolution of the team doing that. Dominating possession like that and scoring goals off it is absolutely terrific, outstanding, absolutely outstanding, it really took my breath away to look back at the goals and see how good they were from the team. Really brilliant.
“Obviously we conceded goals we didn’t want to do in that match. To back that up with a strong performance against France, the players can take confidence from that, it was an epic game, we came out on the wrong side of it, so we’ve got to try and come out on the right side of this game against Greece and get the victory that we desire and we want.”
Nobody wants monosyllabic or sarcastic replies from an Ireland manager but Latvia, ranked 132nd in the world, erased a 2-0 lead before half-time, forcing the introduction of Mikey Johnston and Chiedozie Ogbene to fashion a winner. There needs to be liquid in the glass before it can be deemed half full or half empty.
Nonetheless, the European Championships qualifier in Athens on June 16th is building towards a crescendo; defeat can be billed as an indictment of the Kenny era while victory curves the manager’s redemptive arc. An 11th draw from his 33 matches in charge would maintain the status quo.
The FAI have given Kenny the sort of latitude rarely afforded to any manager, particularly in modern times.
He has been supported by the board despite two failed campaigns, partly because the funds do not exist to lure a Giovanni Trapattoni or a Martin O’Neill-type personality – otherwise known as someone on the downward slope of a fine career – now the association’s honorary life president Denis O’Brien no longer covers the seven-figure salary.
Defeat to Greece would mean that a third straight competitive campaign runs aground before the business-end of qualification. One-nil losses at home to Luxembourg in March 2021 and against an undermanned Ukraine last summer cannot be repeated, nor credibly defended.
Patterns have emerged around these results. Of the starting XI that lost to Luxembourg, only Gavin Bazunu, Matt Doherty, Josh Cullen, Jason Knight and Dara O’Shea are expected to face Greece. Granted, Séamus Coleman and Alan Browne are injured.
Skip to the June 2022 collapse, when Viktor Tsygankov’s inswinging free-kick from the right sideline bounced beyond Caoimhín Kelleher, only Knight, Cullen, Nathan Collins and John Egan remain front of house. Granted, Will Smallbone and Evan Ferguson are rapid graduates from the under-21 ranks.
Athens is not win or bust for Kenny as Ireland could still qualify for Germany 2024, even after finishing fourth in Group B behind France, the Netherlands and Greece, via a Nations League-ranked play-off. But at what cost to morale?
There is no place for Kenny’s Ireland to hide anymore, no pandemic to blame, no finger-pointing at the EFL Championship ending six weeks before the international window, because that is where multiple Irish players have been redirected to get sufficient game time to warrant being capped.
Three years into Kenny’s tenure, the 51-year-old is cognisant that results this month and in September against France and the Netherlands will define his legacy as Republic of Ireland manager. Nothing else matters.