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Keith Duggan: Kenny shows there’s more to Republic of Ireland side than results

Manager’s vision popular with many, but scrutiny is sure to intensify

“He inherited a wasteland,” Eamon Dunphy said recently as he presented the desolate state of Irish football as handed to the current Irish manager Stephen Kenny.

It feels longer than just three years since Dunphy left RTÉ, ending a 40-year association during which he was the most distinctive voice in a hugely influential Greek chorus for Ireland’s national football team.

Always a restless soul, there was little danger of his taking to the golf course and fading out. Instead, he ran with the new crowd, set up an indie podcast and is now producing arguably the best broadcast journalism of his career.

Liberated from the obligation to act as provocateur-in-chief out in Montrose, the show reflects a burning curiosity about the world which has always been Dunphy’s calling card and features punchy economic and political broadcasts with bright, lively contributors.


When it comes to football though, Dunphy couldn’t quite resist the temptation to get the band back together and he hosts regular dispatches with his former RTÉ comrades, Liam Brady and John Giles.

For those of us who remember the trio in their pomp, dominating Ireland’s television screens during the years when the country came to a literal standstill for big Republic of Ireland games, there is something ghostly about hearing the disembodied voices in one’s headphones now.

After the Republic of Ireland lost heroically to Portugal and then dismayingly drew 1-1 with Azerbaijan in early September, the trio featured on Dunphy’s show, The Stand.

I stuck it on with trepidation, sensing that the watery home result would test the gang’s patience and there would be a call for some redoubtable cross-channel sort – a Big Sam, a Chris – to steer the ship to the dull straits of mediocrity. As it turned out, the conversation was wonderfully balanced.

Brady, who still works for RTÉ, praised the bravery of Stephen Kenny in playing Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman as wing backs against Portugal and empathised with him in having to compose a midfield from a proletariat stable he saw as “much of a muchness,” while warning that Kenny still needed to show results over the four remaining games.

Giles, still a hugely engaging and sharp communicator, warmly endorsed Kenny as a “lad” he liked and was genuine in his hope he can make a success of his role while questioning the selection policy for the Azerbaijan game. If the discussion had taken place in their old theatre of the RTÉ studio in front of a national audience, it would have had a huge bearing on popular opinion. In their day, Dunphy’s crew might have saved Kenny’s bacon.

Rare fire

Sports coverage is intense and restless. Kenny and the Ireland team have moved off-stage but the scrutiny will return again over the next two months, when they play Azerbaijan (October 9th), Qatar (October 12th), Portugal (November 11th) and Luxembourg (November 14th).

The debate over whether Kenny is a solution or the core of the problem has hardened. A significant number of former players like Richard Dunne, Clinton Morrison and Jon Walters are dismayed by what they are witnessing.

“You’ve got to get a result in international football to qualify,” Walters said on Sky Sports. “Everyone in Ireland wants us to qualify and I’m still not seeing it.”

But that may no longer be true. Kenny is an understated media performer but in a moment of rare fire, he pointed out that Ireland have not qualified for a World Cup since 2002.

“Did anyone think we were favourites?”

Richard Dunne was, at 22, one of the youngest members in Mick McCarthy’s squad for Korea and Japan in 2002 when Ireland last played at a World Cup finals. Looking at the squad now, it seems a treasure box of riches: Robbie Keane and Damien Duff; Charlton-era starlets Jason McAteer (31) and Gary Kelly (28); seasoned midfield operators Lee Carsley and Matt Holland were both 28.

Steve Staunton, who had played in the last great Liverpool championship-winning side, was then 33. And Roy Keane, who did not play in the tournament, was, at the age of 30, one of the best midfielders in Europe.

Ireland lost in the second round after a penalty shoot-out against 10-man Spain; they either could or should have made it to the last eight of the World Cup for the second time in 12 years, a stunning return for a country of five million with a semi-professional league.

The big question with Irish football is not what formation Kenny goes with over the next three games but: what happened since 2002? How has Ireland fallen away so sharply? What became of the generation of eight-year-olds who idolised Duff and Keane?

A full decade passed before Ireland would qualify for its next major tournament. That experience lay somewhere between tragedy and comedy as Ireland looked woefully out of their depth in Poland.

Spontaneous applause

Perhaps in response to that, the O’Neill and McCarthy eras were informed by an approach of austere, joyless competitiveness. Results – the bottom line that Walters and others demand – were the only objective.

Walters was a wonderful professional and modesty prevents him from pointing out the obvious; there is no Jonny Walters up front in green. There is no Richard Dunne either, let alone a Roy Keane.

And, yet, for all that, watching Ireland’s uneven performance against Serbia, when they skated on thin ice, you could hear frequent ripples of spontaneous applause from the Ireland fans in the stadium. You could hear from the crowd an appreciation of an Irish team playing with boldness and trying to pass their way through the opposition team.

Yes, it was precarious. Kenny has had a blackly comic run of bad luck but against the Serbs, he got lucky. Still, for those present, the 90 minutes of football were a blast. It was fascinating and emotionally engaging. It was hard not warm to those Irish players. Isn’t that the point of sport?

Ireland might have beaten Luxembourg and could have beaten Azerbaijan. Those wins – those results – would probably have made Kenny’s job ‘safe’. Conversely, a few bad breaks in the coming weeks – a failure to score, another agonising loss to Portugal, a mistake by a callow player – might be enough to break the FAI’s courage to persevere with this experiment in self-belief and development in an Irish team.

There’s a scenario where Kenny never leads Ireland to a major tournament but still emerges as a manager of huge significance: one who nurtures a startlingly young squad and becomes a central figure in prioritising and improving the country’s underage development.

Better scenario

There’s an even better scenario in which Ireland do qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany by playing a brand of football which football fans across the continent might actually enjoy watching.

The tempting idea that Ireland’s football culture is rich enough to every so often produce talents to make the gods swoon – football players possessed with the elusive brilliance of Giles or Brady – is just wistful thinking now. Nothing happens by accident anymore.

If Ireland is to cultivate once-in-a-generation footballers, it will be through the deliberate and rigorous process of identification and development and excellent coaching. Whether Stephen Kenny, who is immersed in Irish football culture, will get to play a major role in that remains to be seen.

But he has already shown that the story of the Republic of Ireland football team cannot be just about the result anymore. If it is, then how come what is, on paper, Ireland’s worst World Cup qualifying campaign in decades, is also the most fascinating?