Same old emotions and same old results for Kenny’s winless Ireland

Serbia can mathematically end hopes of reaching World Cup on Tuesday

What started so brightly, ended miserably. The usual gamut of emotions then for Stephen Kenny who had a 'pinch me, I'm dreaming' smile as Amhrán na bhFiann marched his Ireland team into a must-win World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan.

Emin Makhmudov’s first-half strike meant the night descended into another must-not-lose affair as Shane Duffy’s 87th minute header allowed Kenny’s team to settle for a sixth draw from 15 outings as the debate rages about this being a period of deep renewal or simply a manager struggling for oxygen at international altitude.

With Seamus Coleman’s ankle ruling the Ireland captain out of tomorrow’s match against Serbia, and following their resounding 4-1 victory over Luxembourg in Belgrade, Kenny was asked the most difficult questions of his 23 years as a professional coach. His answers were honest, but carried as much weight as the results that refuse to enhance his managerial reputation.

The intent in Ireland's opening 15 minutes, following last Wednesday's heartening 2-1 defeat in Portugal, provided a glimpse towards a brighter future but the chances that fell to Matt Doherty, Séamus Coleman, the stalled Aaron Connolly project and later Adam Idah, all missed the target.


Kenny named a side with three young men employed by their English clubs to score goals, but this contest showed why Spurs have loaned 19-year-old Troy Parrott to MK Dons while Connolly and Idah are benched at Brighton and Norwich City.

The team had lost its way by the 23rd minute as Namik Alaskarov cut in from the left for a second shot on goal. Twice Ireland’s teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu covered the blushes of his skipper as Coleman gave a performance that needs instant forgiveness.

With Parrott anonymous in a clogged attack, as Connolly and James McClean competed to be the most headless in possession, and midfielders Josh Cullen and Jayson Molumby struggled to impose themselves, Kenny's formation comes under stern review.

“If you create the number of chances we did you can’t blame it on the formation,” he protested. “Troy did ok in the game, Aaron couldn’t get to the levels he was at the other night.”

Kenny replaced Connolly with a sprightly Daryl Horgan at half-time, while Parrott made way for Callum Robinson around the hour mark, as the hunt for an equaliser became increasingly desperate.

“I wouldn’t be critical of any of the players,” said Kenny. “We had a lot of experience in the team.”

Former internationals are now circling the Irish manager - that comes with the gig - but the most stinging criticism comes from Brian Kerr, who 16 years ago walked in Kenny’s shoes.

“When you put the five players we had in the forward positions in the team with where they are in their club and international careers, you are risking what happened tonight and against Luxembourg,” said Kerr on Virgin Media.

This also indicates that Kenny is damned if he does promote the next generation en bloc and damned if he does not. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again’ was the general gist of the post-match interview.

“It is probably a game we deserved to win three or four-one,” said Kenny, who seeks to avoid a ninth defeat against Serbia tomorrow. “We created a lot of chances on the day and it was a game we deserved to win but just didn’t win.”

As Clint Eastwood reminded Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, deserve has got nothing to do with it.

The Serbs can mathematically end Ireland’s chances of reaching next year’s winter World Cup after just five qualifier matches. It is highly unlikely that Dragan Stojkovic’s side will slip up in Dublin as they go point for point with Portugal to avoid an extremely challenging play-off path to Qatar.

After this latest low on Lansdowne Road, Kenny was asked if he is primed for the battle ahead. Can you still turn this around or must you accept that your time at the helm is not working out?

“I certainly do not accept that,” he replied. “Absolutely not. We were absolutely exceptional against Portugal, we played very well against Hungary, in the previous game we scored four goals [while also conceding one to Andorra], the previous game against Qatar we played well, obviously we had a poor game against Luxembourg and the previous game against Serbia was excellent.

“So, a lot of the recent performances have been very, very good but we got to turn performances into results.

“Today, if we win 2-1 we are having a different conversation so we are kicking ourselves that we haven’t won that game.”

Only one way to change this conversation.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent