Éamon Zayed: Stephen Kenny needs to be more forward with Ireland coaching
Having specialised coaches for strikers is something that Ireland can really run with
Stephen Kenny: given the time and resources he needs, he can succeed as Ireland manager. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Having had to sit a shortened USL season with Chattanooga out after fracturing a bone in my back, I was watching more football than ever, and frustration levels weren’t helped by taking in the Ireland games. I worked with Stephen Kenny at Derry City and believe that given the time and resources he needs, he can succeed as Ireland manager. The start the team has made obviously has not helped, though.
The appointment of Dean Kiely looks to be a good move, but I had heard good things about Damien Duff as a coach and replacing him will be an important decision for Kenny. However, I would really like to see the manager and his employers go further by adding a specialist forward coach to the set-up.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood why specialist coaching for strikers isn’t a much bigger thing in football – but it is a coming thing, I’m confident of that.
Having coaches in to specifically work with your goalkeepers is taken for granted, a convention that has developed over the course of nearly 50 years. I get that: preventing goals changes games, wins them. Scoring them at the other end, though, does precisely the same. Yet few clubs have coaches whose sole role is to help the strikers score more.
Liverpool famously have one who works on throw-ins, so the whole specialisation thing is clearly catching on. But, at most clubs, certainly the ones I’ve been at, there might be a bit of extra work done with individuals just before or after training, but attacking play is practised for the most part as part of the wider training and preparation. That’s not what I am talking about.
I’d point instead to Allan Russell’s role with England. Russell is a Scot, a former player, who looked at the way sport in America took specialisation to the next level and felt that much the same approach could be applied to soccer.
Before the 2018 World Cup, Gareth Southgate brought him into the England set-up and he earned a lot of praise for his work around that tournament, especially on set pieces. Okay, England didn’t go home as winners but they scored 12 goals, including one against Panama, an elaborate free-kick routine involving five players that was widely credited to the Scot, and the team was dramatically improved at corners.
Harry Kane, who won the Golden Boot at the tournament, was enthusiastic, saying that Russell helped him to exploit weaknesses in opponents and found other ways of giving him an edge. If there’s any more of that going, Ireland could surely do with it right now.
Kenny is clearly trying to change things and in Slovakia, the key game so far, the team delivered in terms of possession and overall performance. They created chances, 13 attempts on goal in a big away game, but clearly one or more of those should have been scored, and because none was, Ireland ultimately lost the game on penalties.
Kenny also found himself in the position of lamenting the fact that his side hadn’t taken their chances after other games. Putting that right has to be a huge priority now.
On paper, having Robbie Keane about seems a huge head start. If someone of his stature was telling me how to score goals, I’d be listening, but there were clearly reasons Kenny passed up the opportunity to have him onboard when he took over, and there are all sorts of reasons why somebody isn’t right for a particular role at a particular moment in time.
There are other people out there, though, who can help the strikers at Kenny’s disposal to become more effective at delivering in the split seconds when it matters, working with them on getting into the area, making the right runs, capitalising on weaknesses wherever they exist and finishing. Every minute set aside would be well spent.
From what I see here in the US, the role is going to become commonplace. Given this Ireland side’s problems so far, though, Kenny and his employers could do with embracing it now.