Nations League relegation play-off with Armenia awaits Stephen Kenny’s Ireland

England and Wales set to drop down to Ireland’s tier if they survive against the side that beat them in June

A tempestuous 2023 awaits the Republic of Ireland after defeat to Steve Clarke’s ebullient Scotland at Hampden Park guarantees a third seeding come the Euro 2024 draw in Frankfurt on October 9th.

Stock-take. It took a Roy Keane-inspired World Cup qualification campaign to drag Ireland past Holland and Portugal in 2002 and secure their highest ever Fifa ranking of sixth. The lowest drop was 70th in the world under Martin O’Neill in 2014.

Stephen Kenny’s slow-burning revival of Irish football currently leaves them 47th, sandwiched between Mali and Qatar. The best they can currently muster is to give countries with established football industries a “run for their money,” as Matt Doherty noted last week.

Momentum from June has disappeared, only patience and the faithful remain. Green is orange and orange is green. Even legendary Ireland midfielder Liam Brady has shape-shifted from unforgiving critic to Kenny’s supporter-in-chief.


“I think we’re going in the right direction,” said Brady on RTÉ after Scotland’s 2-1 victory forced a Nations League B to C relegation play-off against Armenia on Tuesday at the Aviva Stadium. “I had my doubts but I think the team is growing underneath him.”

High praise and much needed as Ireland suffered an eleventh defeat from 27 matches underneath Kenny – six wins and 10 draws too. The management, still without a senior coach, appeared to dither when Scotland launched their Tet Offensive in the second-half to cancel John Egan’s early goal.

Some Kenny excuses must be wearing thin on his primary backers, FAI chairman Roy Barrett and Irish fans down the Lansdowne Road end of the Aviva, as the manager claimed Swiss referee Sandro Schärer and VAR both missed a foul on Alan Browne before the handball that led to Ryan Christie’s 83rd minute spot-kick.

“It seems that Alan Browne has been pushed by a Scottish player that has resulted in him raising his hands into an unnatural position,” Kenny claimed. “It is very congested but it seems that is the case.”

Amidst the congestion it could also be argued that the falling Scottish player was shoved by Egan.

Regarding the October 2021 claim that Ireland intends to win this group, before the opposition was known, Kenny explained away three defeats in the last five matches, including a humiliating collapse to Armenia in Yerevan, by doubling down on the crop of under-21s he managed in 2019 before replacing Mick McCarthy.

“Ukraine and Scotland are very strong. It was a tough group. We would have wanted more points than we have, we’re not denying that.

“Listen, now is not the time for that. We just got to focus on Tuesday and make sure we are ready for Armenia.”

Troy Parrott was the primary player Kenny needed to defend following his 56th failure to beat Scottish goalkeeper Craig Gordon after a sumptuous pass by strike partner Michael Obafemi prompted the Swansea forward to start celebrating before Parrot’s tame shot.

“Troy knows he should have scored but he’s been absolutely brilliant for us. His finish for the offside goal was brilliant.”

Parrott’s early strike did showcase the Dubliner’s rare ability, despite a run of no goals from 10 starts in the Championship for Preston North End, having been loaned out by Tottenham Hotspur.

“He is only 20 years of age and has scored four goals already for Ireland. He’s improving. With strikers the [goals] sometimes come in clusters and he’s obviously having a spell of not scoring over the last few weeks, but he still played well and even though he didn’t score, he contributed to a lot of elements of the team.”

A cluster of Irish strikers are coming. See 17-year-old Evan Ferguson’s towering header to secure a draw in Friday’s under-21 Euros play-off against Israel. Aaron Connolly was electric at Tallaght stadium despite being demoted from the senior panel and loaned away from Premier League club Brighton to Venezia FC in Serie B.

The most impressive attacker of them all this weekend was Obafemi, which meant Kenny had to explain why the 22-year-old was replaced by Chiedozie Ogbene four minutes after Parrott’s miss.

“Obviously Michael has not played in the last two weeks, so to play an hour, he did fine but we felt Chiedozie would be a good impact,” Kenny replied. “Initially he did but we probably didn’t get the service to him after that.”

That was the game in microcosm; Scotland’s Premier League midfielders John McGinn (Aston Villa) and Scott McTominay (Manchester United) eventually eclipsed the all-action resistance presented by Jayson Molumby and Josh Cullen, who was booked and is suspended for Tuesday.

Perspective is needed now. Scotland see the result as a realignment of the balance of power in this part of ‘Europe,’ as a draw with Ukraine in Krákow will secure promotion to the top tier of the Nations League just as England and Wales sink down to Ireland’s level.

That’s presuming this wildly inconsistent Irish squad can get the job done against Armenia.

“We were really consistent up to the summer,” said Egan. “We’d not lost a lot of games, we had two defeats [to Armenia and Ukraine] in the Nations League but had two good performances after that, Saturday we lost the game to a tough decision but we performed well enough to get the draw.”

The penalty being framed as a tough decision is the perspective from inside the Irish camp.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent