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Ken Early: Ireland are still getting better despite bad results

Manager’s forced positivity makes him sound more embattled than he is

Before Uefa invented the Nations League, Ireland were generally involved in three types of games. There were the qualifiers against the higher seeds in the group, when you were delighted if you didn’t lose. There were the qualifiers against the lower seeds, when you were angry if you didn’t win, and there were friendlies, which didn’t matter either way.

The Nations League pits you against teams who are roughly around your level. You should be good enough to beat them, but they should be good enough to beat you too - and the element of promotion and relegation brings a competitive edge that wasn’t there in the old-school friendlies. Rather than the usual sieges and turkey-shoots, we’re getting a lot of even, open games that can go either way.

On Saturday night at Hampden Park, Ireland lost a fast and furious game by the odd goal after missing a big chance and giving away a silly penalty. Scotland thus preserved their unbeaten home record in the Nations League: with no defeats in eight matches, they are one of only two teams who have yet to lose at home, along with Italy.

If you know international football you might be surprised that Scotland and Italy are the only teams who have been able to pull this off. Eight unbeaten at home is nothing special in the international game. For comparison, Spain have never lost at home in 89 years of World Cup qualifiers: 62 matches, zero defeats. Yet they lost at home on Saturday to Switzerland, making it two home defeats in eight in the Nations League.


The more even level has made results unpredictable. Look at England, who have lately become an unstoppable juggernaut in World Cup qualifying. They’ve lost just one of their last 40 World Cup qualifiers: and that 1-0 defeat in Ukraine came after they had already qualified for the 2010 tournament. These 40 matches have seen them score 122 goals and concede just 16.

But in the Nations League England have lost seven out of 17 matches, with three of those defeats coming this year alone, resulting in their surprise relegation to the second tier - which was referred to once or twice by the crowd at Hampden.

An even more striking example is that Germany have already lost more matches in the Nations League than they have lost in their entire history of World Cup qualifying. They’ve had four defeats in 15 Nations League matches since 2018, compared to three defeats in 104 World Cup qualifiers stretching back to 1933.

In World Cup qualifiers, with their hierarchically seeded groups, teams like England and Germany can turn up, play badly and still win 5-0. But if they are a little bit off their best in the Nations League, they can get humiliated.

The point is that the Nations League is a little bit different from what we have been used to in international football, and if you focus too closely on results you will quickly end up concluding that all the coaches are useless and should be sacked. It’s a football truism that results are everything, but it’s more accurate to say that the direction is everything. What really matters is the sense of whether things are getting better - or worse. Results are part of it but they are not the whole story.

Think back to the spring of 2021, when football’s number one results-are-everything guy, Jose Mourinho, was managing Tottenham, while Mikel Arteta was at Arsenal. Spurs finished ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League that season - that is, Mourinho had better results. Yet it was Mourinho who was sacked towards the end of that season, while Arteta’s side now sits top of the Premier League. The reason is that it was clear Arteta was building a new team with potential, while Mourinho’s team was going nowhere. The direction is more than just results.

Which brings us back to Ireland. Despite their bad results in this year’s Nations League, they are still getting better. (Even if you judge it only in terms of results, they are getting better. It helps to start from such a low base: Ireland got just two points in their first Nations League group, three in their second, and currently sit on four with the chance to finish on seven).

There’s a bigger picture here. Ireland used seven players aged 23 or younger on Saturday night. In the entire 10-match Euro 2020 qualifying campaign under Mick McCarthy, the only under-23 player who featured was Aaron Connolly, who played a total of 80 minutes.

It was this, rather than bad results alone, that created such a sense of doom around the late McCarthy period. It wasn’t just that Ireland were losing, it was that they were losing with a midfield anchored by 35-year-old Glenn Whelan, whom McCarthy preferred to recall rather than use a young player like Josh Cullen. There was no sense of a future.

Stephen Kenny has been selling us the future for two years now and it’s natural to wonder whether this future is ever actually going to arrive, or whether it will forever recede before us as we slog through an unchanging present of hard-luck stories and coulda-woulda-shouldas.

Equally, though, let’s not forget where we’ve come from. Martin O’Neill on Premier Sports suggested Kenny had a “selective memory” about his team’s results. O’Neill is right that it’s important to remember the past if you want to understand the present. Anyone who remembers the last time Ireland played competitively in Scotland - the 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park in November 2014 - knows that the level of Saturday’s game was much higher: faster, more technical. The 2022 game featured nearly 200 more passes. Three quarters of them came from Scotland, who are further along in their process of improvement than Ireland are right now. But it’s clear that both teams have been going in the right direction.

That’s not to say there was nothing to criticise. Kenny’s decision to take off Michael Obafemi after 60 minutes looked a mistake. Obafemi had shown flashes of brilliance and just minutes earlier he had charged the length of the field to set up Troy Parrott’s miss, so he didn’t seem to be running out of energy. Kenny explained that he felt Chiedozie Ogbene could make an impact on the game, which was reasonable - but the player to take off was not Obafemi, who already was making an impact on the game, but Parrott. In hindsight Alan Browne might have been a better option at right wing-back than Matt Doherty, who was making his first competitive start in nearly six months.

Kenny could also do with sounding a bit less defensive. Before the game he had repeated familiar talking points about the Irish public identifying with the style of play and connecting with the team. If this is true - and the mood of the Irish fans at Hampden suggests it is - then he shouldn’t have to keep saying it. The fact the FAI have sold 44,000 tickets for the Armenia game speaks for itself, so there’s no need for Kenny to keep mentioning it as though he was pitching for a new contract, when he just signed a new one six months ago. The post-match interview immediately after a defeat is not the time to be talking up the ticket sales. Forced positivity makes Kenny sound more embattled than he really is.

That he feels the need to constantly restate his case reveals that for all his outward emphasis on the longer-term, he’s feeling the pressure of these results. The Armenia game is now a pivotal moment for the team. Kenny’s declared aim at the beginning of the campaign was to win the group. If Ireland end up getting relegated instead then the narrative of improvement collapses, the sense of progress evaporates, and much of Kenny’s credibility vanishes with it. Now is the time for the players to show they really are as good as he’s been saying they are.