Ireland vs Armenia - Collins’ maturity distracts from questions on Kenny’s record

Having made up with Jack Grealish, the Wolves defender was outstanding in Hampden Park

Nations League – B Division, Group 1: Republic of Ireland v Armenia, Aviva stadium, Tuesday September 27th, 7.45pm kick-off, live on RTÉ Two

Many moons from now, football historians might label this eve of match gathering as the “What Is Tempo?” affair. But only if Ireland somehow manage to lose to 92nd ranked Armenia, again, in their final Nations League match.

“What is the definition of tempo?” Stephen Kenny asked the Lansdowne Inquisition. “It’s such a word used, isn’t it? What does it mean? What is it? Does it just mean to get it forward, quicker?

“In my book it doesn’t but we need to move the ball quicker than we did in the away game, for sure. Our passing needs to be crisper and we need to penetrate in a more progressive way than we did in Armenia.”


Mercifully, Wolverhampton Wanderer Nathan Collins took the focus off Kenny’s record by sounding every inch like a future Ireland captain. The 21-year-old belied his tender age with an authoritative, plain-speaking assessment of the team’s current state. Collins even churned the gossip machine. But before Collins took us into the underbelly of Molineux, where he kissed and made up with Jack Grealish, Kenny was forced to eyeball the same old questions about the same old failings.

The manager has endeavoured to provide fresher versions of the same message over these past 18 months, but 11 defeats from 27 matches makes it increasingly difficult to emphasise incremental improvement by this young Irish group. The average age against Scotland was 24.4, and that’s including James McClean (33) and Matt Doherty (30).

At the current rate of progress, Kenny is building a team to peak at Euro ‘28. Results demand a dramatic upturn for the 50-year-old to remain in the job six years from now, never mind the upcoming qualification campaign to reach the European Championships in Germany.

“I’m certainly not getting into a debate now on overall where we are,” Kenny sensibly replied, before fuelling said debate. “If you’re asking what progress we’ve made I suppose the fact we’ve integrated 16 players, giving them their competitive debuts in the last 18 months, into a team at the end of its cycle that needed to be reinvigorated.

“Plus, we had these talented young players coming through so the timing was good for that and the players have come through and got a lot of experience and played some terrific stuff consistently.”

The last part is plainly not true. Ireland have lost three of their five Nations League games this year after drawing with Belgium’s reserves before Troy Parrott’s 97th minute screamer saw off Lithuania in March.

“I thought on Saturday, I know we lost the game [to Scotland at Hampden Park], but we did a lot of things right. It was a very strong performance.

“We can see the emergence of players and that’s been critical for us as a nation, critical as for us as a team. You can see players that are only going to get better, that are on an upward curve in their careers and they will only improve when they get into the European Championship qualifiers from March to November next year.

“In a year’s time they will be even better, you can see that and that’s by design. We know there are areas we can improve, we are not naive to suggest that isn’t the case.”

What can be guaranteed, regardless of Tuesday’s B Division relegation play-off, is a third seeding for the Euro ‘24 qualification draw in Frankfurt on October 9th. The same goes for Armenia, Slovakia and Romania while England and France as second seeds is offset by Denmark, Hungary and Poland earning top tier status, thanks to their Nations League results.

Because, in case anyone has forgotten, football is a results business.

“We’re going to get better,” Kenny added. “We’re going to turn this place into a real fortress.”

Armenia stumble into Dublin, with Spanish coach Joaquín Caparrós all but sacked after Ukraine’s 5-0 win in Yerevan, the same venue where Ireland lost 1-0 in June. Varazdat Haroyan and Eduard Spertsyan - the Russian-born attacking midfielder who scored the winner at the Republican Stadium by stepping inside Jeff Hendrick and firing past Caoimhín Kelleher - both return from suspension.

Hendrick could prove the only change from Hampden, as Josh Cullen is suspended, although Kenny must be considering a first competitive start for Robbie Brady since November 2020.

Change to the young strike partnership could shatter their already fragile confidence as Troy Parrott, who missed a sitter in Glasgow, and Michael Obafemi deserving another run together.

Up in the press gallery, where the quote is still king, all we really wanted was juicy information about the aftermath of Collins karate-kicking Grealish.

“It was a mistimed tackle,” Collins replied. “I said it to Jack after the game. ‘I didn’t mean to go for you, there was nothing malicious in it.’ He said ‘Yes, it’s not a problem, I didn’t think you did’. It was sound and we just chatted it out, nothing serious and we were both on good terms.

“That was it. It happens. Mistimed tackle, red card. Got to get on with life. If I’ve a long career, you’ll have ups and downs. I’ve come into camp. All the lads were great. Seamie [Coleman] was a good help, Macker (James McClean) was a good help.”

Collins, one of the last surviving Irishmen thriving at a Premier League club, was outstanding against Scotland.

“Taking responsibility is something that I’ve always had in myself. So I don’t have a problem doing that. I don’t have a problem in leading a side. I want to be challenged and it’s another challenge and another thing to add to my game if I can. So I’m enjoying it really.”

The Captain Fantastic moniker is due a reboot.

Ireland (possible): Bazunu (Southampton); O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Egan (Sheffield United), Collins (Wolves); Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Hendrick (Reading), Knight (Derby County), Brady (Preston North End); Obafemi (Swansea City), Parrott (Preston North End).

Referee: Rade Obrenovič (Slovenia)

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent