Rare does the travelling media of a football superpower such as France depart a city such Dublin with victory secured and still offer solace for the vanquished.
Le Monde paid Stephen Kenny’s Ireland the highest of backhanded, trite compliments.
“In the folklore of the green isle, he is a small humanoid creature who specialises in the art of making shoes and counting gold coins that he keeps in a pot at the end of a rainbow,” wrote Aude Lasjaunias. “According to legend, the leprechaun also has the power to grant three wishes to whoever catches him. On Monday, March 27th, at the final whistle of Les Bleus’ second match of the Euro 2024 qualifiers, one would almost wonder if French coach Didier Deschamps has not captured one.”
In reality, Mike Maignan is the large humanoid creature who denied Ireland a famous draw by pushing Nathan Collins’ 90th-minute header to safety.
La Figaro did a better job capturing the “fabulous volcano” atmosphere inside the Aviva Stadium: “With this passion, Ireland will hang more than one nation in this group. But it will not be France.”
With this Ireland, the eye test continues to wrestle results and statistics. Kenny regularly massages the numbers, noting just five losses from 18 games since Luxembourg two years ago and ignoring the oddity of conceding 10 of their last 24 goals from outside the box, a stat worsened at the Aviva by Benjamin Pavard.
Besides a gut-wrenching 2-1 loss to Portugal in September 2021, the four defeats before France’s 1-0 win challenge the notion that Irish football has turned a corner. Nations League stumbles in Armenia, Scotland and at home to Ukraine will resonate until Kenny’s Ireland turn a heroic performance into victory or, failing that, a draw.
Reasons to be hopeful: teenager Evan Ferguson scored his first international goal against Latvia last week before an altruistic 65-minute display spent hassling French defenders. The Brighton striker is primed to spearhead Ireland’s attack well into the 2030s.
“Evan put in a huge shift and as a central striker, a physically demanding role, he was actually too honest,” said Kenny on Monday night. “He was coming deep when we didn’t need him to but for an 18-year-old he’s shown great maturity and I’m proud of his contribution. As I’ve said, it’s a tough task to be given but he did fine.”
Lingering debate around Chiedozie Ogbene starting or coming off the bench was silenced by his man-of-the-match display, which drew repeated fouls from Theo Hernández of AC Milan.
Ogbene’s performance might spark interest from Serie A or another European league, especially if Rotherham United are relegated from the EFL Championship. Same goes for Derby County midfielder Jason Knight and Matt Doherty, who showed his versatility at left wing back in a much-needed display having failed to make an impact at Atlético Madrid.
Others regressed in this international window, particularly Troy Parrott and Robbie Brady, who were both excluded from the match-day squad. At least the Ireland management will track their progress for Preston North End as club mate Tom Cannon scored on his debut for the Ireland under-21s against Iceland on Sunday.
Unfortunately, Callum O’Dowda’s reputation for being injury-prone was revived 24 hours after Kenny earmarked him to make a big impact against France. It is a longer road back for Shane Duffy, especially now the 20-year- old Andrew Omobamidele is challenging for Dara O’Shea’s place alongside John Egan and Nathan Collins.
But, overall, Ireland continue to take more from performances rather than results.
“I think it sort of reinforces the belief that they’re good enough to build, and play through midfield for attacking players, to cause a team as good as France a lot of issues,” said Kenny.
“France really didn’t sit off us. They really came at us and made it difficult. And Dara O’Shea played straight passes to Jason Knight, where he’s got one touch [before playing] it off the outside of his right foot for Matt Doherty on the run – [near] the touchline. Two or three times they did it brilliantly and got up the left side.
“The players know themselves, they can feel it in training, they feel like we’re a proper team, a good team and could give anyone a game. We gave France a game, but let’s try and beat as many teams as we can now.
“This was a brilliant week behind the scenes – probably our best week behind the scenes,” Kenny revealed. “I feel the bond is really strengthening in the group.”
The next task for Ireland is to ensure March 27th, 2023 is not filed alongside March 27th, 2021. Two vastly different 1-0 home defeats, to Luxembourg and France, will look the same on an Excel sheet if qualification for Euro 2024 falls short.
“The World Cup finalists were holding on at the end,” said Séamus Coleman, the rejuvenated skipper. “We have to make sure it’s not just turning up against big nations at home, we have to make sure that’s the standard going forward against Gibraltar and Greece.”
Ireland could finish third or fourth in Group B and still qualify for the Euros in Germany next year. Ranked 26th in the Nations League, they are almost guaranteed a play-off regardless of how results go against Greece and the Netherlands.
Next up is a trip to Athens on June 16th, mercifully a 9.45pm kick-off local time, followed by Gibraltar three days later in Dublin before seismic September qualifiers in France (venue still to be confirmed due to the Rugby World Cup) and the Netherlands at home.
The Aviva experience on Monday night, coupled with an Irish side showing bravery and organisation, will win over thousands of Ireland fans who have been suspicious of Kenny since the Dubliner unceremoniously replaced Mick McCarthy in 2020.
Not Brian Kerr. The former Republic of Ireland manager has consistently refused to give his fellow League of Ireland man a free pass.
“Whatever spin Stephen puts on it, we got beaten in the match and had very little possession, until the last few minutes,” said Kerr. “We’ve got to go on now, we’ve got to win matches in the group.
“Overall, since Stephen has been the manager, we got three points in the first group out of six games in the Nations League. In the [World Cup qualifiers] he got nine points out of eight games. And then he got seven points [from six games last year in the Nations League].”
Considering Kenny’s time in charge began with a mass introduction of uncapped players, during a pandemic, Kerr’s stance has sounded harsh, yet none of his facts are in dispute. His words will carry more weight in 2023. A critical year for Irish football.