Heroic performances must, eventually, be transformed into wins – the cold, hard currency of international football. Otherwise, Stephen Kenny will go the way of Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr before him. I know, I was there when our Ireland team in the mid-2000s badly underachieved under Kerr.
At least it is easier to believe in this Ireland team after Monday night. The manner of defeat to France appears to have calmed most anti-Kenny sentiment, even if the general feeling remains at odds with the mood after victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina sent Martin O’Neill’s side to Euro 2016.
Two goals by Jonathan Walters in the second leg reinforced the theory that results trump performances. There was no coherent attacking plan when Ireland reached their last major tournament. No interest in ball retention, a white-knuckle ride by a gutsy cast of characters, glaringly under-coached yet solid at set pieces.
That’s the lingering conflict for long-serving Irish fans. I think the whole country needs to see a win in Greece this summer by hook or by crook. Throw all the ingredients into the pot; a headed goal from Evan Ferguson or Nathan Collins. More of Séamus Coleman harassing Kylian Mbappé, more Jayson Molumby aggression, more of Jason Knight’s fast-twitch fibres.
Anyone who criticised Knight’s performance should re-evaluate their football knowledge. L’Equipe’s player ratings guy, who gave Knight a 3 out of 10, has no clue.
Knight was a revelation. I know how much sacrifice goes into keeping Ireland’s narrow 5-4-1 shape intact. Chiedozie Ogbene, rightly, received the plaudits down the right but Knight, off the ball, stayed connected to Cullen while keeping tabs on Antoine Griezmann, stymieing numerous France attacks.
Knight plays for Derby County in the third tier of English football. That makes no sense at all. He was exceptional, completely uninhibited by the presence of Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard or France’s other 10 Champions League regulars.
Clearly, Kenny’s management focused on team shape without possession and distance between players across the pitch. Boring stuff to many. I took pride in never letting my man get the better of me regardless of how I performed on the ball. It always focused the mind before big internationals.
The back five was so narrow that Knight kept tempting France to hit diagonal balls over his head for Pavard to get a one-on-one with Matt Doherty. But they only tried it on a couple of occasions because Knight anticipated the switch, preventing Pavard time or space. He was also the trigger for the press as France moved the ball across their back line, sprinting at Ibrahima Konaté before Dayot Upamecamo even passed to his fellow centre half.
That was my job for Ireland on numerous occasions. You get next to no recognition externally, but I returned to my club in tatters. You look like an irritating fly on the hind of a water buffalo but without Knight, France would have found Pavard, Griezmann and Mbappé in the same space that allowed them to beat the Netherlands 4-0.
Pavard’s goal came from one error by Josh Cullen, quickly followed by a poor decision from Dara O’Shea. When Cullen’s pass was picked off, Randal Kolo Muani was on O’Shea’s left but Pavard was the bigger threat. O’Shea should have got closer and not turned his back on the strike. He should have made himself bigger.
This Irish statistic of conceding from outside the penalty area – 10 of the last 35 goals – is disproportionally more than any European nation. Pavard’s was the first shot on target in the match. Gavin Bazunu had no chance. I asked Shay.
When Cullen takes possession, Ogbene, Evan Ferguson, Knight and Doherty instantly moved forward, bringing French players with them. Ogbene was the out ball, not Knight, simply because Mbappé rarely protects his left back.
Old-school players would call him a ‘cheat’. It allowed long balls to be aimed at Ogbene, which isolated him against Theo Hernandez, who hated every second of Monday night in Dublin.
I am loathe to criticise Molumby. He set the tone for Ireland’s organised chaos. It’s hard to time a clean tackle in international football, slide tackles are almost extinct, and there he was relieving Adrien Rabiot of possession on a French counterattack down the left with Mbappé lurking in the middle.
Still, after eight minutes, I scribbled down: “We look solid, but a clear flaw is Molumby’s hesitancy to pass the ball forward. Lateral, backwards play will prove our undoing.”
Overall, it was a great effort against the best side in Europe. The 5-4-1 shape worked, even if the midfield four failed to support Evan Ferguson, who was sacrificed on the altar of solidity. For an 18 year old, his one touch flicks and hold up play are encouraging.
Monday was an honest start to the campaign, comparable in performance to opening World Cup qualifiers in 2002 and 2006. In performance, not result.
In 2000 we bounced out of Amsterdam and Lisbon with a point apiece. In 2004 we beat Cyprus at home, getting a point in Switzerland before a 0-0 draw at the Stade de France. We matched the French that night but failed to back it up, drawing home and away with Israel before a classic Thierry Henry goal in Dublin began the unravelling.
I’ll say it forever: the 2006 group should have gone on to be considered as one of the great Irish sports teams. Up there with Italia ‘90. We underperformed, badly letting our gaffer down.
The current squad, under the revived captaincy of Coleman, stares into a similar abyss. What happens this year, particularly in Athens and Amsterdam, will define Kenny’s managerial career.
[ Ken Early: Frustration the overriding feeling as Kenny’s men shoot themselves in the foot again ]
The greatest challenge every Irish football team faces is reproducing a monumental performance like this week’s after a three-month break and the gruelling, two matches a week EFL Championship run-in.
The coaches, presumably, will focus on a historically bankable Irish strength: set pieces. Because ever since Ireland conceded a goal from an Andorra’s diagonal free kick, it has been a glaring issue. Latvia exposed it last week. France came close.
It’s the difference between qualifying and not. It is fixable. John O’Shea will have two more non-international camps – in Bristol and Turkey – before the summer to get his coaching feet under the table.
From Coleman to Ferguson, the current squad know that Kenny’s managerial fate is in their hands.