Sideshow overshadows poor Ireland showing as apathy replaces anger at the Aviva

Avoidable distractions have disrupted Stephen Kenny’s three years in charge of the national team

Gary Dicker is the only Irish coach to come out of the latest tangle with Greece manager Gus Poyet in credit.

“Gary is proper Irish, he cares so much,” said Poyet late Friday, after inflicting another humiliating defeat on Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland.

In June, Dicker visited his former Brighton and Hove Albion gaffer at Greece training. The current Brighton under-21s assistant coach was in Athens as an Ireland fan.

Poyet, despite being close to the 37-year-old, kept him away from any specific preparation because, being “proper Irish”, he might have been tempted to help his own.

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Ireland’s assistant manager Keith Andrews insinuated the opposite last Tuesday. At only his second formal press conference in three years, he suggested that Dicker fed information to Poyet about how Ireland would set up at the Opap Arena.

Andrews’s remarks dominated the build-up to the worst performance by an Irish side in decades. The flimsy attempt to provoke Poyet elicited an unsparing pre-match response as Andrews was accused of “lying” and Dicker was branded “a very honest man”.

“It was a cheap accusation,” said Poyet, “very cheap.”

The Uruguayan understands the power of press conferences, in any language. He relished the opportunity to potentially split the Ireland management, belittling Andrews while embracing his former Sunderland captain John O’Shea.

“John is a top man,” said Poyet after Greece’s 4-1 aggregate win over Ireland. “And I think Keith is as well. Probably somebody is pulling [his leg].

“It is a big plus for us to have this situation now [they face the Netherlands on Monday] and be able to beat the Republic of Ireland twice, because, I tell you, the support in [the Aviva]. I would like to be in charge of the team here.”

CVs to FAI CEO Jonathan Hill, Snugborough Road, Dublin 15.

“I would love that,” Poyet smiled. “I would absolutely love that. I think it is a terrific place to come and play football.

“I was even surprised coming from the hotel, watching the people. I pay attention a lot. How many people have got the tracksuit? The black one. How many people have the green.

“Listen, in Uruguay we are patriots, but I don’t think many people buy the national team tracksuit. I don’t remember, maybe I am wrong. The shirt? Yes. But I don’t think many people buy the tracksuit. They are there with the tracksuit, it is proper. It is proper.”

Seriously, Gus Poyet, to become the next Ireland manager?

“My contract finishes in December. If I qualify…”

Inevitably, Kenny was dragged into the Dicker affair.

“I’ve no real comment to make on that. I’ve no real comment to make,” Kenny repeated before questioning Dicker’s motives: “[Andrews] obviously felt the optics weren’t great, an Irish coach going to Athens to meet the Greek manager, or attend training or whatever it was. I’ve no real comment to make. I’m not accusing anyone of anything.”

Did Andrews put Dicker in a difficult situation? “I don’t know, listen it is what is it, it’s not something I’m getting into.”

But that’s the point. It is not what it is.

Avoidable distractions have disrupted Kenny’s three years in charge as his management stumbled from one mess of their own creation to the next. Four coaches came and went, including Damien Duff and Anthony Barry, as a group of young players have never looked technically equipped to play possession football.

There are four defeats under Kenny that will follow Irish football around. Luxembourg at an empty Aviva stadium in March 2021, Armenia in Yerevan last year and the Greek double.

The Yerevan result rubbished Kenny’s claim that Ireland could win their Nations League B group. They finished third, with two wins from six games, only avoiding a humiliating draw at home to Armenia, ranked 92nd in the world, thanks to Robbie Brady’s 91st-minute penalty.

The Nations League standings are likely to deny Ireland a playoff route into Euro 2024.

And that’s precisely where Mick McCarthy handed over the reins to Kenny in April 2020. In the 51-year-old’s third match in charge, Ireland lost on penalties to Slovakia in a playoff to reach Euro 2021.

It was one of several sliding doors moments as Ireland slipped from 34th to 55th on the Fifa list.

Another happened at Estadio Algarve in September 2021. Following five defeats from six in the current campaign, it can get worse for Ireland. Last summer, Gibraltar gave them a genuine scare in Dublin before second-half goals from Mikey Johnston, Evan Ferguson and Adam Idah avoided complete farce. The 198th-ranked nation are waiting in Portugal on Monday night, at the same venue where two years ago Cristiano Ronaldo’s late headers snatched a famous Irish victory away from Kenny.

Ultimately, when pressed, the former Dundalk manager blames the current situation on Irish talent facing increasingly clogged routes into a Premier League club. Only seven Irish players have featured in the English top flight this season.

“We’re not ignoring players who are playing at high levels. There is no one in the Premier League we’re not picking. I think, right fair enough, Evan Ferguson has only got four [appearances], a couple of 90 minutes games.

“Will Smallbone has only got a similar amount of caps but they are probably the best number nine and number 10 that we probably have at the moment.”

In both Greece games, Smallbone was hauled off. The 23-year-old remains a competent Championship midfielder.

Kenny previously asked the public to judge him on the Euro 2024 run.

“How do you judge yourself?” he wondered aloud. “How do you speak about yourself?”

“I have a vision about how I want the team to play. We’ve tried to radically change the way the team would have played beforehand and we’ve achieved that in a lot of games. A lot of people came here in the home games against France and Holland and were really impressed in how we played. Really impressed.”

Ireland lost both matches.

“Gibraltar, okay, that was a professional job. Tonight maybe not so. We’ve changed the way we played. I think we’ve conceded goals we shouldn’t and I’ve got to accept responsibility for that.

“I think I’m a team builder, that’s what I am, I have a vision for what I want and I try and build to create that. That’s what I would have seen with this, the international team, a team completely at the end of its cycle and an absence of talent in between in the intervening years.

“We’ve obviously promoted [players], we’ve come in with a clear vision as under 21 manager [in 2019]: put all the best 17-year-olds in the country into the under 21s. Some of them now have 20 caps. Jason Knight, Nathan [Collins], not 20 caps but a high number.

“Not everyone has 20 caps. Jason Knight does. [Troy] Parrott, [Gavin] Bazunu, players like that.

“That was radical because the previous year every player in the 21s had been 20 or 21. It was absolutely radical.”

The FAI board, under Hill’s direction, appear to be repeating the process that led to the departure of the women’s coach Vera Pauw in August by letting Kenny’s contract run out.

But the once-loyal 41,239 crowd at the Aviva on Friday night have already voted with their feet. Thousands did not return for the second half as apathy replaced anger.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent