Some of the questions Stephen Kenny was asked on Friday night at the Johan Cruijff Arena had a big-picture, retrospective feel about them – as though, for whatever reason, the questioners were hoping to elicit comments that might be useful in pieces looking back at his time in charge of the national team.
Of the 26 players who had made their competitive debuts under his management – it will be 27 if Andrew Moran gets on the pitch on Saturday night – was there any whose journey had been particularly satisfying to the manager?
“I wouldn’t like to pick out any individual,” Kenny replied. “Collectively it’s obviously been quite a radical shift. There’s been criticism for that – for introducing too many players too soon. In my view they were the players with the greatest potential… I feel this Irish team, this group of players in the future – a lot of them have already moved up the divisions in their professional careers. I think that the experience they’ve had over the last campaign will stand them in really good stead going forward.”
So Kenny’s time as Ireland manager is drawing to a close much as it began – with him selling us the future. The future he promised stubbornly refused to arrive, and now, with a kind of brutal suddenness, his time in charge of the team is nearly done.
Kenny’s time in the job can be divided into four distinct stages. There was the Covid-addled false start in 2020, while 2021 was a hopeful phase, which you could call the year of Anthony Barry. In 2022, hope matured into expectation, which, in the end, was largely frustrated. And, finally, the rapid downfall of 2023.
“In terms of actual performances, I think we’ve come a long way,” Alan Browne said on Friday night in Amsterdam. “Whether people believe that or not, we believe that in the group.”
Looking back at how Kenny’s time as manager began, there is no question that since then Ireland have improved – but then it would be difficult for them to have got any worse.
Kenny’s stock was higher than ever when he assumed control of the senior team in 2020 after a successful stint in charge of the U21s. He immediately promoted stars of his U21 team like Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly and Jayson Molumby into the first-team reckoning. The performances and results did not follow. His first eight matches in 2020 brought no wins and only one goal.
It was the worst start any Ireland manager had made, but then again it was the peak of the Covid-era disruption: a weird atmosphere surrounding everything, no crowds in the stadiums, Covid positives and false-positives wiping out swathes of the team on the day of the game, a compressed calendar, little chance for any positive feelings to take hold and develop.
The low point was probably the 3-0 friendly defeat to England at an empty Wembley Stadium in November. Ireland had not lost to England for 35 years going into the game, but the gulf that has opened up between the two sides in recent years was made horribly apparent over 90 miserable minutes. The game would prove pivotal in a number of ways. Damien Duff and Alan Kelly both left the coaching staff in the following weeks, while Kenny decided he didn’t have the players to make his preferred 4-3-3 system work.
The new year brought a fresh face in the form of Barry. The Chelsea coach joined the set-up in February 2021, and for the very next game, away to Serbia, Ireland lined up in a Chelsea-style 3-4-3. Kenny said the system switch was his idea after the England defeat convinced him that something had to change, but Barry’s know-how in coaching the new system was plainly part of the calculation.
Barry was also credited with sharpening up the team at set-pieces, as shown to best effect in the Daryl Horgan-James McClean goal from a corner against Qatar in June 2021. Horgan explained last week how Barry showed the players in advance how the move would work, how the defenders would be dragged out of place by decoy runs, emphasising that when the moment came for Horgan to cross he would not need to put too much power on the pass, he just had to roll it into the area where McClean would be arriving for a free shot.
Moments like that, unfolding exactly as Barry had predicted, earned the new coach respect from all the players, but despite his vaunted influence Ireland kept losing. The 3-2 defeat in Serbia was a mix of frustration and creditable, but the 1-0 home defeat to Luxembourg brought Kenny’s first real crisis as manager. Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup had effectively ended after three days.
The first win arrived at the 12th attempt, with Troy Parrott scoring his first senior goals against Andorra. In September, Ireland travelled to Portugal for the World Cup qualifier and John Egan gave them the lead with another well-worked set-piece goal.
The 45 minutes that followed were perhaps the high point of Kenny’s time in charge. It was Ireland’s best performance at least since the victory in Wales that had sent us to the 2018 World Cup playoffs – four years and 35 matches ago – but with much better football than they had played that night in Cardiff.
Gavin Bazunu had saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s early penalty and was looking like a superstar in the making, Andrew Omobamidele came off the bench for Dara O’Shea in the first half and played brilliantly – we hadn’t seen young Irish internationals delivering like this since 2002. As the game ticked into the last minute, Ireland were on the point of securing arguably their best-ever away win in tournament qualifiers.
Then, in a moment, it all turned to dust. The game is instead remembered as the night when Ronaldo broke Ali Daei’s international scoring record with goals in the 89th and 96th minutes. O’Shea’s injury turned out to be a bad one that ruled him out of the rest of the qualifiers, and Kenny still had a 100 per cent losing record in the group.
On returning to Ireland Kenny announced that “I’ve taken a decision – right or wrong – that we would build this squad to be a really, really competitive team to qualify for Germany 2024″. Kenny’s supporters argued he was simply stating openly what had been obvious all along, while his critics believed he was shifting the goalposts. Either way, the day of reckoning might have been postponed – but everybody now knew the date.
In the autumn of 2021 it was still possible to feel good about the general direction of the team as Ireland completed the qualifiers without losing another game and emerging players like Chiedozie Ogbene and Nathan Collins promised to raise the level.
So, despite the loss in February of Barry to the Belgian national team, 2022 began with a sense that this could be the year when things really came together. The mood of confidence was reflected in the FAI’s decision to extend Kenny’s contract in March 2022. True to form, the manager fed the hype by announcing that Ireland’s target was to win a Nations League group that included Ukraine, Scotland and Armenia.
In what was becoming a grimly predictable routine the performances did not live up to his billing. A dismal defeat away to Azerbaijan was followed by a tame home loss to Ukraine, and another Irish campaign was over before it ever got going. The team saved face with a 3-0 win against Scotland, whose morale was shattered after their defeat in a World Cup qualifying playoff a few days previously, and a draw against Ukraine made memorable by a spectacular Collins goal. The return game against Scotland was set up as a real test of the progress that had been made so far. The test was failed, Ireland repeating their now-familiar trick of taking the lead and going on to lose. Victory against Armenia meant that Ireland at least would not get relegated from Nations League B.
The hour of destiny had arrived in the shape of the Euro 24 qualifying draw. If Ireland’s World Cup 22 dream had lasted three days, the Euro 24 dream lasted about 15 minutes: from the start of the draw until the instant Ireland were assigned to a group already containing France and the Netherlands. Kenny had staked everything on this campaign, only to be dealt a losing hand. Now began the final phase: downfall.
Ireland kicked off the campaign with the now-traditional defeat in the opening match against France. It was generally accepted that they would be judged by how they played against Greece – but in Athens, at the moment of truth, they delivered one of the worst performances of the whole Kenny era. “I didn’t see myself as a coach in the team” Kenny said after that defeat – a crushing admission considering the intensive preparations for the game which had included an expensive training camp in southern Turkey.
A good start at home to the Netherlands gave way to more disappointment after Ronald Koeman outfoxed Kenny with tactical changes at half time. By the time Greece turned up in Dublin to collect another easy three points, there were few believers left in the stands, and hardly any belief evident on the pitch.