The loudest cheers of the night came after the final whistle. A teenage kid got on the field and started to run. The stewards came after him – four, five, six, seven of them. The crowd paused on their way to the exits, transfixed by this sudden outbreak of excitement. Ninety minutes of international football had not produced any thrills to compare with this. The nameless hero sprinted and twisted and turned away from his pursuers, drawing louder cheers with every dodged tackle, until the seven chasing men inevitably ran him down.
Stephen Kenny had paused on his way on to the pitch to watch. His team had failed to secure revenge for the “soft class” whose representatives were beaten in France last month. Adam Idah – the great elusive hope of the Kenny era – seemed to have set Ireland on their way to victory, until one last 25-yarder for the road flew past Mark Travers. Some in the crowd had booed at the final whistle. And here they were, moments later, cheering an impromptu outbreak of rugby. A final insult.
The manager had begun his final program notes with a story: “When I was a teenager, my Dad decided to leave his regular job and security with it to become self-employed.” Kenny snr built a shed at the back of the family home out of which he ran a meat supply business. “That soon became too small, so he bought a small butchers in Ballyfermot and worked from there, before space was at a premium and he built an extension on that building, until, ultimately, with new increased EU regulations, deemed this building to be too small to work in. My view had always been that a large industrial unit was the way to go but money was tight and you had to survive week-to-week whilst trying to grow.”
He made no further mention of his father’s business in the rest of the notes, leaving the reader to decide what the story meant. Was he saying that his father should have listened to young Stephen, ignored the risks and gone big from the very start? Was the mature Kenny now reflecting that he might have learned from his father’s incrementalism? Was it really a story about bureaucratic red tape getting in the way of people who are just trying to live their lives? From EU regulations to the two-metre rule, the Kennys have endured their share of big government meddling.
“Ambition can take you to the darkest of places,” the manager wrote. “It’s difficult to undertake a radical rebuild without setbacks.” True enough – and it’s the reason conservatives give for avoiding radical rebuilds. What happens if the cure turns out to be worse than the disease?
In Amsterdam on Saturday night, Kenny found himself repeating in separate interviews: “what was the alternative?” He was using the phrase in two different contexts. The first: what was the alternative to the rapid squad turnover, the blooding of 25 new players – 26 after Andrew Moran’s debut last night – given the state of the team he inherited?
On this, Kenny is right. He took over an old bad team and has turned it into a young bad team. But a young bad team at least might get better. As he leaves the job, Kenny wants us to remember that he was willing to sacrifice his own prospects for the greater good. Hopefully his time in charge of the team will one day be remembered that way.
The second time he asked “what was the alternative?” was to do with tactics. What is the alternative, he asked, to the “progressive” style of play he has tried to introduce? We know the obvious alternative is the one that Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy all chose – deep defending, no risks, long balls, try to score from a set-piece. But Kenny has always been dismissive of that. “Defend deep and try to see it out? They’ll break you down anyway.”
Well, not always. It’s a question of balance. Roberto de Zerbi’s Brighton have conceded a lot of silly-looking goals this season because of the risks they take in their build-up play. They keep doing it because playing this way means they score a lot of goals themselves. High-risk, high-reward.
Kenny’s problem is that his approach has been high-risk, low-reward. The team pushed up, pressed high, played risky passes in build-up. But none of it paid off in attack. A penalty against the Netherlands, and a goal from a corner against Greece was the entire tally against the rival teams.
Going the other way, Ireland conceded goals against all the group rivals that would not have happened to a team playing conservatively. Of course, a conservative team would have conceded different types of goals, but not the ones Ireland actually did concede.
For example, Benjamin Pavard scored in Dublin after intercepting an Irish pass across the front of our own box. Such a pass would have been outlawed under Giovanni Trapattoni. Wout Weghorst ran through from halfway to score after the Netherlands broke through our high press. Again, no Trapattoni team would have found itself with so few men defending in their own half.
This is not an argument that Ireland should go back to Trapattoniball. But it’s clear they need to either score more goals, or take fewer risks. Whoever comes next has to find the balance.