World Cup qualifier: Azerbaijan v Republic of Ireland, Olympic Stadium, Baku, Saturday, 5pm – Live RTÉ Two and Sky Sports Football
All managerial reigns must end, but Naki Olimpiya Sadionu would be an unfitting graveyard for Stephen Kenny’s calamitously unlucky 13 months in charge. Defeat might prove the decisive cut, so ideally his young and inexperienced Ireland squad can silence the 49-year-old Dubliner’s detractors.
"Every time we step on to the pitch we are fighting for our own jobs, never mind the manager's job" said stand-in captain John Egan. "We are all in this together."
The unity of this group, including Kenny’s 20-strong staff, is undeniable, but the team’s inability to repeat stirring performances against Portugal and Serbia with victories over lowly football nations like Azerbaijan could prove his undoing.
Not that a country ranked 50th by Fifa should expect to wipe the floor with an opposition ranked 117th, especially considering the ultra-defensive "block of eight" Gianni De Biasi puts out.
“We went around the block continually,” said Kenny of last month’s 1-1 draw in Dublin. “Azerbaijan are at home so they won’t sit off us, I don’t think. They didn’t sit off Serbia, they’ll want to have a go.”
And that is how Ireland picks them apart. Creativity from the midfield will be essential but this team, for all their growing and established characters, have lacked consistency from game to game.
A win would bring some calm, following a hectic and largely avoidable week of front-page splashes and Liveline outrage, but even Kenny’s critics cannot deny the incredible amount of misfortune visited upon the home grown manager.
When Adam Idah and Jason Knight, two key figures if this revolution is ever going to be televised, were laid low with fever after the chartered flight to Baku, one Twitter expert wondered if a Kenny voodoo doll was being stabbed and twisted.
The 20-year-olds pulled a Lazarus to train last night at the stadium with Idah, despite being unable to score in last month’s window or make any real impact for Norwich City in the Premier League, already a vital cog in Kenny’s 3-4-2-1 system.
“I saw the criticism that he didn’t score and Adam is acutely aware of that,” said Kenny of the striker who did bag 23 goals in 46 underage caps. “But I thought, overall, in the three games, he offered an awful lot, and showed speed in attack.
“Adam is tall and leads the line well, he has a history of scoring goals, so the next jump is the biggest jump, of course. He had a great chance with the header against Azerbaijan, it just went marginally wide.”
Callum Robinson's form for West Brom and having recovered from a second dose of Covid could see him replace Aaron Connolly in the starting line-up. The 26-year-old entered a global news cycle after stating on Tuesday that the vaccination roll-out has passed him by, without providing a reason.
The Ireland camp were disgusted by at least three of the articles that followed, with Egan abrupt with anyone asking if Robinson regrets what he said.
“I suppose first and foremost, Cal was asked a question, he gave an answer. He didn’t come out and say he was against the vaccination or anything, so I was quite disappointed to see how many people jumped down his throat.
“Everybody can choose whether to get the vaccination or not, it’s a personal choice. As a team-mate, as a friend, I back my team-mates, I back my friends.”
This raises fresh questions: Back him for what, is Robinson for or against vaccination to protect elderly people from dying during a once in a 100 years pandemic?
Kenny concurred with Egan. “Callum has attracted a lot of criticism because he came into a press conference, where the vast majority of the players refuse to answer the questions, he was open and transparent. And he has been vilified for it.”
This is not entirely accurate by Kenny, who was outside the room when Robinson spoke. Robinson was open about saying he has not been vaccinated but evasive when asked why he has not been vaccinated, despite his manager and medical colleagues in the FAI imploring him to do so, repeatedly. He was vilified and robustly defended during the avalanche that followed on social media.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” Kenny added. “He always comes in with a smile on his face, he’s infectious, he brings laughter to the dressingroom, people love him.”
Tensions are rising with the hosts as well, as the travelling media were shut out of De Biasi’a press conference for an unexplained reason. Azeri figures of authority do not like being told what to do by alien cultures. Covid rules give them more leeway to strike fear into locals and foreigners alike. A sip of alcohol one minute after midnight can land a publican with a €2,000 fine. The person taking said sip can end up in a prison cell.
All told, the makings of a proper international is brewing, long after qualification for Qatar 2022 was impossible for either team.
If Ireland’s opening 15 minutes at the Aviva can be repeated, yet the chances created are taken this time around, Kenny’s Ireland will take momentum into November’s anticipated sell out against Portugal at the Aviva with a revenge mission to Luxembourg rounding out a failed if valuable campaign.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (possible): Bazunu; Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan (capt); Doherty, Cullen, Hendrick, McGrath; Robinson, Idah.
Referee: Espen Eskås (Norway).