No Belgrade football night has been as peaceful but even in an empty, echoing stadium, the tribulations continue for Stephen Kenny. His young team were immensely brave in a 3-2 defeat to Serbia. The stark statistic of no wins in nine games remains uncomfortable. But it was the first qualifying night in quite some time that Ireland played enjoyable football.
“Yeah you don’t get anything for that unfortunately,” Kenny said not long after the final whistle, his face flushed as he scrambled to collect his thoughts.
"I think the players were terrific. Normally when you concede three goals it's because you've conceded seven or eight chances. They've been ruthless with their finishing on the night. So we are really disappointed to lose that game. Aaron Connolly: we've had a blatant penalty rejected. We've watched it back. That is to go 2-1 up.
“I can’t believe we have conceded three goals because it didn’t look like the kind of game where we would. In the first half both their 10s dropped into midfield and overloaded us but they didn’t penetrate. Séamus Coleman marshaled his defence . . . brilliantly.”
For 30 minutes, the Irish football fans, locked up at home and watching on television, got a glimpse of the vision Kenny has for Ireland. The seven-game goal drought was broken after just 18 minutes when Alan Browne, who had a huge game, drifting to the far post and heading a powerful goal on Callum Robinson's elegant left foot cross.
Kenny didn’t – couldn’t – disguise his delight just then. It was a moment that he both needed and deserved. Never before has any Irish manager set out on his first full qualifying campaign under such a cloud of pessimism and doubt. The litany of pure bad luck which sabotaged his first year had yielded to a rising impatience and the unforgiving winless statistic – and not a single goal scored in seven.
Taking a fragile and unproven team into Belgrade, with a young third-choice goalkeeper making his debut and a strike force which has combined for just one goal in international football – in the midst of a pandemic – was daunting. All week, pundits posited ifs, buts and maybes in the tentative build-up but everyone was in the dark as to what might happen.
Another 90 minutes without a goal would have deepened the sense that Kenny’s reign might be doomed before it ever had a true chance to begin. So he went into this game under pressure: loudening scepticism, and an implicit doubt over whether a domestic manager could cut it at international level. The same sense of doubt followed Brian Kerr’s luckless tenure in charge of Ireland. It stems from a lack of confidence in the Irish domestic game; a belief that the national team requires a big name with a Match of the Day aura to give Irish teams a sheen and prestige equitable to bigger football countries.
And yet in both halves, on a gorgeous night in Belgrade, Kenny's youngsters debunked that. They played with composure and intent. It speaks volumes that Browne, with a mere 12 caps, looked like one of the veterans. Josh Cullen, the Essex youngster with a Leitrim grandfather, grew with every minute. Coleman was his spiky, sharp old self on his return. Jayson Molumby impressed. Not everything Callum Robinson tried came off but he was full of brightness.
It’s been a long time in any qualifying campaign since an Irish team played with such thoughtfulness and width, passing through the Serbians, trying to work the ball into the goal rather than merely thump and hope. They were enjoyable to watch.
Matt Doherty, overlapping on Ireland's first attack, won a corner in the first minute confirming that Kenny would be true to his initial promise to send Irish teams out with the liberty to go and express themselves.
Serbia clearly had the game's superior playmaker in Dušan Tadic and a young striker sprinkled in stardust in Dušan Vlahovic, who coolly stroked the equalising goal after 40 minutes. It was always going to be fraught after that concession and the Serbs were equally icy in the composition of their second goal, an imperious chip by the apparently out-of-form Aleksandar Mitrovic from distance over Mark Travers, who had drifted too far off his line in his anxiety to cover. Kenny wasn't about to leave his young goalkeeper open to scrutiny afterwards.
“Listen, Mark’s been brilliant for us overall. He has made a good save at the end of the first half as well. Overall with the team the attitude was brilliant.”
You'd hope that Ireland never encounter the Fulham man on a hot streak: Mitrovic struck again in the 76th minute and suddenly, Ireland's slow march to their first World Cup since 2002 looked arduous and uphill. And yet. Pure Irish stubbornness led to a second Irish goal, scrambled home by James Collins. Back to a ghostly Dublin, then, to host Luxembourg on Saturday night with enough evidence that just maybe Ireland's luck is beginning to turn.