Forget philosophy - any sort of win will do for Stephen Kenny and Ireland this week

The Ireland manager is in a strange type of limbo and needs a result against Azerbaijan

Stephen Kenny sorely needs a result in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Stephen Kenny sorely needs a result in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup have withered away but Irish football’s culture war continues unabated into the match against Azerbaijan in Baku this Saturday.

Little distinguishes the game here more than this perpetual clash of football values. If emotion over how the national team plays could be recycled into electricity the country would be an inexhaustible power-station of renewable indignation.

We mightn’t amount to much when it comes to the practicalities of winning matches but we’re Brazil when it comes to the theory.

It’s why during the only sustained period of success for Irish football there was as nearly as much noise and thunder about the ‘how’ as the ‘what.’

Dismissing Jack Charlton’s longball style as Neanderthal became a badge of honour for those identifying as ‘real’ football people. Pointing out how it delivered Ireland to a No 6 ranking in the world at one point was tough to argue with but never prevented purists being offended.

Just as difficult to quibble with, though, was how much of a tortuous exercise watching Charlton’s sides could be.

It’s trendy to point out how pressing is now all the rage. Big Jack was a pioneer apparently. It’s still worth pointing out that Guardiola and Klopp have never practised football as an airborne exercise in knocking it up to the big lad.

Style versus substance

But 25 years later Irish football is still piling in on the same style V substance debate and it is manager Stephen Kenny’s unenviable lot to be at the bottom of it.

As is the way of such things some words get abused to the point of irrelevance. Pompous expressions of ‘philosophy’ get sprayed around with a flamboyance that Ireland’s midfield can only dream about. There is particular emphasis too on what it all ‘represents.’

The ‘R’ word is a particularly flexible friend. Facts and practicalities are one thing. But taking the philosophical leap to what they supposedly represent is more often than not a handy short cut to just talking about what you want to talk about.

So to his followers Kenny is the true romantic soul of Irish football while to critics he is some local yokel living in professional cloud-cuckoo land.

Kenny has become a cause and that’s a lonely relationship status. Fighting for a cause is one thing. Being the cause itself is no fun at all. And right now the manager is in a curious sort of limbo that makes an otherwise relatively meaningless game against Azerbaijan critical to his future.

With the FAI set to review next month whether or not to renew his contract, Kenny needs to boost his reputation with a win.

A single victory in 16 games to date would normally be the sort of record that gets the door, something a lot of ex-international players haven’t been slow in pointing out. It is after all a results business, they maintain, and Ireland’s haven’t been good enough.

Kenny’s supporters dutifully agree it is a results business but invariably throw in a ‘but.’

Shane Duffy’s head remains Ireland’s biggest goalscoring threat. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Shane Duffy’s head remains Ireland’s biggest goalscoring threat. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Changing the way Ireland play was the manager’s stated ambition when taking over. That takes the sort of time not normally given to international team bosses on a losing run. But the argument goes that such is the sorry state of Irish football that Kenny should be afforded some rare leniency.

It’s interesting to ponder just how much such indulgence is down to that ‘R’ word. His ambitious plans for a more progressive style of football tally with the view of many in the domestic game and Kenny is one of the League of Ireland’s own.

So when he gets accused of being some dilettante figure by those rooted in the cross-channel game there is a reflex response that veers towards dismissing such critics as throwbacks.

Lofty ambitions

At this point one position is starting to look as extreme as the other so from a middle of the road point of view there doesn’t appear much to lose from giving the man in charge a little more time to deliver on his lofty ambitions. After all if he wins, everyone does.

The scale of the task though is underlined by lingering doubt about what Kenny has to work with.

This is an Ireland outfit straining might and main just to look just ordinary. The lack of quality in comparison to previous squads is stark yet they’re required to play both attractive and winning football. It’s a laudable ambition but it’s not condescending to wonder if it is realistic.

Because the purist position means that previous managerial teams all got it wrong. Charlton was wrong. So was Trapattoni. Neither did O’Neill and Keane appreciate what was at their disposal. Either that or they all just didn’t know what they were looking at which beggars belief.

Much more credible is that they identified what their teams could do best to make the opposition uncomfortable. Portentous Chinese quotes about the art of war being to avoid what’s strong and strike at what’s weak boil down in football terms to not playing the game on the other side’s terms.

No expertise was required to recognise how mixing it technically with Serbia in Ireland’s last game resulted only in being played off the park. In terms of pretty football there was only ever going to be one winner. Only when it got more agricultural did they start look uneasy.

That Shane Duffy’s head is our most potent scoring weapon mightn’t be aesthetically gratifying but not acknowledging it risks being wilfully obtuse. Pretty for pretty’s sake is an indulgence that can’t be afforded in a result business.

Reality usually rests in the middle of either strident extreme in any culture war. Kenny’s ambition is to be applauded but neither is it atavistic to point out how it has survived in the real football world. So any kind of win any which way and how will surely do on Saturday.

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