If it wasn’t for bad luck, would Stephen Kenny have any luck at all?
As he goes into the Bulgaria game with limited choices, manager is due a break
Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny: preparing for his eighth game in charge, still looking for a first win and second goal since he took over in the summer. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
Whatever about actual caps, Stephen Kenny continued to hand out international call-ups like confetti on Monday as coronavirus struck his Ireland squad and the manager turned to the Under-21s and Shamrock Rovers to replenish the numbers.
Matt Doherty and James McClean were the latest to exit the set-up after positive tests for Covid-19, while Adam Idah has gone home injured. In their places, Troy Parrott and 22-year-old Peterborough midfielder Jack Taylor have been promoted from Jim Crawford’s U-21 squad for Wednesday’s game in Luxembourg.
Two more of the title-winning Shamrock Rovers side are also drafted in, with Graham Burke returning a couple of years after winning two caps under Martin O’Neill and Aaron McEneff getting the opportunity to be involved at this level for the very first time.
Taylor, who played 90 minutes for the under-21s against Iceland in Tallaght on Sunday, said on social media that the news made it a “proud day for me and my family”.
For Kenny, though, the situation is clearly more problematic as he prepares for his eighth game in charge – at home to Bulgaria on Wednesday – still looking for the team’s first win and second goal since he took over in the summer.
Those early games have clearly underlined the team’s difficulties up front, with nobody so far looking like the plug-and-play striker required if the new manager was going to hit the ground running. The wider mayhem, meanwhile, has suggested that in Kenny the FAI has not exactly appointed the luckiest of generals.
Having had to try to get on with the preparations for a Nations League group game against Bulgaria that he really could do with the team winning while players again come and go, Kenny has now lost roughly half the squad he named for these games a couple of weeks ago.
In terms of the various players’ significance, it is worth noting that the manager has used 24 different players in his starting line-ups to date, and 14 of those are now unavailable for the team’s last outing of the year. Those numbers do not include Séamus Coleman or Derrick Williams, neither of whom have played for him yet, but both of whom surely would on Wednesday if they were not injured.
Of the 10 who remain, five – Darren Randolph, Shane Duffy, Conor Hourihane, Callum O’Dowda and Robbie Brady – featured in his first game in charge, the draw in Sofia, but seven starters and two of three substitutes are now missing for one reason or another.
The other five still available – Seani Maguire, Kevin Long, Daryl Horgan, Cyrus Christie and Dara O’Shea – got their first call-ups under Kenny after players initially selected ahead of them had withdrawn from squads, although Long, Horgan and O’Shea, in particular, have all done quite well when handed chances since.
Kenny admitted over the weekend that he was disappointed to have lost two players from this squad due to muscle injuries sustained, or aggravated, in training after their arrival.
“To be honest,” he said on Saturday, “as a manager, that was something I would pride myself on over a number of years... that we didn’t really get muscle injuries. And we’ve really put a lot of planning into our training loads and looking at players individually with the Under-21 team and the senior team since I’ve come in.
“That was something we are really disappointed about,” he continued, before getting into more detail about the two individual cases.
The bigger issue, though, is what has gone on in and around the squad with regard to coronavirus, with four positive tests over the course of the current window again ruling important players out for this Wednesday’s game.
The association has gone to some lengths to emphasise its adherence to protocols and wider work to minimise the impact of the pandemic on the squad, but it has certainly suffered more cases than any of our near neighbours. Neither Wales nor England have had a single case, although Gareth Southgate got the virus between camps, while Northern Ireland have not declared any positive tests and the Scots had one last month, which also cost them the availability of two more players who were regarded as close contacts.
The FAI has not been helped by the potential of the tests to throw up unreliable results, but there have been positives in both of the last two camps and, since losing Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah for Slovakia because of a seating mix-up on the plane and a false positive, Kenny has been without seven players for the home game against Wales, six for Finland, one for England, two for Wales again and now four for the Bulgaria game because of Covid-related issues.
It is absolutely impossible to say from outside why that should be, and there is certainly no evidence of failings on the part of the association’s systems, but it is scarcely a success story and clubs are bound to have taken note.
The association said last month that it would review all of the protocols and how they had been handled and if, as would be expected, that is extended to this month it will be interesting to see what conclusions they come to.
In the meantime, the bubble rolls on and Kenny heads into game eight, against Bulgaria, hoping that his luck might finally turn. Having lost 14 of the 19 players he used in his first three games, he might just feel he is due a bit of a break.
The 14* Stephen Kenny starters ruled out for the Bulgaria game
Part of a very settled Irish back four until he injured his knee in the last Premier League game before the international window. Joined up with the squad in London last week but left again after an assessment.
One of only two ever-presents in the Kenny era by the end of the game in Cardiff, Doherty was clearly becoming a key player for the new manager since replacing Séamus Coleman at right back. Out now after testing positive for coronavirus.
Something of a Yin to Shane Duffy’s Yang at centre back, the Sheffield United defender’s inferior aerial technique was exposed when he headed Conor Hourihane’s elbow early in the England game. Came off not long after and is still recovering.
Started every game bar the home defeat by Finland but will miss Wednesday’s game after intervening to prevent Tyler Roberts bearing down on goal after the Welshman had intercepted an underhit Jack Byrne ball for Jason Knight. The subsequent red card rules him out this week.
Kenny spoke before his first game as if he intended to build his team around the Crystal Palace midfielder, but it hasn’t worked out that way. With injuries an issue, the 30-year-old had played just 130 of 480 minutes in the first two windows before leaving the current squad last week for family reasons.
Even after missing a couple of games last month, the 19-year-old had played 71 more minutes of football for Ireland this season than he has for Norwich in the championship, and must have been a contender to start again against Bulgaria but is now injured.
Like Idah, missed the Slovakia game on the basis of having sat near someone on the plane who received a false positive. Out now because of a minor hamstring injury sustained while training last week with the Ireland squad in London.
Having provided a timely reminder of his ability in front of goal in a game for West Brom against Chelsea, the striker was threatening to nail down a regular place with Ireland. But having been ruled out of Finland last month as a close contact, he tested positive himself last week.
Another one who has played more international football than club this season, but there had been so little for Southampton – just 32 minutes – that when Kenny was naming the current squad the manager said he could not include him. Tried to change his mind quickly enough but was told the 33-year-old was injured after a collision in training.
Kenny’s appointment should have marked a new start for Arter, but it has not gone well so far. Got 90 minutes in the home game against Finland and did well enough to have featured again, but his problems with injury persist and he has not kicked a ball for Ireland since. Out now with a calf strain.
Molumby has been one of Kenny’s success stories, with the midfielder promoted to the senior squad despite not getting much of a look-in since returning to Brighton from what was a good season out on loan with Millwall. Showed a bit of youthful exuberance to pick up a needless booking on Sunday, though, and is now suspended.
It wasn’t entirely clear where McClean stood in his former club manager’s pecking order after the first window when he got on for just 13 minutes, but things had improved with three starts since. The 31-year-old came on in London and started in Cardiff but is one of those who has since tested positive for coronavirus.
Another who Kenny made clear was to play a big part in his plans but, having aggravated an underlying injury in Slovakia, where he showed the difference he could make, he lost his place at Sheffield United and decided to retire, also citing personal reasons.
Having come on in Slovakia where he certainly made an impact even if he couldn’t put away his chances or penalty, the midfielder got 90 minutes against England last week but has since been ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus.
*Number correct at time of going to press. It does not include Séamus Coleman or Derrick Williams as they have not played for Ireland under Kenny, but both are also absent from the current squad because of injury.
How the squad looks now
Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (West Ham United), Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth)
Defenders: Kevin Long (Burnley), Shane Duffy (Celtic), Dara O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Cyrus Christie (Nottingham Forest), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), Ryan Manning (Swansea City).
Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Robbie Brady (Burnley), Jack Byrne (Shamrock Rovers), Jason Knight (Derby County), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Aaron McEneff (Shamrock Rovers), Jack Taylor (Peterborough United).
Attackers: James Collins (Luton Town), Ronan Curtis (Portsmouth), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), Daryl Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers), Sean Maguire (Preston North End), Graham Burke (Shamrock Rovers), Troy Parrott (Millwall, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur).