Ireland players put trust in Stephen Kenny as green shoots emerge

Manager’s long-term goal becoming clearer as young prospects impress

"Is breá liom an tír seo," tweeted Andrew Omobamidele, born and bred in north Kildare to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, before the teenager plunged back into his first Premier League campaign with Norwich City.

"Andrew has this Rolls-Royce look about him," Leixlip United coach Kenny Molloy told The Irish Times back in May. "I remember playing in our first ever All-Ireland semi-final against the best team in the country, which was St Joseph's Boys. We were up against it, got beaten 1-0, but we would have lost by more only Andrew was absolutely superb."

Molloy told another story about Larry Dunne, the late Manchester United scout, taking one look at Omobamidele and making comparisons to Paul McGrath.

“Physically,” Dunne told Molloy, “but also the way he plays.”

Not to go overboard about a 19-year-old, but McGrath lacked a rocket launcher of a right foot.

“I was already taking my jersey off when it left my boot but the keeper pulled off a good save,” Omobamidele laughed, after almost snatching a late winner against Serbia on Tuesday night.

“I see Andrew going all the way to the top and I’ve probably been afraid to say that out loud,” Molloy added. “I think he is different to what we have had before. He’s a modern centre half who can play through the thirds. [Virgil] Van Dijk has made it all sexy now, hasn’t he?”

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny had no hesitation validating such prophetic words.

“I couldn’t have predicted that Gavin [Bazunu] and Andrew would play as well as they did,” said Kenny. “Andrew was up against [Aleksandar] Mitrovic and [Dusan] Vlahovic; really physical, really powerful guys. But he just has another gear, he is so quick.”

Kenny followed up lavish praise of Bazunu’s heroics, Omobamidele’s “composure personified” and Adam Idah’s athleticism by emphasising the importance of the hamstrung Chiedozie Ogbene.

“Chiedozie is lightning, absolutely rapid.”

There is a starting and finishing XI in his mind's eye that has Ogbene scorching international full backs and Callum Robinson escaping Covid's grip to ping result-altering crosses into the box. Kenny also craves the return of Callum O'Dowda, Jason Knight, Nathan Collins, the 20-year-old Burnley centre half, and even Robbie Brady come next month's trip to Baku.

This week, under the fog of two newspapers reporting that unnamed FAI board members viewed the Serbia result as crucial to Kenny’s survival, the manager was compelled to reveal a masterplan that always focused on building a squad for the 2024 Euros in Germany.

“I’ve clear communication with key people in the FAI and they’ve been nothing but supportive,” said Kenny. “It’s irrelevant if someone writes something on the back of a newspaper. I can’t get sidelined by that.”

He even flipped the narrative, noting that Ronaldo’s 97th-minute winner at Estádio Algarve was Ireland’s only defeat in six matches. Sounds better than one win from 16.

Brian Kerr, over on Virgin Media, branded this reporting as "pub talk among journalists" before suggesting that some of the new FAI board would not know if a football is "pumped or stuffed". Packie Bonner, Kerr added, will "help them in assessing" whether Kenny deserves a contract extension beyond July 2022.

Bonner, as an independent FAI director, chairs the ‘international high-performance committee’ so the 61-year-old is presumably receiving regular updates about Kenny’s long-term vision.

Turns out Kenny also has a dual mandate within the FAI. Listed as a member of the FAI’s nine person ‘senior leadership team,’ with a title of ‘international football director,’ that might explain where he got the impetus to silence all the social media referendums about his ability to manage the senior team.

Where Ruud Dokter fits among the new structures is unclear, mainly because the FAI's 'football and high performance director' since 2013 has not spoken publicly in any detail since unveiling Mick McCarthy, and Kenny as under-21 manager, alongside John Delaney in November 2018.

What became apparent throughout this tumultuous international window is that Kenny’s coaching ticket and the players are reading off the same script.

Besides injured trio Dara O’Shea (ankle surgery), Séamus Coleman (hamstring) and Nathan Collins, the players who performed so bravely against Portugal and Serbia return to tricky club situations with enhanced reputations. Like it used to be.

Matt Doherty has a tough battle at Spurs now Brazil's €25 million right back Emerson Royal has arrived from Barcelona, but the 29-year-old proved he can still cut it at right or left wing back.

"We really believe in what [the management] are doing," said Doherty. "The coaching we get from Anthony Barry, who is at Chelsea, and Keith Andrews is top class. If [only] people were in there seeing the type of coaching and game plans we are putting together and how they've worked in certain games against some of the best players in the world."

Azerbaijan away on October 9th is followed by Portugal at a packed Aviva in November before a revenge mission to Luxembourg. Only then will the board discuss Kenny’s future.

“We showed we can play,” added Omobamidele. “I think the nation just has to try their best to keep faith in us.”

He really does love his country.

“Brilliant display from this kid,” McGrath tweeted. “The future looking a little brighter.”

Kenny’s vision becoming clearer by the game

Stephen Kenny has a habit of leaving breadcrumbs for people to understand what type of Ireland squad is being developed for Euro 2024.

Caoimhín Kelleher will get a second cap against Qatar next month. We know this because Kenny said as much on Tuesday night. If Liverpool did not value their 22-year-old goalkeeper so highly, and an ill-timed injury back in March, Gavin Bazunu would never have got his chance. But he did and now Kelleher almost needs to get past Alisson Becker at Anfield before unseating Bazunu, following the iconic Ronaldo penalty save and rejection of Serbian sharp shooter Aleksandar Mitrovic's point-blank barrage.

Injuries aside, only Aaron Connolly returns to Brighton and Hove Albion in a worse or similar situation to when he entered the international window.

As much as Kenny got the line-ups for Portugal and Serbia correct, the team for Azerbaijan backfired as an inexperienced attack of Connolly, Adam Idah and Troy Parrott literally ran into each other. Re-energised performances by Jamie McGrath and Jeff Hendrick against Serbia, having been rested over the weekend, brought some logic to these risky changes.

A settled team is emerging. Bazunu, John Egan and Shane Duffy played all 270 minutes and injury time over the six days, while Matt Doherty (260), Josh Cullen (244), James McClean (198) and Idah's highly efficient 259 minutes cannot go unheralded.

It is also established that performing for the Ireland under-21s, coupled with consistent club form, will have players like Bournemouth's holding midfielder Gavin Kilkenny and eventually Brighton's 16-year-old striker Evan Ferguson climbing up the ranks.

Portugal v Republic of Ireland (3-5-2): Bazunu; Egan, Duffy, O'Shea; Coleman, Henrick, Cullen, McGrath, Doherty; Connolly, Idah.

Republic of Ireland (3-4-3) v Azerbaijan: Bazunu; Coleman, Duffy, Egan; Doherty, Cullen, Molumby, McClean; Parrott, Idah, Connolly.

Republic of Ireland (3-5-1-1) v Serbia: Bazunu; Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan; Doherty, Hendrick, Cullen, Browne, McClean; McGrath; Idah.

Kenny's possible XI in October (3-4-2-1): Bazunu; Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan; Coleman, Kilkenny, Knight, Doherty; McGrath, Robinson; Idah.

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