Keith Duggan: Forget Euro 2028, Irish soccer’s awakening has begun

Domestic league is on the up and national team is selling out the Aviva for friendlies

There's a nicely sly moment in the turn-of-the-century comedy Meet The Parents when Ben Stiller's Greg Focher gifts his future father-in-law, a CIA operative masquerading as a horticulturist, with a rare slow-blooming plant that takes six full months to flower. Robert De Niro, playing Jack Byrnes, can't disguise his lack of interest in the plant. "Six months," he says looking glumly at the pot of clay. "Well! I look forward to that." Stephen Kenny, the Republic of Ireland soccer manager, could be forgiven for regarding the UK and Ireland's bid to host Euro 2028 in much the same way.

"Ultimately it's a money generator for the economy," Kenny said politely when quizzed about the prospect at Ireland's press conference before this evening's Belgium game. In other words, Ireland helping to host the major soccer tournament has virtually zero association with where he is attempting to bring Irish soccer. 2028 is six summers away: an impossible length of time for a manager to contemplate.

Will Kenny still be manager? Will the Republic of Ireland be among the qualifying teams? Euro 2028 sounds glitzy - and that itself holds troubling echoes of the grandiloquence of the John Delaney era. By insinuating himself with the power brokers at Uefa and claiming credit for the staging of the Europa final and the selection of Dublin as a host city for Euro 2020 (later revoked because of the pandemic), Delaney helped to make himself bullet-proof. But a few big tournament games in town do nothing to change the reality of Irish soccer.

Damien Duff is one of Ireland's greatest players: pure silk and guile down the left wing. He is also, as Shelbourne boss, one of the most unsuccessful, no, one of the worst managers in the League of Ireland. At least that's how he described himself in a terrific profile of the domestic league written by Michael Walker in the Athletic last month. Duff's legendary anti-charisma (when not thrilling the Stamford Bridge set with his exhilarating bursts, he slept, went the lifestyle summary) has flipped into a compelling form of charisma. Duff the imp has matured into the ex-pro who is entirely unpredictable and burning with intense ambition for Irish soccer. During his turn as Shamrock Rovers youth coach, Duff raised eyebrows by setting a 6am training session. "If swimmers can do it at 6am, joggers, what's the difference with footballers?"

Requisite standard

His thinking was that the structured sessions most aspiring Irish players rely upon are nowhere near enough to bring them up the requisite standard. His youth was his reference point: maybe 15-20 hours a week because all he did was play ball on the streets. The demise of those casual, incessant street games have long been a subject of discussion between John Giles and Eamon Dunphy. It's not just nostalgia for the chorus of urban shouts at dusk. It's the 10,000 hours theory at work: Kicking ball all day long. Duff wants this generation to play longer and more often. It turned out that Duff was showing up for those sessions at 5am. He sent his charges away with hot breakfasts he bought out of his own pocket.

“I could have been at home cooking my own kids breakfast,” he said.

There's something reassuring about the idea of a garlanded figure like Duff investing such energy and stubborn passion in an Irish club. And there is something special about the news that this evening's friendly against Belgium is expected to be a sell-out. The world number one-ranked team are leaving many of their most glittering names at home. But they can still field a stellar team. And the Republic fans are keen to see how Kenny's youngsters perform and how their play-from-the-back creativity will pan out. The thrill is: nobody fully knows what to expect from Ireland teams right now. The grind-it-out policy has been banished. Come what may, Ireland try to play. That sense of the unexpected has also contributed to the 33,000 advance ticket sales for the less-glitzy Lithuania game. Ireland. That's who the fans are turning up to see.

Not even three years have passed since Delaney stepped down from the FAI. The two years of the pandemic have doubtlessly deepened the sense of time. And in the larger scheme of things, the jaw-dropping reasons for the fall from grace of the former chief executive of a small soccer country is small beer. But the Delaney era left the Irish game reeling. The association was left looking like the sports administrative equivalent of Geldof's Banana Republic.

Basic requirement

For the first year of the Kenny era, the results would not come for the international team and he was forced to weather heavy criticism as his young teams suffered a 10 game winless streak in Covid-emptied stadiums. The pressure must have been excruciating. He wore it well. Qualifying for major tournaments is the basic requirement for the manager of most international soccer teams. That obligation will come with the next campaign.

The fear of some pundits was that Kenny's vision for Irish soccer was not compatible with the reality of the players at his disposal. And maybe there has been a little bit of wilful loyalty in Kenny's insistence that Ireland have the quality to go and play and express themselves. But his courage is working. It's only four years since Ireland were described as "primitive" by Denmark's Thomas Delaney, who himself will never be mistaken for Luca Modric. But that tag doesn't apply anymore. It's only a friendly but Lansdowne will feel like old times. The old aristocrats of the domestic game - Shamrock Rovers, St Pat's, Derry City, Sligo Rovers - are knuckling down for a white-knuckle league season.

Over the past three years Stephen Kenny has, in that understated way of his, asked Irish soccer people to look at what the Irish game has rather than what we have not: to look inwards with pride. It may sound like old times around Lansdowne late this afternoon. But it feels like a new beginning.