Ken Early: Fiasco of Aaron Connolly’s absence adds to pain

Say what you like about the FAI, they keep finding ways to amaze you

The Ireland players line up during the penalty shoot-oot against Slovakia. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The Ireland players line up during the penalty shoot-oot against Slovakia. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

It would have been desperately unfair for Alan Browne to be the only one who missed. At least Matt Doherty’s lucklessness in the Ireland shirt had one happy side-effect here, as he spared Browne the ignominy of being the one man whose missed penalty would cost Ireland their last shot at appearing in their own Euros.

Browne had played well since coming on for James McClean an hour previously. His energy and directness in attack had helped create several chances for himself and his team-mates, and he had even hit the post. He had been key to Ireland looking much the better side in the second hour of the 120 minutes in Bratislava. None of it counts for very much if you miss the penalty.

It was another night of frustration for Stephen Kenny, whose team gave the best performance so far of his three matches in charge but again failed to score and ended with nothing.

This one will leave a particularly bitter aftertaste though, as Kenny reckons with the bizarre circumstances that came to deny him the services of two key forwards immediately before the match. The Ireland manager admitted after the match that Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah had been deemed close contacts of a member of Ireland’s non-footballing staff who had tested positive for Covid-19 since the team arrived in Slovakia.

The build-up to the game had been characterised by increasing Irish excitement due to a series of calamities that had befallen the opposition’s preparations. We knew a while ago that Slovakia’s home advantage would not count for very much in the absence of a crowd. This week their plans were hit by the news that several key players had been ruled out by injuries and various encounters with Covid-19. For once it felt as though everything was going Ireland’s way.

That feeling lasted until an hour before the game when the team was announced and Connolly had been replaced by James McClean.

What seemed a bizarre decision by Kenny soon began to make a horrible kind of sense as the news that Connolly, and Adam Idah, had not even made the bench was accompanied by an email stating that a second FAI employee had tested positive for Covid-19.

Journalists forced to report on this game from 1,700 kilometres away in Dublin were dependent on the FAI to offer transparency but this was lacking. The word quickly went round that the two players were out because they were considered close contacts of the FAI employee who had tested positive – the story Kenny would eventually confirm after the match – but for several hours there was no official confirmation of any kind from the association.

Slovakia’s Róbert Mazánchallenges Matt Doherty of Ireland during the Uefa Euro 2020 playoff semi-final at the Tehelné Pole Stadium in Bratislava. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Slovakia’s Róbert Mazánchallenges Matt Doherty of Ireland during the Uefa Euro 2020 playoff semi-final at the Tehelné Pole Stadium in Bratislava. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Conspiracy theories soon filled the vacuum. A viral WhatsApp screengrab was soon claiming that Connolly and Idah had been left out of the squad list due to some data entry calamity (“bossman Steo was fuming”) This was untrue but goes to show that in the absence of clarity people will believe anything.

Kenny eventually told Sky Sports after the match that Connolly and Idah had been deemed close contacts of “one of our non-footballing staff.”

This put things in a bad light. If it was a member of non-football staff then surely close contact with players was non-essential. How players of this importance could have been exposed to this sort of contact is a mistake that becomes more astonishing the more you think about it.

Consider what was at stake last night. Yes, Euro 2020 is a house of cards which has already been postponed once. As it stands, though, it’s still going ahead, so this playoff represented the chance to play at home in a European Championships.

Kenny had spent the week talking about how a unique opportunity like that must not be missed. There were millions of euros at stake – vital millions for the FAI’s finances.

It’s been almost 25 years since Robbie Keane and Damien Duff broke into the senior team and Ireland have been waiting all that time for another young player to show that kind of talent. When the stars finally align, when we finally have not only a really exciting young forward but also a manager who is actually prepared to pick him, he ends up missing our decisive qualifier for our home European Championships because he’s a close contact of someone he had absolutely no need to be in close contact with. Say what you like about the FAI, they keep finding ways to amaze you.

Even deprived of Connolly, Ireland’s team was more intact than Slovakia’s, and it soon became clear the home side had little for Ireland to be afraid of.

The first half saw sustained spells of Irish possession that too often did not produce a shot but were unlike anything they had produced in years under McCarthy and O’Neill. An injury to James McCarthy early in the second half seemed a serious setback, but Kenny improvised the solution of a switch to 4-2-3-1, with Jeff Hendrick dropping back alongside Conor Hourihane, and Browne coming on for McClean to play behind the striker.

The best chance fell to Hourihane, after brilliant work by David McGoldrick and good play from Callum Robinson and Browne. But Hourihane shot weakly with his right foot. There were a few more chances, but no more of that quality – at least not until Ireland’s players had to face Marek Rodak from 12 yards.

Now for the post-mortem.

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