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Ken Early: Ireland a work in progress on and off the field

Two games into this triple header, Ireland have lost 12 players to Covid-19, close contacts and injury

Stephen Kenny spent years dreaming of what he would do differently if he was Ireland manager. Now that he's got the job, all he gets to do is fight fires.

Managing international football in 2020 is about spending the weeks between games absorbed in analysis and preparation, perfecting the game plan, imagining how it’s all going to come together. Then, on the day of the game, gathering together whichever players are still available once all the coronavirus positives and contacts have been ruled out, and telling them to go out there and give it a lash.

Two games into this triple header Ireland have lost 12 players to Covid-19, Covid contacts and normal injuries, meaning more than half of the outfield players named in the original squad were ruled out at some point.

Not long ago we were feeling sorry for ourselves because it was difficult to get our two great Premier League right backs in the one team. On Sunday Matt Doherty played most of the match against Wales alongside Shane Duffy at centre back. The most encouraging thing about the game is that Ireland managed what Kenny afterwards described as "A very good perfor- . . . well, a good performance, against a team who have been riding high."

Given the chaotic build-up it feels slightly ridiculous to spend too much time analysing the game on a technical level. After the “who’s next” drama of Covid positives and the farce of multiple late withdrawals, the familiar rhythms of a 0-0 draw felt almost structured and soothing.

It was similar to the previous Nations League home game against Finland, in that Ireland played some decent passing football and dominated the play without ever looking very likely to score. Of 11 attempts on goal, only one was on target. This was Kenny’s fourth game and the team has still scored only one goal: Shane Duffy’s header from a corner in Bulgaria.

Other indicators were more encouraging. Ireland completed 467 passes for 55 per cent of possession. If you think back to the World Cup qualifier in Cardiff in October 2017, Ireland had 244 passes for 28 per cent possession.

It's noteworthy that seven of the players from Sunday's game featured in that match in Cardiff. This shows the difference that a change of emphasis from the coaching staff can make. Instead of hitting long balls to Daryl Murphy, an Ireland team consisting of many of the same players were trying to find Jeff Hendrick between the lines.

“But Ireland won 1-0 that night in Cardiff”, you could say. Indeed they did, and the prize was to play Denmark, who inflicted a generational humiliation by slaughtering them 5-1 at home, proving beyond all doubt – or so you would have thought – that long-ball football is not necessarily winning football, and that it was time for Ireland to find another way.

Kenny insisted after the game that the lack of goals does not worry him: “I think it’s genuinely not something I’m concerned about. I think we had to make incredible amounts of changes at short notice today . . . it wasn’t easy with everything that went on. I do feel that we’re achieving a lot, particularly in the game against Slovakia, and I do feel with other players to come in as well, we’re going to get better.”

Questions over the absence of one of those important players, Aaron Connolly, continued over the weekend. Kenny was asked in the pre-match press conference on Saturday whether, in hindsight, he thought "aspects of operations over the last few days could have been handled differently," and whether he had spoken to the FAI about it. He paused for 14 seconds before saying that "what happens in-house should sort of remain in-house," then paused again while seeming to mull over his choice of words.

“It was a non-essential member in terms of a crisis situation that travelled,” he said, “ . . .and that’s something we have to live with.”

The FAI's outgoing interim chief executive Garry Owens spoke to Newstalk before the game on Sunday and seemed to take issue with Kenny's description of the staff member as 'non-essential', pointing out that the person's role with the team was mandated by Uefa. When this was put to Kenny after the game, he shot back sharply: "What do you want me to say? He wasn't taking the free kicks, you know what I mean?"

In reality Kenny’s point had always been clear: it had been a disaster for Ireland that such a key player as Connolly had been ruled out of such a big game because he was a close contact of someone he had no need to have any contact with. If a player tests positive and other players are then ruled out because they are close contacts, there’s not much you can do about that.

The players train together, they have to be in close contact with each other. They don’t have to be in close contact with administrative staff, and this is the difference between essential and non-essential that Kenny was getting at.

However, the sense that this could go down as one of the truly great FAI bungles dissipated upon the news that Connolly and Adam Idah had actually gone to the back of the plane to sit in seats other than the ones they were assigned to. Their protracted proximity to the staff member who tested positive was therefore accidental, it had not been part of the FAI's plan.

Maybe there should have been someone in charge of making sure that everybody sat in the correct seat, but you can understand the failure to foresee that some players would ignore the seat numbers and sit where they liked. Surely there will be somebody in charge of checking it on the next flight, and now that everyone has seen what happened to Connolly and Idah, the seat-checker will surely find that everyone is sitting exactly where the plan says they should be. The horse may have bolted but at least the gate will be locked.

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