Malachy Clerkin: Ireland will beat Andorra . . . won’t they?

The Stephen Kenny era is in a twilight zone and will die on the vine without positive results

Stephen Kenny remains without a win in his first 11 games as Republic of Ireland manager. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Stephen Kenny remains without a win in his first 11 games as Republic of Ireland manager. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Saw a line in one of the papers over the weekend. Nearly broke a toe dropping the tablet. “If Ireland do not beat Andorra on Thursday, it will be a dozen games under Stephen Kenny without a win,” it read. It wasn’t even tongue in cheek. Just a straight statement of fact.

Did we ever think we’d live so long? That we would find ourselves in the week of a friendly international entertaining, to any extent, the idea of an Ireland team not beating Andorra? Even just saying it out loud seems like an in-joke gone too far.

First off, if Ireland do not beat Andorra on Thursday, Irish football has much bigger problems than Stephen Kenny’s dozen games without a win. It has them anyway, of course. And they won’t disappear just because the national side beats the 158th ranked team in the world.

But like, come on now. It’s not stinting on respect for the opposition to point out that however bad things have ever been, the phrase “If Ireland do not beat Andorra” has never had an airing before. Ireland’s results have not been good, no. But it should not be considered a journey out onto a limb to suggest that they will pick up their first win this week.

This is where we are though. You lose at home to Luxembourg, this is the price you pay. After that defeat in March, much was made of the fact that Luxembourg were not quite the minnows they used to be. There was a strain of thinking too that Ireland - particularly Kenny and Seamus Coleman - overdid the sackcloth-and-ashes routine after the game. That proclaiming the result to be unacceptable was a sign of Ireland’s inflated opinion of their place in a game.

Which would have been all very well, except there wasn’t a single whistling dixie mention of any of that before the match. And because there wasn’t, you get the sense that bets are being hedged ahead of this Andorra fixture. It’s as though nobody is quite sure where the bottom of the well is any more. It isn’t Luxembourg at home - might it be Andorra away?

Appalling

Of all the ways we saw Kenny’s first year going, we didn’t see it this way. Eleven games without a win. An appalling goalscoring record. The close contact fiasco in Slovakia. The hapless penalty-shoot-out defeat. The England video row. One back-room staff member after another departing. World Cup hopes more or less extinguished after two matches. Aside from that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs Lincoln?

But still. Things have been bad but they haven’t been if-Ireland-do-not-beat-Andorra bad. It’s fair to say that widespread public support for Kenny was fracturing before the Luxembourg game and it fell off a bit of a cliff afterwards. He and his team have miles to travel before they get it back. But they’re not going to not beat Andorra. Don’t be daft.

The Kenny era is in a strange kind of twilight zone. For all that results have been bad, very few of the performances have been outright stinkers. Once or twice a half, his team puts together a neat and tidy passing move that gets Ireland up the pitch with precision and style, playing exactly the type of football he has been dogmatically preaching for years.

Problem is, they don’t score at the end of those moves. Of the four goals under Kenny, Shane Duffy and James McClean have scored from corners, James Collins got in for a hustle-and-harry job against Serbia and only Alan Browne’s opener in that game came from Ireland creating space. It’s a paltry return.

And it has made the Kenny regime so much harder to defend. You want Kenny to succeed. You want his ideas to succeed. You know Ireland aren’t ever going to win anything and you’re fine with that - you just don’t see why it all has to be such a grind and why the football has to be terrible. So you think maybe this can be the start of something different.

If only

And it is, up to a point. They play some nice stuff but they leave you with if-onlys. If only Alan Browne hadn’t hit the post against Slovakia. If only the Callum Robinson who has no problems in front of goal when playing Chelsea could extend the same courtesy to, say, Luxembourg. If only John Egan hadn’t got injured. If only Shane Duffy hadn’t moved to Celtic. If only, if only.

But in the end, it’s a losing battle. You find yourself arguing with your mates in the WhatsApp group when Ireland are playing. You overpraise the stuff that is pleasing on the eye. You watch yourself typing out blithe dismissals of Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni, overlooking the fact that they both got Ireland to the Euros. They did not lose to Luxembourg. Neither reign featured the sentence, ‘If Ireland do not beat Andorra.’

So here’s what the twilight feels like. It is to be broadly in favour of everything Kenny is trying to do with the team while accepting that it will all die on the vine without results. It is to know in your bones that results would be just as bad playing the old caveman stuff but starting to doubt your contention because clearly you can’t prove it. It is to wonder why Kenny’s critics don’t see that this is so obviously the right way to go while quietly questioning your own fealty.

This week, first and foremost, it is to dismiss out of hand any suggestion that Ireland won’t beat Andorra on Thursday. They will. Of course they will. They absolutely will.

Won’t they?

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