Stakes are high both for Stephen Kenny and the future of Irish football

The manager’s long-term vision for Ireland is clear but he desperately needs some results

"Nature decides all things." – David Forde, the Republic of Ireland's wellness coach (and former goalkeeper).

This Ireland team and its governing body are going through a natural period of healing. The abnormality of the past 20 years, all the way back to Saipan, appears to have passed, even as the ODCE’s criminal investigation continues.

Above all else, Stephen Kenny needs a win. For that to happen, Stephen Kenny needs more lucky generals like Gavin Bazunu.

Kenny also needs goals. Not just from headers, like John Egan's in Portugal – "I love ya ma" – or via Shane Duffy, when all else fails.


Kenny’s team needs to go long, they need to play through the lines. He needs to be sacked, he needs another qualification campaign. Kenny needs time, Kenny needs a result right now.

Kenny need not spend 28 minutes patiently talking to the travelling newspaper men on Friday morning. He was far too busy to be explaining how Azerbaijan could be broken down by Chiedozie Ogbene's pace or revealing that Adam Idah and Jason Knight were laid low by fever.

Almost every other manager would have held such information and therefore painted the Irish reporters in a hungover light when the FAI slips the news out Saturday morning. Like that pointless press release about vaccination when we were all in transit.

Kenny does not play those games. He took the time to address the big picture, immediate concerns and all that exists in between. He even skipped his morning run. The press officer feared another barrage about players being caught in a web of anti-vax nonsense. No shots were fired because the manager proved so engaging on football matters.

‘What do you need to do better?’ The Sun asked the man who turns 50 this month.

“Right,” said Kenny, before inviting his press officer to take a seat. This would not be a short, sharp session.

So began a series of long form answers on formations, on Shane Duffy’s resilience, on Azerbaijan’s defensive block of eight and how Ireland must pass through them before it can solidify.

He also meandered into talking of the future, beyond his current contract, and the development of "emerging leaders," like uncapped 20-year-old Nathan Collins, who had already captained Stoke City before moving this summer to the Premier League with Burnley.

He also mentioned Bazunu and Dara O'Shea or a "different type of leader" in Jayson Molumby because Kenny "needs them to learn a lot" from Egan and the ultimate leader, injured captain Seamus Coleman.

Young group

"People talk about the three goalkeepers but we've three emerging centre backs in Dara (22), Nathan (20) and Andrew Omobamidele (19). They all have a lot of potential."

Such maturity is unusual in a young group?

“I’m not saying that they’re all mature. They’re not but there’s different individuals emerging who will take up the mantle in the future.”

Eventually the interview turned to David Forde and the psychology of the modern professional.

Without a single mention of Callum Robinson’s press conference last Tuesday, and the subsequent reaction that has made Irish players extremely wary of uttering truth to microphones for the foreseeable future, Kenny explained how he tries to understand the psyche of players so young that football has taken them from the university life or a trade and hard labour.

“I have been managing for a long time now,” he said of a career that formally commenced at Longford Town in 1998. “There are various experiences that people go through. Every team that I have managed, you are not going to have a situation where everyone’s lives are perfect.

“There has always been a variety of issues but maybe in the last couple of years there has been an increase in the anxiety, which is not a new development but maybe it is something that is being identified more; anxiety in young players. I am still learning about that really.

“That’s why we have a brilliant staff here . . . Obviously, David Forde is in the camp as well because he helps in that area.”

So players have embraced Forde’s role?

“Well, certainly, I don’t want to label anyone who goes to him [that he] has anxiety. You want to be careful with that. I think that is a gradual thing. Everyone has their own . . . he is just someone who can make a contribution in that regard, definitely as part of the team.”

Forde’s international career existed in Shay Given’s shadow, which makes the Galway man more of a familiar face than someone the public would feel they know, but there’s a depth to his character that presumably entices players, certainly enough for Kenny to bring him into the fold.

It’s an important link in a very long chain.

David Forde: aside, what is the alternative to Stephen Kenny?

Realistically, can the recently sacked Chris Hughton achieve what hasn't already been done by Martin and Roy or Trap and Marco Tardelli?

The alternative to Kenny must have prior knowledge about John Joe Patrick Finn Benoa before and not after Manchester United or Leeds or Everton capture the 18-year-old La Liga midfielder with a Mayo father and French Cameroon mother.

'John Patrick' is not the only magnificently-named Irish player storming through the European leagues. Kevin Zefi already speaks the language at Inter Milan. Kenny knows all about the Spanish-born Anselmo Garcia McNulty at Wolfsburg, the Limerick roots of Boavista's Cristiano Fitzgerald, Ryan Johansson's loan deal from Sevilla to Fortuna Sittard and Zak Gilsenan, the Barca kid now at Blackburn Rovers.

Encyclopaedic knowledge

Should someone without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the disapora’s children be allowed manage Ireland in the 21st century?

"With the impact of Brexit it is something we are learning about, for sure," said Kenny. "In the last squad Jim Crawford had four under 21s from the Bundesliga so there has been an impact from Brexit. The Irish diaspora in Germany and Spain, maybe that is an area we have not explored a lot in the past.

“Dutch and Belgium clubs are taking a greater interest in Irish players now because they understand that Brexit could be an issue.”

Keeping tabs on the nomadic herd is the easy part. Building an enticing structure for home-grown talent is a challenge beyond Kenny’s remit, but who else will spearhead such an enormous task?

“Football in this country, do the possibilities exist to increase the infrastructure to retain players and get to a certain level and play in European competition regularly before they go to the major leagues? That is the massive challenge. Obviously that would require serious finance and big infrastructural changes around a lot of the clubs. That is a challenge for the FAI as well.”

None of this is possible if the Taoiseach Micheál Martin was only telling OTB's Joe Molloy what he wanted to hear.

“Governments have provided funding but I think we should up it a bit in terms of the league itself, the current funding,” said Martin last May. “In relative terms, sporting expenditure isn’t huge, yet the value is enormous.

"I think the model of soccer has changed, it puts the League of Ireland in huge difficulty. We have two or three clubs every year [dominating] . . . but the funding underpinning it is very difficult.

“There is work to be done on the schoolboys league – [League of Ireland] academies taking from the clubs in term of players.”

Molloy laid out the figures. It costs up to €140,000 to run an academy annually. The Uefa grant is €50,000 and despite being dead broke the FAI give €10,000, so can the Government cover the €80,000 shortfall for the largest participation sport on the island?

"I think we can," the Fianna Fáil leader replied. "And if the FAI prioritises that we can step up to the plate on that [with] a sustained underpinning of the operation."

So hard cash?


Quick fix

Ireland is light years behind other small football nations in this regard, so consider the alternative to Kenny before putting him out to pasture.

This is a results business but the results have been poor for a very long time. 1988 to 2002 was an anomaly in the history of Irish football but Euro 2012 and 2016 can become the base level of expectation if the newly-minted FAI board, where Packie Bonner appears to have a massive say on whether Kenny is rehired, stay the current course.

Oh and an ice-cold finisher needs to emerge alongside generational players like Nathan Collins and Gavin Bazunu. Maybe Idah just needs to light the touchpaper or Evan Ferguson will burst into the public consciousness or Spurs recall Troy Parrott this summer and the goals will start raining down.

"I wouldn't be too aware of what the opinions are of other people," replied Bazunu, when asked about his gaffer's future, "but I think the most important thing is to look at us as a group, look at the recent games we've played, look at the game against Portugal, the game against Serbia, look at the amount of young players that have been integrated into the squad.

“This isn’t going to be a short or quick fix, it’s not going to be a temporary solution, this is for a long-term plan to get us into a position where all these young lads will be able to break through into this team and we’ll be able to challenge the best teams in the world. That’s the aim.”

The teenage leader cannot do it alone.