Stephen Kenny era to start with testing Nations League campaign
Ireland to face Wales, Finland and Bulgaria later this year
Wales’ James Chester and Joe Allen celebrate beating Ireland in Dublin in the Nations League in 2018. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It is hard not to have sympathy for all of the coaches of national teams obliged to attend Tuesday’s Nations League draw in Amsterdam but for Mick McCarthy, who is not even due to be in charge of the team when the first of the games actually come around in September, this must all have been fairly excruciating.
His heir apparent, Stephen Kenny, will have been watching with interest, though, as Ireland was handed what looks to be another tough task.
Asked recently for his view on a playoff system that requires his Ireland side to win twice away from home this month in order to qualify for a major championship, McCarthy just shrugged his shoulders and pointed out that he had little option but to accept the consequences of what was a particularly poor first ever Nations League campaign by the team he inherited from Martin O’Neill.
Missing out on the opportunity to improve Ireland’s record in the competition in games against Wales, Finland and Bulgaria towards the end of this year is unlikely to be at the top of his list of regrets when it comes time to hand over the reins.
Having been reprieved from relegation to the competition’s third division, thanks to Uefa’s ongoing tinkering with the format, however, there will at least be no lingering doubts about the team’s performance in the second edition of Uefa’s most convoluted of competitions having consequences. Once again there is the potential of a backdoor entry, this time to the World Cup, if a side does well this autumn.
The structure at the business end of things looks more made up than ever, but that is a price that Uefa has demonstrated it is prepared to pay in order to invigorate what were previously friendly dates in the football calendar so as to better bundle the games up and sell them to the continent’s broadcasters.
It means more revenue, much needed in the case of the FAI of course, and, to be fair, much more of an edge to the matches from a spectators’ point of view. But it might be viewed as something of a mixed blessing from a manager’s point of view, especially a new one, looking to ease himself into the senior international game before the start of World Cup qualifying proper in 2021.
Kenny’s work with the under-21s suggests that he might well attempt a bit of an overhaul of both the senior squad’s personnel and playing style. The options are not overwhelming, but quite a few of those he has worked with during the past year or so have started to make a name for themselves and if anyone believes in their ability to progress then it is surely the Dubliner.
A few friendlies, though, without anything much really, hanging on the results, might have allowed Kenny to get a better sense of what is feasible over the course of his first campaign in charge; one during which he will be under constant scrutiny, not least from those who remain unconvinced about the wisdom of the appointment.
The way it was done by John Delaney has certainly not helped and speculation that the whole process might be unpicked by the association at the last minute may well persist until the handover is safely completed.
Until then, Kenny has the next phase of the under-21s’ campaign to concern himself with but the scale of the test that awaits him is finally becoming clearer.
Thursday 3rd (a) v Bulgaria
Sunday 6th (h) v Finland
Saturday 10th (h) v Wales
Tuesday 13th (a) v Finland
Friday 13th (a) v Wales
Monday 16th (h) v Bulgaria
Ireland’s Nations League opponents
Stephen Kenny will not have to work very hard to familiarise himself with Ryan Giggs’s side, with Ireland having played them on four occasions towards the tailend of Martin O’Neill’s time in charge.
The battling performance and James McClean goal that earned Ireland a 1-0 win in Cardiff towards the end of 2017 was probably the last real highlight of the O’Neill’s tenure but the 4-1 defeat back there a year later was one of the key factors in his time in charge being brought to an end.
The hosts showed what an Ireland side might aspire to being that night and they have a good Euro 2020 qualification campaign since, making it out of a group that included Slovakia.
Kenny may relish the opportunity to test his side against that of Giggs but there might still be a hint of the supporters hoping that Gareth Bale is not about on the nights in question.
A tough looking one this with Finland having just qualified for a major tournament for the very first time under coach Markku Kanerva. Like Kenny, he started out at the association as manager of the under-21s and got them to the European Championships for a first, and still only, time in 2009. He then had five years as assistant with the seniors as a stepping stone to his current role.
The team’s Euro 2020 campaign was something of a triumph. They might have lost home and away to Italy but Kanerva’s side won their other four home games without conceding a goal.
They didn’t score a whole lot themselves but Teemu Pukki’s haul of 10, comfortably more than anyone else in the group could manage, was enough to drive them to a second place finish.
The two countries haven’t met in competition since 1949 when Ireland won in Dublin then drew on the road. Repeating that will be a challenge.
As anyone who at the game in Dublin in September will know only too well, the Bulgarian national team has seen better days and they were quite a long time ago at this stage.
The team then managed by one of the heroes of the USA’94 campaign, Krasimir Balakov, is now overseen by Georgi Dermendzhiev who has the unenviable task of turning a largely home-based team devoid of any real star quality into contenders again.
The Nations League was good for them last time, with the side winning the first three of six outings but they have managed just one victory in the 15 months since and that in the last of their Euro2020 qualifiers, against a Czech side that had already qualified.
The rest of their campaign was a fairly miserable affair with top seeds England beating them 10-0 over two games as they stumbled along to finish fourth of five teams in Group A, five points adrift of Kosovo.
Group A1: Poland, Bosnia, Italy, Netherlands
Group A2: Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, England
Group A3: Croatia, Sweden, France, Portugal
Group A4: Germany, Ukraine, Spain, Switzerland
Group B1: Romania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Austria
Group B2: Israel, Slovakia, Scotland, Czech Republic
Group B3: Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Russia
Group B4: Bulgaria, Republic of Ireland, Finland, Wales
Group C1: Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro
Group C2: Armenia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Georgia
Group C3: Moldova, Slovenia, Kosovo, Greece
Group C4: Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Belarus, Albania
Group D1: Malta, Andorra, Latvia, Faroe Islands
Group D2: San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar
Nations League – All you need to know
What is the Nations League all about again?
The main purpose of the Nations League is to reduce the number of meaningless friendlies and bring an additional competitive element to international football.
Is it linked to World Cup qualification?
Yes. Once the winners and runners-up from regular qualifying for the 2022 finals in Qatar are known, the two highest-ranked Nations League group winners who did not qualify for the World Cup directly or finish as a group runner-up join the 10 runners-up in a two-round playoff system. This system will produce a further three teams to join the 10 group winners in Qatar.
Is there promotion and relegation?
Yes, teams who finish bottom in the groups in Leagues A and B will be relegated, while there will be relegation playoffs in League C.
What is the format?
Teams compete in four-team groups based on rankings – for instance the top 16 teams in the Uefa rankings compete in League A. Teams play home and away between September and November 2020. The winners of the groups in League A will contest the Nations League finals in June 2021.