Stephen Kenny has a vision for James McCarthy as midfield anchor

Manager brushes off criticism that he lacks experience of Premier League-level coaching

If it wasn't for the fact that his team is about to play back-to-back games in almost-empty stadiums, you might have been tempted to suggest this was one of the stranger days Stephen Kenny will have during his time as senior international manager. One thing's for sure: a socially distanced sponsor's showroom in an industrial unit off the M50 certainly won't have been the setting that the 48-year-old envisaged for the most significant squad announcement of his career so far.

The squad announced might have contained a familiar face or two more than some of his more enthusiastic supporters would have envisaged, but Kenny, as ever, came across as confident that he had given all his options due consideration before settling on a group that contains a couple of uncapped players, but plenty too who know their way around the senior set-up.

The return of midfielders Harry Arter and James McCarthy were among the headline items on a day when Kenny's vision for the team he has inherited became just a little clearer. The Dubliner was especially enthusiastic about the Crystal Palace player, who has not lined out in an Ireland shirt since the tail end of 2016.

“I’m really thrilled about that [having him back in],” said the manager at the offices of Umbro, New Balance and now New Era, milliners to the FAI. “He is someone who is extremely talented. He has an exceptional range of passing and I don’t think we have utilised him in his best position a lot. He’s only 29 now so there is more to come from James. If we can get him facing the goal and get the ball to him in midfield with the attacking options and speed that we’ve got, it could be a good combination.”



McCarthy, he very strongly hinted, will anchor his three-man central midfield, a role Kenny suggested he had discussed with the player in the Zoom call that sealed his return after a spell when, shaken by a couple of very serious injuries, just getting back playing had been his priority.

“Hopefully he can stay fit,” said the Dubliner, “but he’s very, very excited to come back in and I’m excited to have him.”

Kenny comes across as pleased to have them all, but his success in the job will come down to his ability to get more out of the talent available to him than Mick McCarthy ultimately managed during his second stint in charge.

There is clearly some scepticism about his ability to do that, with Jason McAteer articulating the notion over the past few days that a manager whose experience had not extended much beyond the League of Ireland or international underage teams is not adequately equipped to handle Premier League-level talent.

That so many of the modern game's more celebrated managers have taken alternative routes to the top does not seem to have persuaded the former midfielder to reassess his rather traditional outlook, the expression of which suggested a personal animosity towards Brian Kerr, the former Ireland manager who has publicly dismissed as untrue some of the claims made by McAteer in his book about the Irish set-up of that era.


Kenny, in any case, said he was unconcerned.

"To be honest with you, I'm actually not offended that easily," he said. "I'm grand. Things like that don't really bother me that much. I'm in it too long. I've great respect for Brian Kerr and Chris Hughton who would have taken the training sessions he was criticising, but it's not relevant. We're in a high-performance, modern coaching environment now. Jason was a great player for Ireland; he did really well for them. I've no issue with him."

There was rather more anger in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, at the news that 23-year-old Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes had informed Ian Baraclough over the weekend that he wants to play for the Republic of Ireland from now on.

Kenny confirmed that he had had a conversation with the player, while Baraclough said he was disappointed with the situation after having spoken to both men. Inevitably, there was renewed media criticism north of the Border of a system that, it is argued, unfairly allows the association here to fairly openly recruit players there.

“I’ve been in the job 18 months and I haven’t actively recruited anyone in terms of the under-21 team,” insisted Kenny. The manager declined to get into the detail of what had been said when he spoke with Sykes, but said he respected both the player’s own sense of identity and his desire to play for the Republic of Ireland – something he is certainly entitled to decide he wants to do in a situation that has evolved out of, among other things, the Belfast Agreement.

“It’s not an easy thing to make that decision but it’s not something that we aggressively proactively tried to get him to do,” said Kenny. “Far from it. He’s a good player, a really good player, and he’s had a good season, but it’s in its infancy and was was probably accelerated because of the prospect of him being named in Ian’s squad this week. It can take a long time for these things to happen, though, it can take six months and so he won’t be involved in the immediate squad or in the next few games.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times