Stephen Kenny left clinging to the hope of better forward options next autumn
Integration of young players will continue but lack of natural goalscorer remains concern
Stephen Kenny: things should improve defensively ahead of the campaign’s resumption but it is no clearer now than it was before the recent window of games where the goals are going to come from. Photograph: Trenka Attila/PA
Having put a bit of distance between himself and his predecessors in recent weeks with all the talk about the scale of change he is trying to achieve with this Irish team, Stephen Kenny will be as helpless now as they were when players returned to their clubs.
Despite the likes of Shane Duffy, Conor Hourihane and Shane Long having gone out on loan so that they would play more, the problems of players, important ones by Ireland’s standards, struggling back at their clubs persists with the likes of Aaron Connolly, Robbie Brady and Callum Robinson having been handed prominent roles in these most recent games despite having barely figured in previous weeks.
In a couple of those instances, injuries were a factor but that says something too about where Kenny finds himself in terms of options. The decline in status of our players in terms of the Premier league is well worn ground, but this is not about trying to throw a Roy Keane out there when he is not fully fit.
Stoke City boss Michael O’Neill had clearly suggested when the Irish squad was announced that James McClean would not be in any shape to feature and yet the Derryman, 32 next month, did just that in every one of the three games.
For a couple of the younger players, there has been more tangible progress at international level during Kenny’s brief reign than there has been in terms of their recent respective club careers.
The circumstances, of course, have been far from favourable for the Dubliner with huge numbers of withdrawals from the squads pre Christmas. But even this past week Troy Parrott has been rewarded, it seemed, more for what he did for the manager at Under-21 level than any great impact made at either of his two clubs this season.
The lack of a goalscorer, though, must inevitably skew the manager’s considerations. Connolly, Adam Idah, Parrott. . . none has looked like delivering on that particular front for Kenny so far and while Shane Long did enough against Qatar to suggest he still has something to offer up front, the reason he slipped to the international margins in the first place is because he not nearly effective enough in front of goal.
Things should be improved defensively ahead of the campaign’s resumption but it is not really much clearer now than it was before this window where the goals required to win games are going to come from.
Kenny needs one of those young strikers to start making some fairly remarkable strides in a pretty short space of time and right now it feels like a lot to hope for.
All look to be good longer-term prospects but for the manager time may yet be short despite the FAI assurances offered last weekend.
His renewed declaration of intent after the game on Tuesday was impressive but it will not count for much if the results don’t improve and the next round of group games – Portugal away, then Azerbaijan and Serbia at home – looks like another formidable challenge.
In the meantime, the summer training camp and games against Andorra and Hungary may be more important for him than the equivalent trips away have tended to be in recent years for other Ireland managers.
He needs to continue the integration of young players while placating more senior squad members who have the potential either to contribute or, perhaps, become disruptive forces.
Kenny claimed after the draw in Debrecen that he didn’t care about the string of retired players who have been critical but it is hard to imagine that is entirely true. The tone of the some of the commentary has been pretty disrespectful which is disappointing generally and must surely be hurtful to him.
On a more practical level, though, having displaced senior squad members assured by their peers that they are entitled to feel aggrieved will hardly help his cause if the results do not significantly improve.
As things stand, for all the setbacks, Kenny does have a point when he suggests that he should have slightly more and better options in the autumn because of the way the likes of Dara O’Shea, Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight have taken their opportunities so far. Their emergence looks like bad news for players like Harry Arter, Alan Judge and even injury-plagued James McCarthy, around whom Kenny had talked about building his team.
Right now, though, none of the younger generation could be considered game -changers at this level and there must be a fear from Kenny’s perspective that it might be the manager after him who reaps the greater benefit from their emergence.
Exactly what is required of him at this stage to stay in the job beyond the current campaign is unclear with Roy Barrett talking a little vaguely in terms of continued progress.
Reaching the World Cup was always something of a long-shot but there will have to be sufficient progress in the remaining group games of this campaign to reassure his employers that he is the right man to lead the team towards Euro2024, a far more achievable target given the numbers involved.
There are an awful lot of factors feeding into the predicament in which he finds himself. But even assuming that this team’s rejuvenation will, like its decline, be a matter of more than just one campaign, he clearly needs to start providing more evidence that he is the man to oversee the next one because there is too much at stake for the FAI to back him blindly, even if, as thankfully seems to be the case, they fundamentally believe in the importance of what he is trying to achieve.