On regular flights to England to watch players or on runs around Dublin Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny does not encounter the criticism ex-internationals continue to send his way.
Quite the opposite, he states, with supporters pulling over cars to wish him well on a morning jog into the city before the Serbia game, conjuring up the image of Rocky Balboa pounding the pavements of blue collar Philadelphia.
But the doubters do exist, fuelled by undeniable results, with Paul McGrath consistently questioning Kenny’s ability to lead Irish football out of the doldrums with an unbending loyalty to possession football.
“You have to have that ball over the top,” said McGrath, ironically at an FAI event to sell tickets for the Qatar match on October 12th. “You can’t just keep playing football in the middle of the pitch, making nice arcs and circles. I think you have to put the ball into the box if you want to score goals. Goals are what we are lacking at the moment.”
Kenny not only read McGrath’s quotes, he could repeat them.
“I don’t think he was overly critical. I think he said also he hoped I proved him wrong or I may prove him wrong and that’s certainly the intention in that regard.”
For all Adam Idah’s physicality during last month’s internationals against Portugal, Azerbaijan and Serbia, the Irish goals were scored by defenders Shane Duffy and John Egan. Both from balls into the box.
Perhaps that is what prompted Kenny to select 28-year-old Wigan Athletic forward Will Keane, whose twin brother, Everton centre half Michael Keane, rejected the green jersey to win 12 caps for England under Gareth Southgate since 2017.
Kenny’s predecessors Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy both considered picking the former Manchester United academy player before looking elsewhere. Perhaps Kenny feels the 6ft 2in striker cannot be ignored, having witnessed Keane and James McClean combine in Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.
“He plays as a second striker at Wigan,” Kenny said. “He leads the line quite well, has an appreciation of players around him, has a good weight of pass and good vision. He can score headed goals and different types of goals, so he’s having a good season so far. It is League One, admittedly, but every time we have gone to see him he has been impressive.”
Keane has scored four goals in nine league appearances this season, one more than Troy Parrott in the same division and two shy of Lincoln City’s Anthony Scully, but Idah’s inability to command any Premier League exposure at Norwich City, same goes for Aaron Connolly at Brighton, indicates that Kenny is more desperate than ever to break an abysmal run of one win from 16 games as national manager.
At this stage, Kenny is continually asked if a first competitive victory matters more than how the team performs, especially after the ultra defensive Azerbaijan took a point off Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.
“It’s a fair question,” he conceded. “We missed a lot of chances in the home game so it’s a game we want to win. There are no pushovers. To be fair, Portugal beat Azerbaijan 3-0 but that’s the first time they’ve conceded more than two goals in a few years so that was unusual, so they don’t concede too many goals, normally.
“You have to earn the right to score; they’re well-drilled and they have a counter-attacking threat as well, so we’ve got to make sure we take our opportunities.”
Ireland have only earned the right to score off a calamitous Serbian own goal and headers by Duffy and Egan.
Keane’s call-up appears to signal the end of Shane Long’s international career. The 34-year-old, who was pulled from the Portugal match due to Covid, has been overlooked after failing to get any pitch time at Southampton.
Chiedozie Ogbene returns from injury, and considering how Kenny speaks about the Rotherham winger, who became the first Nigerian born player to be capped by Ireland against Hungary last summer, a second appearance seems imminent.
Enda Stevens is recalled despite Sheffield United ruling out their left sided defender from this international window in a tweet the club subsequently deleted.
Jason Knight also makes a welcome reappearance after an ankle injury. The 20-year-old should slot into central midfield alongside Josh Cullen or Jeff Hendrick. Hendrick has only played six minutes for Newcastle United in the Premier League this season while Cullen is an ever-present for Belgium club Anderlecht.
“Someone like Jeff, to be fair, prides himself on his physical condition. It isn’t easy when you’re not playing every week. Matt Doherty and Cyrus Christie, for example, as well. It is difficult for the players when they’re not playing to come in and raise their standards to international football.”
Ireland captain Seamus Coleman (hamstring) and Dara O’Shea (ankle surgery) were not considered while Alan Browne and Jayson Molumby are suspended.
“The main statistic we’re looking for against Azerbaijan is to win,” added Kenny, “we need to turn our draws into wins”.
REPUBLIC of IRELAND squad – Goalkeepers: Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City on loan to Portsmouth), Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers ( Bournemouth).
Defenders: Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Shane Duffy (Brighton), John Egan (Sheffield United), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Nathan Collins (Burnley).
Midfielders: Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa on loan to Sheffield United), Harry Arter (Nottingham Forest on loan to Charlton Athletic), Jamie McGrath (St Mirren), Jason Knight (Derby County).
Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Aaron Connolly (Brighton), James Collins (Cardiff City), Daryl Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers), Adam Idah (Norwich City), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur on loan to MK Dons), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United).