World Cup qualifying review: Ireland evolution as Bazunu & co emerge as stars

Progress required off the park with Kenny’s contract and governing positions to be sorted

This World Cup qualifying campaign was never boring. Each window opened Irish football to a different dimension with a cast of cameos ranging from Wayne Rooney to Liam Brady, Cristiano Ronaldo to Gianni Infantino.

Stephen Kenny remained the central figure throughout, rarely fluffing his lines, especially when Luxembourg manager Luc Holtz categorised Ireland as "British" opponents reverting to "one hundred years" of long balls.

Such amateurish mind games were cut to shreds by Kenny, who twisted the comments into motivation for a squad that has openly evolved their possession based style throughout 2021. He even pointed out the branding of Irish footballers as “second ball, cavemen” – which were Kenny’s words – is deeply insulting to a list of legendary figures that he proceeded to reel off without so much as a smirk.

That he included Mick McCarthy in the pantheon of passing greats, along with Brady, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, wasn’t lost on anyone in the Stade de Luxembourg media room as travelling fans breached flimsy security to bang on the windows.

The soliloquy was delivered in a similar tone to how, earlier in the campaign, Kenny emphasised the fact that Ireland have not qualified for a World Cup since 2002, and that by operating off the same failed methods of previous managers was the very definition of insanity, before revealing a medium term ambition of winning next year’s Nations League B. Kenny knew full well that he would be out of contract before this could be achieved, revealing a depth of intelligence the Irish player based in the UK for the past 20 years may not have known he possessed.

Qatar 2022

What became evident throughout this failed effort to reach Qatar 2022, which was initially rocked by Duff and Alan Kelly resigning as assistant coaches for polar opposite reasons, is the clearly defined roles of every staff member and how that allows the players to colour outside the lines (16 of whom were capped in the last 14 months).

Turns out Duff was on the money when stating on RTÉ last February that the immediate benefit of his departure, just weeks before defeat to Luxembourg in Dublin, was a “better coach than me” could be recruited. Duff may prove at Shelbourne that he possesses the qualities to become a manager of Kenny’s stature but Ireland’s fortunes and formation since hiring Chelsea first team coach Anthony Barry have been a revelation.

Irish teams, at all grades, are now embracing the 3-4-2-1 system that encourages stalled talent like Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty to rise above flagging club careers in the Premier League with hugely influential displays, particularly in Baku and Portugal.

Keith Andrews, who is effectively the assistant manager, is a prime example of someone who understands his precise duties on match day. The 41-year-old’s voice tends to be the last a player hears before entering the pitch. Or first leaving it.

Take the tactical switch that literally delivered a third place finish in Group A as opposed to what would have been an impossible-to-defend fourth behind a Luxembourg rabble that were thumped by Serbia and Portugal.

"He was just wishing me luck," said Jason Knight of a 62nd minute arrival before making three direct contributions to the 3-0 victory. "I have known Keith a long while and he was just wishing me best for the game."

Maybe that is all a player of Knight’s boundless energy needs to hear after an injury struck season caused by Derby County manager Wayne Rooney’s training ground tackle.

“Just be brilliant,” Kenny told Knight, in a similar vein to how Brian Kerr used to manage a young Duff. “He was coming on with two shifts; in possession on the left side of attack and out of possession he defensively had to mark Martins, their holding midfield player, so we pressed with the front two [Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene] and Jason was our number 10 in behind that.”

Despite Jamie McGrath’s emergence in the same position, this looks like the attacking trio Kenny needs to settle upon if Ireland are to keep scoring goals.

“He takes information on really quickly. One of the advantages of having been the Under-21 manager is you learn a lot about the character of the players. Jason has a terrific character.”

Buoyant camp

Knight’s attitude appears to be the accepted norm in a buoyant camp that now spreads to the four winds, some in desperate need of club minutes.

“I just wanted to get a touch of the ball really and play it off simple,” said the 20-year-old. “And then build into the game and try to impose myself.”

Andrews also had some choice words for the replaced Adam Idah, another gifted 20-year-old who has struggled of late.

It sounds counterproductive but Burnley, Newcastle United and Norwich City being relegated from the Premier League could help Idah to rediscover the goal scoring touch, along with Andrew Omobamidele, Hendrick and Nathan Collins as English Championship standards are well within their reach.

Idah’s hugely effective night on the Algarve is more aberration than reality at present, after he failed in Luxembourg to gel with Ogbene and Robinson, the second and third names on future Ireland team sheets.

Gavin Bazunu being the first, following the teenager’s sensational intervention on Sunday when Oliver Thill’s shot spun off Josh Cullen and needed a fingertip save to avoid another 1-0 to Luxembourg scenario.

The upturn in results, with one defeat in 10, and that was due to Ronaldo’s 97th minute header, puts Jonathan Hill and the FAI board in a weaker negotiating position regarding Kenny’s contract. Brady’s suggestion of a one-year extension makes no sense as the current agreement runs until July 2022 so another 12 months would be four matches into Euro 2024 qualification.

The board meets next week but Hill has already been communicating via his new Twitter account.

“Enjoying this,” he observed on Sunday with a picture from the high seats near Fifa president Gianni Infantino as the orange shirted players applauded the returning green army. “Great stuff Ireland – lovely to see. And very deserved,” he tweeted from the All Blacks match the day before having earlier refereed an under-13s fixture between Castleknock Celtic and St Francis in Porterstown Park after the match official was late. Some heroes don’t wear capes.

With Kenny’s new deal seemingly a matter of agreeing terms, the focus returns to Hill recruiting a chief operations officer to replace Rea Walsh, a position that takes on greater day to day significance if the English ceo continues to operate from the UK, and a director of football to replace Ruud Dokter.

Oh and the small matter of a sponsor before the March friendlies.

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