Irish soccer’s results v style culture war set to flare this week

Stephen Kenny attempting change while trying to qualify for a championship

Stephen Kenny wants his team to pass the ball more, but they need results too. Photograph: Inpho

Stephen Kenny wants his team to pass the ball more, but they need results too. Photograph: Inpho

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Ahead of Thursday’s Euro 2020 playoff game in Bratislava between Ireland and Slovakia it’s worth keeping in mind how handsome is as handsome does.

Despite the substantial implications of the outcome - a win will mean a playoff next month against either Northern Ireland or Bosnia and an opportunity to play a couple of home games at next year’s deferred finals - much of this week’s game from an Irish perspective is being framed around style.

A desire to change Ireland’s reputation for ‘British style’ football has been at the heart of Stephen Kenny’s reign since taking over as manager earlier this year. He has said that altering the perception of Irish football towards a more sophisticated and continental image rather than simply lumping it up to the big lad is his No. 1 motivation.

It is a lofty goal and in many ways an admirable one.

Those weaned on the meat-and-two-veg approach served up during the Jack Charlton years were sustained by success but rarely got to pose as football gourmands. Much of the subsequent fare from Charlton’s successors was more stodge than soufflé too.

Admittedly Both Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr tinkered at times with the tried and trusted formula of going at opposition teams more brutally than technically.

But Giovanni Trapattoni might as well have kitted his Ireland teams out in Union Jack underpants such was the ‘British style’ he employed while the tactics of the Martin O’Neill-Roy Keane alliance were rarely confused with Tiki-taka either.

It leaves Irish football with a confused identity which includes a sizeable population of soccer connoisseurs seemingly determined to believe that generations of fans have been blackguarded by bosses too unimaginative to get their teams playing ‘properly.’

That tension between results and the style employed to deliver them has been at the root of Irish football’s culture wars over the years. It promises to flare up once again this week.

Plenty of goodwill exists towards the new manager but after a pair of Nations league games there are already grumbles too that Kenny’s determination to get his team passing more might look pretty but hasn’t been particularly productive.

Aesthetic considerations can only go so far before colliding with the reality of results

A bullocking Shane Duffy header secured a draw against Bulgaria in Sofia but there’s consensus that a 1-0 home defeat to Finland could have been worse.

Ireland had more possession than Finland. They had a 91 per cent pass completion rate against Bulgaria. But in both games chances created were minimal. And what never changes is how the only statistic that counts is the score-line.

It means Kenny goes into the playoff facing a dilemma even the most lukewarm observer can appreciate: with so much riding on the outcome has he the courage of his convictions to keep practising what he preaches.

That the Irish team, with its sprinkling of Premier League players, really should have enough about them to beat Slovakia only underlines the quandary about how best to go about it.

Callum Robinson scores for West Brom against Chelsea. Photograph: Nick Potts/EPA
Callum Robinson scores for West Brom against Chelsea. Photograph: Nick Potts/EPA

In both of Kenny’s games to date the Irish team has adopted a more passing approach. Patterns of play have been pulled off with varying degrees of success but which at least contained an ambition which reflects trust in the players technical abilities.

Particularly in the Finland game however it was hard to escape a sense of pretty patterns being painted to little actual effect. Playing the beautiful game is a noble ambition. But if it isn’t productive it risks becoming self-indulgent. There has to be substance to the style.

The default position for many fans has long been that Ireland has enough players technically able to play a much more sophisticated game than the crude long-ball stereotype for which the country is known. But aesthetic considerations can only go so far before colliding with the reality of results.

Kenny can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. He is attempting culture change while trying to qualify for a major championship. It’s a precarious balancing act and one element he can’t presume on is time. Goodwill is always finite when it comes to managing Ireland.

Nostalgia inevitably accompanied Jack Charlton’s sad passing in July. But time can’t erase the depth of vehemence about the blunt manner with which he delivered success. That tension continued in his wake, the sense that Ireland’s players were better than the way they were asked to play.

Now the purists have got one of their own at the helm, a manager emphatic about his ambition to play a certain way and apparently possessed of higher motives than hanging on to his job by winning the next game.

It will make for a fascinating watch on Thursday and not just because it promises to be more than the exercise in endurance that observing Irish teams turned into over the years, a process that prompted so many of those tortuous discussions about football ‘philosophy.’

Surely it can’t be just those tempted to reach for a gun every time the ‘P’ word gets used like this who recognise how the only football philosophy worth a damn is the one that’s most effective to win.

Positive play is the most effective way to get results if you have the players skilful enough to make it an advantage over the opposition. But passing for the sake of it risks being self-indulgent. It’s why the dismissal of previous regimes as dinosaurs have always seemed just that little bit too glib.

They contain assumptions of everyone being out of step except the ideologues, that renowned figures such as Trapattoni and Keane wilfully failed to recognise the rough diamonds under their noses. Or that top clubs with global talent scouting networks have a blind-spot towards Ireland.

Maybe the culture change Kenny aspires to will alter that perception too. Experience though suggests it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about how best to get over the line. Only the most lofty aesthete can pretend a touch of the philistine isn’t useful sometimes, particularly when digging out a result.

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