Amidst some mixed messaging, Stephen Kenny remains adamant that his position as Republic of Ireland manager is not dependent on getting a positive result against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night.
Turns out that Kenny’s primary plan has always been to qualify for the Euros in 2024.
“We certainly have a plan in place,” he said. “I have taken the decision, right or wrong, that we would build this squad to be really, really competitive to qualify for Germany 2024.”
In a passionate press conference, still conducted over Zoom, where Kenny has admittedly found it difficult to convey his message, the 49 year-old came out strongly against reports that failure to be in contention to qualify for next year’s World Cup - following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan - has put his job under threat.
In what may prove Kenny’s ‘Rocky’ moment, the manager gauged the public’s mood on a run through Dublin city this morning, and came to the conclusion that “a lot of the Irish public are very positive” with the current national management.
“That’s irrelevant to me,” said Kenny of reports that his contract might not be extended past July 2022 due to one victory, over Andorra, from 15 matches in charge. “I think it is part of international management that comes with the territory. It is not something I am concerned about.”
Kenny contested even the mildest form of criticism about his own performance and that of his relatively young team, rejecting the idea that they are drained of confidence following defeat to Portugal and Saturday’s draw with a country ranked 112th in the world.
“Don’t forget, the spine of this team was ripped out of it,” said Kenny, before referencing an odd list of lost players. “Darren Randolph was injured for a period, Richard Keogh finished with his accident, and Glenn Whelan at the latter end of his career, a brilliant player, and also David McGoldrick, who retired. So the whole spine was taken out of this team.
“We have taken the best young players that we have seen, probably, for a long, long time and we blooded a lot of players in that period. And you are not always going to get a level of consistency with that. Our performances overall, bar the Luxembourg game, which we were disappointed with our performance, have been good overall.
“With Serbia and Portugal in the group, and the spine being ripped out of the team, and we haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002, did anyone think that we were favourites to qualify or we should qualify?”
Kenny was asked if the FAI board will agree with his primary aim of reaching the Euro 2024, especially if his team keeps failing to win games?
“My contract is not up until next July so this is not about my contract,” he insisted. “This is about us preparing for the Serbia game which is a very important game.”
When pressed, Kenny conceded that he has not been given any assurances by the FAI about consistently poor results being overlooked.
“I’ve taken the decisions I’ve taken regardless of the impact on myself here. I’ve not been given any assurances, I’ve just been given full support by the FAI behind the scenes. They’ve been brilliant.
“I’ve done it because we have a very exciting squad emerging. We’ve not had a huge pool of players to pick from between the experienced players towards the end of their careers and the young players who are coming through. There has been a gap there for sure. I’m very, very pleased with the emerging squad and some of our performances have been excellent, like against Portugal the other day.
“We certainly have a plan in place. I made the decision, right or wrong, that we would build this squad to be a really, really competitive team to qualify for Germany 2024.
“We didn’t not try to win the games, we went very close to winning in Serbia and winning against Portugal, away from home, we scored the first goal in both games, and played brilliant football in both games.”
Despite defeat to Luxembourg and Saturday’s draw, Kenny sees only “real progress.
“That’s the way I see it, the way my staff and all the coaches see it and there are a lot of people behind us. There are a lot of people who aren’t who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’.
“That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat. You’re trying to build something tangible over a period of time and that can be successful. That’s how I see it.”
Moments earlier, James McClean unloaded on the Irish media for their treatment of Kenny, and for some sections calling for his removal, but when asked for specific examples he was lost for words. When McClean asked the media who was the most critical of Kenny’s management of the national side, and he was informed that it was former players, the Wigan winger paid tribute to the same Irish legends.
“The media in Ireland is just as bad, if not worse, as the media in England for kind of getting a kick out of us not doing well,” he stated. “It’s a shame really but as senior players we have been around a long time so we know how it works so we just have to tell the young players that it is part and parcel of football and to pay no attention.
“We need to start winning games again and when we do the criticism goes away.”
McClean decided to bring up the 5-1 loss to Denmark in 2017 during a very strange defence of former Ireland manager Martin O’Neill.
“Like I said, I’m not even talking about Stephen’s era, I’m talking about managers before, like I go back to Martin O’Neill, that World Cup campaign was a fantastic campaign until the very last game and then the daggers, the knives, were out after the 5-1.
“I remember at the time thinking, ‘this is madness . . . this is astonishing, actually, the reaction’ considering the group we were in and how close we came.
“Like, after Wales we were brilliant, we were unbelievable, nobody could speak highly enough of us. But after Denmark it was a complete over the top reaction and I think that’s always going to be the case.”
Asked to explain why he is linking that 5-1 loss to the present tense, McClean added: “The point I make is how quickly the support for Stephen was until . . . we’re going through a difficult period at the minute. But reactions - even from people who were supportive at the start - have completely flipped and it’s just gone completely the other way.”
This statement was contested on several occasions during the interview.
“If we win Tuesday night and put a run of wins together, the same people with the knives out now will be the biggest supporters again. Football’s fickle, and that’s the way it is.”
Ireland’s last competitive win was against Gibraltar in June 2019.