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Ken Early: This Ireland feels like a team at the beginning of its story not the end

Stephen Kenny’s team has got people interested in what happens next

We already knew Ireland's 2021 Goal of the Year contest was going to be better than the 2020 edition before Callum Robinson smashed in that brilliant opener in Baku. Shane Duffy's header from a corner in Sofia was a decent example of its type, but it was the only goal Ireland managed in the eight matches that were crammed into the last third of last year. The nine matches this year have seen 13 goals from 10 Irish players (and one big Serb) . . . and some people will tell you there've been no signs of progress.

Another sign of progress was Callum Robinson’s goal celebration, sticking his fingers in his ears in apparent response to the criticism he received last week after revealing he had chosen not to take the Covid vaccine.

It’s hard to think of another example of an Irish player doing a “fuck you” celebration in response to media criticism. Gascoigne’s dentist’s chair at Euro 96 is probably the classic example of what has always been one of the great motivating forces in the game. Italy’s World Cup wins of 1982 and 2006 were to some extent fuelled by it.

In Ireland the football media has had a generally rather sour relationship with the national team for nearly 20 years – but this has led to a lot more passive-aggressive post-match interviews than defiant eat-your-words performances. Maybe payback for past abuse from the papers was on Roy Keane’s mind when he delivered that string of brilliant displays between 2000 and 2002, but there was never a specific moment where he signalled as much on the field.


The scenes that followed Kevin Kilbane's goal against the Czech Republic – 15 years ago today – when the team ran to the sideline to celebrate with Steve Staunton and his staff, stands out in the memory as some of the angriest and most pointed. That took place a few days after the notorious 5-2 defeat in Cyprus, and it had been more than just the media having a go.

There has been a bit of that with Robinson as well, which is hardly surprising given Ireland has one of the highest rates of vaccination uptake in the world. Those who opt out are implicitly criticising the choice of the majority who have opted in, so pushback is to be expected.

One of the few things we all still agree on is that everyone loves a striker who feels he’s got something to prove. Half an hour after the opener he did it again, cutting back inside his marker and unleashing a shot that bounced past the goalkeeper with a sense of inevitability. Let’s hope Robinson can keep sticking it to the haters all the way to Euro 2024.

It was different from the pattern of many previous games in the Kenny era, in that Ireland did not dominate the ball but some of the shots went in. In the second half the team created a lot of chances but until Chiedozie Ogbene made it three at the end, the team had arguably scored its two most difficult chances and missed the rest. Robinson alone had eight shots, four of which were on target. To put these stupendous numbers in context: only one Irish player managed more than four shots on target across the entire 11-match Euro 2020 qualifying campaign: that was David McGoldrick, who had five.

Afterwards Stephen Kenny proudly pointed out that Ireland are now on a run of one defeat in seven, and that defeat was the ref-assisted Ronaldo miracle in Faro. RTÉ's Dietmar Hamann felt this was a bit rich coming from a guy who'd just won his first competitive match at the 13th attempt. This seems to ignore the reality of the 13 months Kenny has been through with this team. He has introduced a new generation of international footballers – with the bravery of a man who senses he has no other choice – and yet nearly every game has triggered a reiteration of a stale debate over whether he's the right man for the job. He is surely entitled to point out when things do actually appear to be improving.

The matchgoing Irish fans, absent for most of the Kenny era, made it clear in Baku that they support what he is doing. The strong sales of tickets for what is ostensibly an unappealing Tuesday night friendly against Qatar sends the same message. This team has got people interested in what happens next.

The beginning of this team coincides with the beginning of what might be a new era for international football, which has had a good 2021 relative to the club game, with its Covid-ravaged economy. The big football story of the week was the Saudi takeover at Newcastle, which everyone except Newcastle and Manchester City fans know is a sad moment for European club football.

This year's Champions League semi-finals included three petro-superclubs: Man City, Chelsea and PSG: Saudi Newcastle might soon make it four. Newcastle fans can surely understand if the rest of the world doesn't share their excitement at the prospect of watching Saudi Arabia slug it out with Qatar and the UAE for the game's biggest prizes.

In this context international football, long regarded as a backwater, assumes a new glamour: the version of big-time football that isn’t decided by money. And this Ireland feels like a team at the beginning of its story rather than one trying to squeeze the last drops out of what came before.