Stephen Kenny’s Ireland on the cusp of recapturing public imagination

Tipping Point: More positive results next month should peak the interest of sponsors

Stephen Kenny takes a selfie with fans after Ireland’s recent win over Qatar. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Stephen Kenny takes a selfie with fans after Ireland’s recent win over Qatar. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Just how fickle football can be is underlined by this new feel-good factor surrounding the Irish men’s team. From widespread handwringing not so long ago, a couple of victories have rejuvenated belief in both the side and its manager, Stephen Kenny. Ireland, it seems, is back in the results business.

That the substance of those two results is debatable doesn’t seem to matter.

An away win in Azerbaijan, the 119th ranked team in the world, as well as a 4-0 friendly thrashing of Qatar in Dublin hardly represent earth-shattering form - although it has at least boosted Kenny’s previous dismal statistical record of a single win against the microstate of Andorra in 16 matches.

Almost as important as the two results, though, has been the method behind them. It has helped set a new mood-music. Modern Irish football history has been dominated by the perennial style versus substance debate. Here at least has been some evidence that the two are not incompatible.

Whether it is simply relief at the novelty of winning again, or reassurance at the sight of Irish players stringing passes together to people they know, the Irish football public does appear to have pounced on the positive spirit with a fervour that reflects how downcast expectations had become.

Such a reaction inevitably provokes corresponding dangers of inflating presumptions to an unreasonable degree. On the back of a couple of games some players who had been previously maligned are now getting reviews that flirt with being rave.

Managing to dominate the Qatari midfield has morphed Jeff Hendrick from relative anonymity to potential dynamo of Newcastle’s new order: Callum Robinson isn’t some pampered second-rater but a free-spirited goal machine waiting to escape from championship level at West Brom.

If the mundane reality in both cases is more middle-of-the-road, only the truly negative will insist on cocking a snoot at a rare injection of optimism into the atmosphere surrounding the national team’s fortunes.

It already appears to have ensured Kenny’s future in the job. Having come through a bruising crash-course in how volatile the public tenor can be, those last two victories appear to have made a new contract something that’s Kenny’s to lose in Ireland’s final couple of World Cup qualifying group games.

Overpowering the Azeris and Qataris might have been technically meaningless but their political value is stamped all over Kenny’s boosted status and Irish football’s new frame of mind.

Should it sustain through next month’s matches against Portugal and Luxembourg then Kenny’s signature is assured as he targets qualification for Euro 2024. It could also provoke the commercial world into measuring that intangible element called popular sentiment.

Such have been the doldrums that the senior men’s team has sunk to that it doesn’t have a sponsor. It has been almost two years since the ‘Three’ deal finished up. Since then the FAI has put a lot of work into replacing them but without success. That’s a stark bottom-line verdict from the business world.

Advertising works on association. And the commercial market has bluntly decided it doesn’t want to be associated with this Ireland team.

It’s not like such reluctance is hard to fathom. Years of nightmare headlines about the administration and governance of soccer in this country have taken a reputational toll. No one wants their product to conjure associations with ineptitude off the pitch and mediocrity on it.

Some reports suggest that some FAI conceit at least hasn’t disappeared with an apparent value still being put on their headline sponsorship at E2.5 million per year. Several potential sponsors have baulked at that and again it’s not hard to see why.

Names with proven star appeal on the pitch such as a Duff or any kind of Keane aren’t around anymore. They’re not off the pitch either. Kenny’s leadership skills don’t lend themselves to much obvious charisma. It’s also been a long time since being able to presume on qualification for major tournaments.

But what these two latest wins have produced is some vital momentum. They have germinated a little hope in Irish football. Should that flower a little more against Portugal and Luxembourg then there is every chance of capturing the popular imagination in a big way.

There is little the Irish football public appreciates more than a battling underdog. But this is a setup that at least aspires to be a little different in how it plays, with a manager who, whatever else might be said about him, has the courage of his convictions even when he’s the one being put under pressure.

That has produced moments that have left some hard-nosed pundits wincing. But there seems to be some wider appreciation of the ambition towards a more expansive way of playing by a side where the emphasis is very much on youth.

Perhaps it is that changing face that is at the heart of this new optimism. This is a representative side that is recognizably reflective of Ireland today. And it is a side that is easy to like.

Both on and off the pitch there appears to be an easy confidence about the younger squad members in particular that is easy to warm to. These are players who are relatable to the next generation of soccer fans, including those from diverse heritages and backgrounds.

It’s probably little wonder then that after back to back wins, and with Covid-19 restrictions lifting to allow a full house in Lansdowne for Ronaldo & Co, that the popular mood is a lot more upbeat than it was.

Of course the fates may swing back again too. When the outcome of a game against Luxembourg is the measure of progress, then it is dangerous to be presumptive. But, if they don’t, proof that the team and the public are in sync again might come from big business paying up to be associated with the boys in green.

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