| 6.1°C Dublin

Kenny shows practical side in assembling first Ireland squad

Close

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny

SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny

There may well have been groans to go with the grey hairs of the older members of the Ireland squad when the FAI confirmed five-and-a-half months ago that Mick McCarthy was stepping down with Stephen Kenny taking over immediately.

For the younger players who had worked with Kenny, it was good news, the same applying to a veteran like James McClean, who had played under Kenny in the League of Ireland.

The route to the top which appeared to have a blockage under McCarthy was about to be cleared - as recently as last February, McCarthy had said that positive flurries of activity from teenagers like Adam Idah and Troy Parrott were irrelevant to him as "Slovakia is not a place for debutants".

"Continuity is the basis of all the teams I have had," he said.

McCarthy's Covid-related replacement by Kenny was a game-changer and while the young guns had their hopes lifted by Kenny's arrival, the rest had reasons to be fearful.

Ireland's results in 2019 were not as bad as the annus horribilus of 2018 but a batch of players has consistently underperformed.

There would have been no protests outside FAI HQ if Harry Arter, Cyrus Christie and Scott Hogan were never picked again.

Shane Long's exclusion under McCarthy didn't make it as far as 'Liveline', Ireland in 2020 no country for old men as long as teenagers like Idah and Parrott were playing in the Premier League.

For those with a superficial view of the Ireland team over the last number of years, a cull was inevitable. With the U-21 squad which he had overseen, Kenny had at his disposal the most promising crop of young talent available to an Ireland manager in a generation.

And, importantly, they weren't all sturdy, solid full-backs but attacking players like the already-capped Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott.

Fans, thrilled by the sight of that U-21 side beating Sweden home and away and going toe to toe with the most expensive Italian U-21 side in football history, played their own game of Fantasy Football, wondering how many of Kenny's kids could be fitted into his first senior squad.

Failed

There was a live prospect of international football being over for those who had been given chance after chance by Martin O'Neill and McCarthy but had failed to deliver.

The idealists saw Kenny taking a rusty axe to the squad he inherited and ditching the underachievers to usher in a new era.

Instead he (very lightly) used a scalpel, with Jayson Molumby and Adam Idah the only uncapped players in his first squad (Caoimhín Kelleher and Dara O'Shea were later added in response to injuries).

Kenny is a dreamer: anyone who has spent time in his company or in one of his squads knows that, the Tallaght man possessing a vision of how the game should be played, speaking of how he found it "offensive" to hear that Irish teams can only play one way, that playing defensive football was in our DNA.

Even his first media engagement of the week saw his speech peppered with positive words like "pace... the ability to control games... counter-attack... capture the imagination of the nation."

Martin O'Neill simply told the Irish players how useless they were and how lucky we were as a nation to have him as our manager; Kenny, the dreamer, wants to excite a nation. But Kenny hasn't lasted so long in management, hasn't survived being sacked three times, on dreams alone. There's steel there too.

Apparatchik

As an ageing Soviet apparatchik said of fresh-faced unknown Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s: "This man has a nice smile, but he has got iron teeth."

Kenny knows he would have won over the twitterati by performing a transfusion, importing the U-21 squad into the senior team and just letting the kids play.

Yet his first squad led to recalls for James McCarthy (last played for Ireland in 2016), Harry Arter (last played well for Ireland in... who knows?), Robbie Brady (injury-plagued for two years) and Shane Long (excluded by McCarthy).

The two Callums (Robinson and O'Dowda) have been at best tepid in the green shirt in the pre-Kenny era, neither man pulling up trees at club level. Many FAI-watchers would have preferred to see the two Conors (Coventry and Ronan) move up the ladder from the U-21s and leave Robinson on the shelf.

Kenny seems to like having a project: turning Longford Town from a shambolic midlands club into a force capable of playing in Europe was one, the same with his transformation of Dundalk from relegation material to Europa League group stage battlers.

Players are also viewed as projects for Kenny, who was able to turn LOI journeymen like Andy Boyle, Dane Massey, Brian Gartland and Seán Gannon into multiple medal winners.

Before he got a chance to work with the squad in person this week, Kenny had spoken of his hopes of getting more out of the likes of Robbie Brady and James McCarthy.

Ignored

Kenny, the idealist, would have ignored Long and picked a squad made up exclusively of young strikers, but instead he's trusted his gut that there's more to come from Long and Robinson.

It's the same with the LOI where Kenny made his name - he has omitted the only home-based player to make an impression on McCarthy (Jack Byrne).

He would have garnered kudos at home for including Byrne - instead Kenny has told the Shamrock Rovers man that he has more to do.

The romantic in Kenny would love to see a home-grown teenager like Idah score the winner in Sofia tomorrow with a goal set up by a League of Ireland player, the realist may decide that Long is the man for the job.

Matching those strains - dreams and reality, smiles and steel - isn't easy.

But if Kenny can get the balance right, Irish football can prosper.

He hasn't lasted so long, hasn't survived being sacked three times, on dreams alone.