We are at the dusky twilight of the Stephen Kenny era, with the current manager of the Irish soccer team having as much chance of being offered a second contract as the man on the moon.
It is sad that it has come to this for Kenny, who is a likable and humble man with strong footballing principles, but when the abacus of his time in charge is tallied, it will primarily be remembered as an abject failure.
This is the cruelty of top-level sport, though it must be noted that Kenny took over at a time when the Irish public had largely turned off watching the national team, who have played what can be generously described as a pragmatic style of football for as long as I can remember.
Particularly over the last decade, Ireland has continued a paint-by-numbers approach to the game while the rest of the football world has evolved. For example, two years before Kenny’s appointment, the Irish team went through a calendar year, in 2018, scoring only one competitive goal. In contrast, countries like neighbouring Wales with a smaller population routinely get to major tournaments playing a fantastic brand of football. It caused us to reflect and ask ourselves why we couldn’t do the same.
Kenny was appointed in response to this conundrum. He spoke of developing a culture of playing out from back with the players backing their skills and intuition with the ball. He espoused the virtues of playing the game, the way he believed it should be played.
Such rhetoric from the man in charge warmed the cockles of a large section of Irish football supporters that continued to back his progressive footballing philosophy throughout his time as manager.
Kenny wasn’t afraid to back his words with action and introduced a lot of young talent to the squad, giving 20 players their debuts. Many of whom he plucked from relative obscurity into the international fold. Chiedozie Ogbene was drafted in from Rotherham in League One, and Josh Cullen came from Anderlecht. Andrew Omobamidele got his first cap soon after making his debut for Norwich. All three currently ply their trade in the Premier League and are examples of Kenny’s approach to backing young football talent.
Kenny certainly had his detractors as well, mainly former Irish internationals and ex-managers, who perhaps most understand the necessity for positive results in a results-based business. On dark days after losing at home to Luxembourg and convincingly both home and away to Greece, his critics were particularly reproachful.
There were some good days too with standout performances including a draw against Portugal in a World Cup qualifier in 2021, while Kenny’s best result came in a 3-0 victory over Scotland in the Nations League the following year.
The major problem with Stephen Kenny is that he promised more than he delivered.
To put it bluntly, his team couldn’t win the games needed to qualify for tournaments and keep him in the job. In all, he had five wins from 26 matches, which is statistically the worst record of any Irish manager and by some margin.
In this European qualifying campaign, Ireland has five losses and zero points from their five matches against France, Holland, and Greece. Their only points came against minnows Gibraltar, a team comprised mainly of amateur players who have yet to win any qualifying game in their history. His last competitive fixture against the Dutch on November 18 is a dead rubber.
Kenny wants his teams to play out from the back and through midfield and it is apparent in hindsight that he didn’t have players at his disposal with the technical ability to dictate the game from the middle of the pitch.
Against the better sides, we found it difficult to retain possession, create chances, or score goals, and when we gave the ball away, opposing sides had plenty of field position and space to attack during transitions. In short, Kenny didn’t have the footballing talent to play the game he wanted to play. Former Irish international Liam Brady said it was the “worst selection of Irish players in 50 years.”
This harsh reality exposes the truth that the Football Association of Ireland has failed to nurture our best young players over a significant period of time. Former FAI Chief John Delaney, who ran the organisation for almost two decades, has more to answer for than just the financial irregularities that took place during his tenure.
As the American comedian George Carlin once said: “Inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist” which pretty much sums up the current plight of Irish soccer and begs the existential question ‘Where do we go from here?’
Stephen Kenny believed that the path forward was to play a progressive style of football and he did his best to implement this. The results indicate that Kenny was the wrong man for the job. However, this doesn’t denote that his original premise was incorrect.
Like every Irish supporter, I would love Ireland to get to major tournaments, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of our ambitions. When we last qualified for major tournaments in 2012 and 2016, we had no expectations of competing for the trophy. We were there essentially to make up the numbers, and during both tournaments, we played particularly forgettable football.
If Ireland wants to be more than this, then, in my opinion, we need to continue to follow the path of playing progressive football. Things might continue to get worse before they get better, but if we keep to this principle when we do qualify, we will have a team more capable of competing with the better footballing nations.
Call me a romantic, but the best hurling, Gaelic football, and rugby teams in the country—Limerick, Dublin, and Leinster—all place a high premium on tactical and skills development from the top down.
Presently, there are 10 emerging talent centres throughout Ireland where the best players at various age levels get top-level coaching similar to what is on offer at Premier League academies. These coaches put a huge emphasis on playing out from the back to progress the ball up the field. This is done to improve the quality of football players, all while the young players continue living at home and playing for their clubs and schools. Having witnessed this training firsthand, I believe it is a remarkable endeavour that will bear fruit in years to come.
There is no point in developing young players in the skills and nuances of the modern game, only for these qualities to be wasted by playing an archaic brand of football the higher they go up the ladder. I hope that whoever replaces Kenny possesses similar principles for how the national team plays football. Maybe then we will have a team worth supporting for more than just wearing the green jersey.
If this comes to pass, maybe the legacy of the Stephen Kenny years will be remembered in time as necessary growing pains for a more progressive football culture to be built upon.