In sport, as in life, it’s rare that things are absolutely as good, or as bad, as they might seem to be.
Let’s rewind back to a week ago, when the landscape in Irish soccer wasn’t necessarily rosy but there was an element of hope after a creditable defeat to Serbia in the opening game of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
While it was a ninth game without victory since Stephen Kenny’s appointment as senior manager, the style of play employed by Ireland was encouraging. The manager himself saw plenty of cause for optimism – while there might not seem to be much need for match programmes at the moment, the FAI are producing digital versions and Kenny’s notes for the Luxembourg edition were upbeat.
“I thought, at times, we played brilliantly in Belgrade on Wednesday. The standard of the players’ technical ability was very evident and couldn’t be questioned,” he wrote.
“We played some terrific football against a top-class international team away from home.
“We came out with a narrow 3-2 defeat but I think the narrative and the institutionalised thinking that we’re incapable of being a progressive football nation won’t effect the clarity of thinking and our determination to see an Irish team that supporters can identify with and are exhilarated by as we watch with our own eyes the high number of young players coming through to fulfil their potential within the framework of the Irish team.”
Two hours and a 1-0 defeat to Luxembourg later and it seemed that soccer in this country had never been in a more parlous state. All that was left was to apportion blame but, like pretty much anything these days, many of those dishing it out had agendas that had to be clung on to for dear life.
Ever since it was announced in 2018 that Kenny would be taking over the U21 side and then succeeding Mick McCarthy after the Euro 2020 qualifiers, there has been a divisive debate bubbling in the background.
While Kenny did have a stint in Scotland managing Dunfermline Athletic, most of his managerial career has been at home and that caused a level of snobbery, with Jason McAteer doubting his pedigree. By the same token, those who had seen Kenny do well with Dundalk in recent years were keen for him to do well in the national job and so, even though the early results were disappointing, they were taking comfort from the perceived improvement in the quality of the football.
Was there a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes about that? It’s hard to know but, by and large, since last weekend, those supporters of Kenny have focused more on the structures of the FAI and historical failings at grassroots level as causes of the Luxembourg defeat, rather than the paucity of what we saw on the field.
Kenny’s own words beforehand were positive and there was credit given to him for the job with the U21s, with hopes that players such as Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah and Michael Obafemi, none of whom featured last weekend, could progress. The concerns about the deep underlying issues were not too strong at that time.
Ultimately, it’s a results game, even if Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy found themselves coming in for criticism when they prioritised the scoreline over the style of play. Broadly speaking, there are four outcomes – win playing well, win playing poorly, lose playing well or lose playing poorly and it was the latter of those four that was Ireland’s lot last week.
But – and it’s important to remember this in the midst of all of the talk about everything else – it was only one game. Obviously, there is the longer trend of Kenny not having enjoyed a victory yet, but if Ireland had beaten Slovakia on penalties last autumn, it’s possible that we would have the European Championship to look forward to.
Small margins can have big effects. Those who were never all that well disposed towards the Kenny appointment have become more vocal in saying that what was a doomed experiment needs to be ended, but what would that really achieve?
Ireland were never likely to emerge from a group which contains Portugal and Serbia and so this was always a campaign of rebuilding. Comments like those from one of Kenny’s predecessors, Eoin Hand, saying that the manager would be better in a role overseeing youth development, don’t really help anyone. Similarly, appointing a new manager who plays functional football and beats Luxembourg away and secures a third-place finish might stop the current perceived rot but wouldn’t necessarily be the best long-term decision.
Having given Kenny the opportunity, the FAI owe it to him to allow for bumps in the road, once there is a clear view of the end-goal. Deadline constraints mean that this is being written before Tuesday’s friendly with World Cup hosts Qatar, but the result is largely immaterial – though a win would at least end that unwanted run.
The frustrating thing about the long gaps between international football is that there is plenty of time for comment in between and a manageable problem can seem like an impossible one as a result of all of the noise emanating from it in the interim.
For Kenny, the task is to ignore that and learn the lessons of what has happened while trying to keep faith in the project. It’s easier said than done, but this is why he was appointed in the first place. CL