Shots fired. A fresh round in an ancient war: big-time pro from across the water versus small-time Chicken Leaguer.
Gary Breen was taking Ger Gilroy to task on Off The Ball about Ireland’s prospects:
“You’ve got this dreamy notion that as soon as Stephen Kenny comes in we’re going to be expansive, playing through the thirds, peppering the goal.
"I hope it’s true, but he doesn’t have a CV up to this stage that warrants thinking that’s going to happen with this group of players.”
Maybe Gary didn’t mean anything by it, perhaps he was just instinctively protective of his old gaffer Mick McCarthy. But it was a hint of what Kenny will be up against when he takes the Ireland reins, a reminder he hasn’t ‘done it over in England’.
That old division is just one of the many scraps and faction fights on the Irish football bill.
Count ‘em. There’s League of Ireland fans v ‘barstoolers’. The match-going domestic fan as authentic guardian of the game, evangelical as a craft beer enthusiast. Irish followers of Liverpool and Manchester United reviled for their faux allegiances. A distaste that often takes in fans of the national team, dismissed as ‘event junkies’.
The scorn is reciprocated, the barstooler and day-tripper scoffing at ‘the standard’ at home, even if they never stop by to check it out.
Then there’s League of Ireland v junior and schoolboy football. The semi-pro versus the volunteer. Historic distrust of motives. Squabbling over the education and monetisation of young players. Quarrelling over everything up to and including ‘summer soccer’. Perhaps the most fundamental of all disputes, an inability to agree when the game should be played.
Beyond all that, there’s everyone versus The Blazers. A universal suspicion of the small-town businessman whose local influence sat him on boards before he beat a path to Merrion Square and then Abbotstown, where he cast his vote to maintain whatever status quo got him there in the first place.
And there’s the ultimate culture war. The post Italia ’90 pragmatist versus the idealogue who wants Ireland to pass the ball. They contest an eternal circular argument: don’t we have the players to keep the ball or don’t we have the players because we won’t trust them to keep the ball?
This ugly conflict essentially dates to 1986, when Jack Charlton marched into Liam Tuohy’s Ireland youths dressing room at half-time in a European Championship qualifier and more or less told them to stop knocking it around and start launching it.
Tuohy resigned, along with Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly, and a certain breed of Irish football man became somewhat isolated from Ireland’s breakthrough era, which was powered by quintessentially English football.
With all these entrenched positions, little wonder every discussion on Irish football quickly becomes heated.
A few of those waiting for Stephen Kenny to fail will be Cork City and Shamrock Rovers fans, bringing domestic enmities to the table.
But others will be waging the war we’ve just conscripted Gary Breen to. A battleground where five League of Ireland titles doesn’t add up to much of a CV.
Suspicion among big-time pros for local heroes dates to an era when a selection committee of FAI Blazers would typically foist one or two League of Ireland players on the Ireland team.
It was still alive in 2003 when Andy Townsend regarded the hiring of Brian Kerr as Ireland boss as “a terrible mistake”.
It survives to this day, perfectly encapsulated by @wildstate on Twitter: “Yes, I’m sure it will be better when Kenny is in and renowned LOI hitmen who bag a stunning 15 goals in 36 games when they play UCD or Finn Harps every other week get deservedly picked.”
It’s evident in the rhetorical question you’ve doubtless heard asked many times recently: Do you really think Stephen Kenny is going to solve everything?
Or, as Breen added: “Don’t tell me Stephen Kenny is going to be able to get our centre midfielders to play on the half-turn.”
It mightn’t suit everyone’s agenda if a League of Ireland man did solve everything.
After last Monday’s moral victory over Denmark, there was a lot being said for the current Ireland way, considering we don’t have the players.
When Kenny’s U21 team trailed at home to Sweden at half time the following night, there were plenty ready to decide that ambitions for a more expansive approach had all been a dream, a mirage.
Forty-five beautiful minutes later, this Tallaght night deserved the full Coney Island orchestral treatment. Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
Kids from Cork and Waterford and Dublin were refusing to accept there is any reason they should be inferior to lads from Stockholm and Gothenburg.
They were taking it on the half-turn, playing through the thirds, peppering Sweden’s goal.
Afterwards, Kenny’s old lieutenant at Dundalk, Brian Gartland, marvelled at the spectacle, considering the players involved didn’t really exist at all, when it suited certain arguments.
“A year ago we had ‘no players coming through’. All of a sudden it’s the ‘golden generation’. It’s amazing what can happen when you have a set-up and managers that give direction, encouragement, and confidence. Finest hour to date.”
Kenny seemed to sense it was an hour to bring people together.
His teams have combined the cream of the League of Ireland’s young talent with lads gone ‘across the water’. Now he paid tribute to the coaches at schoolboy clubs around the country who had grown these talents with their volunteerism.
There was even a word for the Blazers, as he noted 10 of the 11 starters had come through the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme.
Had the post-match formalities dragged on much longer, he’d probably have held court on the joy of barstooling.
And perhaps for the first time, you could see more in Stephen Kenny than a manager who’ll get Ireland to keep the ball.
We might just have somebody to keep the peace.
Garrett Fitzgerald Interview Part 2: Munster highs, lows and controversies. And the loss of Axel