From ‘Wimbledon in green’ to adding a bit of Dundalk to the DNA

Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny at FAI Headquarters in Abbotstown, where he announced his first squad for their U21 Euro Championship qualifier against Luxembourg in Tallaght. Kenny has vowed to bring an exapansive style to the Irish set-up. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Even, and especially, at the height of Ireland’s success under Jack Charlton, there were always dissenting voices in football — not only Eamon Dunphy and not always quite so public.

In All Played Out, Pete Davies’ controversial and compelling access-all-areas book on Italia ‘90, the author described the England team watching the Ireland-Romania game on television, with Gary Lineker idly wondering if the Irish were on a fiver for every time they hit the roof of the stand. (Of course, his disgruntlement can obviously be attributed to sour grapes after we’d only gone and hammered them 1-1 earlier in the tournament).

Davies also claimed that while, in front of the cameras, on-message England players always maintained that they dearly wanted their neighbours to win, in private they hoped for precisely the opposite — “on aesthetic grounds”.

Such disenchantment with the Irish style was what gave rise, especially in England, to the ‘Wimbledon In Green’ sobriquet, the upstart Wombles having pretty much patented the bark, bollock, and bite approach with which the self-styled ‘Crazy Gang’ rocked and shocked the culture clubs.

I remember that when I asked Jack about the comparison, in an interview we did in the run-up to Italia ‘90, he could hardly have been more indignant. Didn’t know what people were going on about, didn’t agree with it one little bit etc. And then, after a pause: “Anyway, what’s wrong with Wimbledon…?”

Like all caricatures, as even Charlton himself recognised, ‘Wimbledon In Green’ mixed distortion and truth. The Ireland of that era were better than that, certainly had vastly superior players, but the manager’s template — long ball, getting the opposition turned, playing in the final third but never out from the back, deploying what’s now called the pressing game only he called it ‘putting ‘em under pressure’ — meant there was never any great danger that watching Ireland would be just like watching Brazil.

So be it. Given the nation’s generation-long wait for success, there were still plenty of committed Irish football folk who were prepared to park their reservations about the means when the end meant the matchless joy of Euro ’88 and Italia ’90. And, lest we forget, to this day Route One can be a beautiful thing too — Shane Long’s goal against Germany, anyone?

But despite occasional and notable departures in style in the years since the Charlton era — not least under his immediate successor Mick McCarthy in his first coming as manager — the notion of Irish football as a one- dimensional but troublesome beast has pretty much become a fixed image in the international football mind, as witness the succession of visiting gaffers to Dublin who, in their pre-match press conferences, will invariably show their respect for the opposition by talking up Ireland’s workrate, physicality, and fighting spirit — not to mention their defensive solidity and, um, the danger they pose from set -pieces and high balls into the box.

And, to be fair, under Trap and MON, we rarely let them down, even on those memorable nights when we sent ‘em home with their tails between their legs.

Which is where Stephen Kenny comes in. Mick McCarthy might be tasked with qualifying for Euro 2020 but, if it all goes according to the FAI’s novel plan, Kenny will be the man for the long haul, first with the U21s, then with the senior team. And it has long been clear that he comes to the job with a fully-fledged vision. Back in October, when the international team was on the slide and Dundalk were riding high, Kenny used his programme notes ahead of the 5-0 win over Sligo which secured the title for his team, to set out his stall in no uncertain terms.

It is important to dispel the current train of thought that it is in the DNA of Irish players to play a more direct style of play, that somehow being Irish means that you were inherently born with a skill deficit,” he wrote.

And he followed up with even more force in an interview soon after. Addressing what he called ‘no-risk’ football, he said: “We’ve had it here with Jack Charlton and it coincided with our most successful ever period of international football and so people have been influenced by it and they think it’s the way we play. They think that suits us, that it’s in our DNA in Irish football. And I find that offensive, I really can’t stomach that idea. I can’t tell you how much I really dislike it.”

All which made me think that it was not unreasonable — if, admittedly a tad simplistic — to ask the man himself at this week’s unveiling of his home-based training squad, if what we can expect to see from his Irish U21 team is a style of football which we might even call ‘Dundalk In Green’.

“Certainly I want all good technical players in the team,” he replied. “That will be very important. And, I know there is an argument that it is aspirational if you don’t have the ball against Italy, but I think players want to play in a progressive way and want to express themselves, and I think we have to look to do that.

I have a style of play and I want the players to go and enjoy their football and really show what they have got. Of course we will take risks, take risks all over the park. We will definitely do that. Although, it’s risk-reward. It’s not just for aesthetics. I believe it’s a better way of playing.

In other words, it’s not a matter of style at the expense of substance, still less a case of finding consolation in ‘losing the right way’. It is, of course, ultimately and always about the players, but at Dundalk, where he assembled one of the best ever League of Ireland sides virtually from scratch, Kenny’s philosophy proved to a winning one in every sense.

‘Saint Jack’ summed up his own approach up better than anyone when he declared: “It’s not pretty but it’s effective.” As he takes his first steps in the international game, Stephen Kenny is staking his reputation on the conviction that it can be both.

If he pulls it off, his own beatification won’t be too far behind.

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