Liam Mackey: Stephen Kenny determined Ireland won't travel anywhere with backs against the wall

Liam Mackey: Stephen Kenny determined Ireland won't travel anywhere with backs against the wall
8 July 2020; Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during a press conference at FAI Headquarters in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Apart maybe from the emergency task facing those gaffers, invariably specialists in the trade, who are parachuted in at close to the 11th hour to try and save a club from relegation, it’s hard to think of a more pressing, onerous and high stakes challenge in football than the one with which confronts Stephen Kenny in his first outing as a senior international manager.

For a start, he has taken up the role in what are, to put it at its mildest, disconcerting times of an unprecedented kind, something which was again brought home this week when we in the media had our first face to face — or, at least, partial face to face — encounter with the new Ireland manager.

Our first trip out to Abbotstown since the pandemic took hold, this was a press conference conducted under strict health and safety restrictions, with masks, hand sanitation and social distancing all in play.

Nor was the bigger picture lost on Kenny, as evidenced by his answer to an opening query about the logistical complications of being a manager who, thus far in football’s tentative resumption, has been unable to actually see his players in the flesh.

“It’s disappointing,” he conceded, “but, listen, you’ve got to have a broader view: in our country over 1,700 people have died. That’s a real crisis. You’ve got to contextualise it.” 

Indeed, as if we needed any further reminder of just how fragile and uncertain the situation is, it came within 48 hours, as Bulgaria — who are set to provide the opposition for Kenny’s first game in charge, in a Nations League game in Sofia on September 3 — signalled a possible delay to the start of their next domestic season, scheduled for July 24, after a surge in Covid-19 infections at a number of clubs.

But even in what is currently the best-case scenario, Kenny’s opportunity to get his ideas across on the training pitch will still be severely impacted.

“For the first Under-21 game, I had a full week here in Abbotstown,” he pointed out. “And everyone knew from day one: this is how we're playing because we had five or six days of 11 v 11, playing with a clear imprint so everyone knew exactly what we were going to do.

“(With the senior team) we're meeting on Sunday for the game against Bulgaria and we fly on Tuesday. Some of the players might even play on the Sunday, I don't know what the fixtures are. When we pick a squad we might even do that the week before the match, you know? And we might go through some of the stuff on Microsoft Teams or Zoom with the team. But we have a clear idea, certainly, about how we want to play against Bulgaria and the players will get clear information. That's the nature of the job, you’ve got to adapt.” 

At least, all going well, Kenny will have Bulgaria away and Finland at home to help him prepare for the big one, the European Championship play-off semi-final against Slovakia, a fixture which, in any other manager’s reign, would be the kind of defining moment that comes only after he or she has had the benefit of at least one full competitive campaign under their belts. And, of course, if Kenny and Ireland get through that one, the pressure only rises to a crescendo, with either Bosnia or Northern Ireland — again away from home — awaiting in the decider.

Under such taxing circumstances, Kenny could be forgiven if he was tempted to play down expectations, even to get his excuses in first. Far from it. Not to have Ireland hosting games in the Euros finals, he said this week, would be unthinkable.

"Not to be a part of it — I don't even want to consider that,” he said. “Most neutral observers would feel that Slovakia, having home advantage, would be favourites, and so to beat Slovakia and Bosnia or Northern Ireland, depending on how that goes, it would have to be an extraordinary achievement. But we must believe we can achieve that — and I do.” 

He also believes that Ireland can only do it by making a break with the past in how they go about their business on the pitch, especially on away days.

“I cannot remember when we last went away from home and controlled a game,” he said. “I’m not saying that we will achieve that but it will be our ambition to do that. As a manager it’s always my ambition to try and control games, no matter who you’re playing. How do you do that? Against weaker teams you stretch the play, make the pitch as big as it can be. Against teams that are deemed superior to you, you overload in certain areas, be brave in possession and rotate in midfield, with wide players coming in and so forth.

“So, are you willing to say, ‘OK I haven’t got much time so we can’t do it, we’ll just go as is’. (In that case), there’s no point in me being appointed….” 

This isn’t just about Kenny talking a good game. His sense of ambition for Irish football has already been given vibrant expression in the way he transformed Dundalk from a club on the brink of relegation to one which was able to dominate domestically and compete in Europe. And, more recently, it was seen to thrilling effect in the expansive and, crucially, winning football which has put the Irish U21s firmly on course for a first ever Euros qualification at that level.

But while we know Kenny’s signature style, the nuts and bolts of how he plans to replicate it at the highest level remain to be seen.

“I’m not a slave to a system,” he stressed. “Just because we generally played 4-2-3-1 with the under-21s, it doesn't mean we’ll play that way with the senior team. We’ve got a lot of dynamic midfield players and we could play 4-3-3 as well which is different. We’ll see on that.” 

One telling signal of what should be fundamentally different about Kenny’s Ireland shines out in his evaluation of what he believes Ireland’s Premier League man of the moment, John Egan, can bring to the team.

“I think Egan coming in changes the dynamic of the back four,” said Kenny, “because rather than having two traditional number fives, he is able to drop off and receive the ball and step in and play passes. I think that just changes the dynamic between balance and cover in the back four. A playmaker from the back? Not in midfield but from the back, yeah.” 

It’s an undeniably refreshing image — an Irish team on foreign fields but with backs not necessarily against the wall — and perhaps symbolic too of Kenny's determination, despite such the unfavourable climate, to accentuate the positives.

Seems like we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. And we can all only hope that we’re in an even better place come the Autumn.

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