Kieran Shannon: Stephen Kenny now at the point where he has to deliver

It was hardly the kind of victory he was looking for in Hampden over the weekend but Stephen Kenny at least had the consolation of winning over an initial sceptic of his in Liam Brady
Kieran Shannon: Stephen Kenny now at the point where he has to deliver

UNITED: Manager Stephen Kenny speaks to his players during a Republic of Ireland training session at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It was hardly the kind of victory he was looking for in Hampden over the weekend but Stephen Kenny at least had the consolation of winning over an initial sceptic of his in Liam Brady.

“I really enjoyed it,” purred Brady about Ireland’s performance against Scotland on Saturday night. 

“Going forward I’m happy. I think we’re going in the right direction. I think this team is growing under Kenny. I’m encouraged by what I saw tonight.” 

Brady’s sentiments were largely consistent with the majority of pundits but hardly constituted a summary of a consensus. While Brady was more of the view never mind the result, feel the performance, a few miles away in another television studio on the southside of Dublin, Damien Delaney was still firmly in the ‘it’s-a-results-business’ camp.

“How long does this go on for?” he mused on Virgin Media. “How long do you keep saying: ‘We’re going somewhere’? We’re in quicksand, we’re sinking.

“Coaching comes with responsibility. I chose not to go down that route because I didn’t want it. But if you offered me what Stephen has, carte blanche, results don’t matter, I’d be interested.” 

Elsewhere Gary Breen was more aligned to Delaney’s viewpoint, claiming that as Kenny’s side should at this point be less of a team for the future but “a team of the present”, this Nations League campaign had been ultimately “a failure”, given Hampden had been the third defeat in the five games to date.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It all depends on one’s perspective or what paradigm they’re working off.

Traditionally football has worked from the Delaney school of thought. Just think of the number of managers the Corkman saw walk through the dressing room door during his career, or at Crystal Palace alone. A bad month and you were likely in the relegation zone and possibly back out that door again. 

With the threat of the drop meant for every manager there was always the threat of the sack. Life, football, has taught him it’s a results business. When you’re losing, in quicksand, sinking, the manager has to be responsible, accountable. Dispensable. Fired.

Not every sport works that way, though, especially when the threat of relegation is unlikely or non-existent.

In the major American sports leagues, there is no relegation; thus the spectre of the chop is less pervasive for any of its coaches or general managers.

But by the same token there is also a sense that if you’re not geared towards competing for current or future championships, you’re nowhere. About the worst spot to be is constantly on the fringes of the playoffs: A team just outside them or likely to lose in the first round. In the NBA they call it purgatory. And when you’re in purgatory there’s a simple solution. Blow It Up. Start all over again. Move on your veterans, and draft and play kids.

It may mean a few years of hell, shipping the losses, but ultimately you’ll get better kids and your kids will get better and they’ll have a higher ceiling than the one your vets kept hitting their head off. Who knows, you might even reach and experience heaven.

Early on into his reign as Irish manager, Stephen Kenny essentially decided to do a Danny Ainge and blow it up: That for too long Ireland had resided in purgatory, playing a turgid type of football, hoping that with a clean sheet or a 1-1 draw eked out with a headed goal from a setpiece we might secure a playoff and then a qualifying spot for a major championship, only to invariably fall short.

Unlike in the NBA, Kenny and Ireland cannot draft superior young talent. It’s one of the reasons, why, unlike in the NBA, a side of his profile have not tanked, deliberately losing so their chances of securing superior talent might increase. But like a team that blew it up they have been willing to take the lumps and losses by blooding what youngsters they have drafted into their ranks.

It’s a path an even more competitive football team, Arsenal, have chosen in recent years. By deliberately recruiting a batch of younger players, they understood that while it could in the short-term compromise their chances of nailing that coveted Champions League spot, in the medium term they’d have a better chance of routinely being a top four team and even title contenders. 

It’s why viewers of All Or Nothing now understand why the Arsenal owners, versed in the American model of team-building and the importance of patience, stuck with Mikel Arteta after a couple of heavy beatings at the start of the 2021-2022 season. A re-build takes time and giving your manager time.

There comes a time, though, in the life cycle of a side that blew it up where it can’t keep pleading for everyone to trust the process. There comes a time where you’ve to contend, win.

Ireland and Kenny are now at that point. When Delaney asked on Saturday night “How long does this go on for?” the answer is no longer. Last Saturday was Kenny’s last free hit.

This evening against Armenia is an obvious must-win game, or at least must-not-lose, otherwise relegation, a threat we hardly countenanced, is real.

Assuming Ireland avoid such a fate, we’re then left with what Kenny has always wanted to be judged upon and which we all ultimately will: The Euro 2024 championship qualifiers.

For that campaign and his tenure to be successful both team and manager will have to improve their in-game smarts. In football there are essentially two kinds of goals: Ones that were “against the run of play” and those “that were coming”. 

Whatever about Scotland’s first goal, their second was coming, and Breen made a valid point in his newspaper column that Kenny could have pre-empted and thus avoided it by changing and freshening up his tiring midfield earlier.

On Monday ahead of the Armenia game Kenny reiterated the timeline he and his team were working off. 

“In a year’s time they [his players] will be even better. You can see that and that’s by design.” 

A few years back the Memphis Grizzlies blew it up, trading proven veterans like Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. It involved a few years of their young grizzlies struggling in the wilderness. 

In 2018 their regular-season record was 22-60; in 2019 33-49. A year later with the rookie sensation Ja Morant now on their books they improved to 34-39 (the season truncated because of Covid), but there was no Delaney-like figure saying such a losing record didn’t cut it. 

Everyone understood their project and process required patience. In 2021 they made the playoffs, going 38-34. The season just past they established themselves as legitimate championship contenders, going 56-26.

Kenny’s Ireland, while lacking a Morant-like talent, appear to be on a similar trajectory, but to maintain it they’ll need their manager to improve just like his players.

Kenny was not just within his rights but absolutely right to blow it all up. But having fought for that time, he must now not blow it.

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