Larry Ryan: Stephen Kenny will be fine while we’re going to the match

The great advantage Stephen Kenny still holds is that pundits and writers and commentators don’t really matter, while his base is so strong.
Larry Ryan: Stephen Kenny will be fine while we’re going to the match

Seeing what we want to see: A visitor walks past "Going to the Match" by English artist LS Lowry from 1928, on display at a Christie's exhibition in Dubai on September 15, 2022. Pic: KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images 

LS Lowry's most famous painting, Going to the Match, is for sale again and is expected to go for around £8m. I'm looking at a print of it on the wall and have mixed feelings.

There’s a strange lack of joy it in, no? The fans are almost trudging in, heads bowed, backs hunched. Where is the anticipation? The excitement? Nobody nudging one another, looking for an injury update on Bobby Langton. A gaggle have even been detained, far right, seemingly listening to an orator of some kind. A preacher maybe, offering an alternative faith.

It’s Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park, in fairness, not the Maracana, but they were decent when it was painted, in 1953, and reached the FA Cup final that year. These ‘matchstalk men’ and women are trooping in to see the prolific Nat Lofthouse.

Maybe it’s the Sheffield Wednesday game in November 1952, just after they’d lost at home to Burnley. That would have stung. And probably lots of the fans are weary, having just clocked off from the factories and mills in the background — the five-and-a-half-day week wrapped up in time for the 3pm main event.

Do we detect little pockets of delirium breaking out among those already inside, particularly the folk perched precariously atop the terrace behind the goal? Maybe that’s the point. The matchday journey as dutiful devotion, the little knots of worshippers then losing themselves and their worries once they join the heaving congregation in the stadium.

Though Lowry wasn’t the most cheerful of men and did once tell us: “All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all.” 

So maybe this is just a detached crowd scene, the endless dots of punters a faceless, unemotional audit of the scale of this ritual. “I look upon human beings as automatons,” Lowry said, “Because they all think they can do what they want but they can't. They are not free. No one is.” 

Suckers, back for more, even after defeat in the Owen Coyle derby.

But at least, for once, it is the spectators taking centre stage in a portrayal of the football industry. We cannot see the footballers, or much of the pitch. That is probably why the painting endures. Though it just lacks a certain positivity. For me. A little spring in the step.

But then you can have too much positivity. It may well be positivity that eventually sinks Stephen Kenny. We might eventually grow nostalgic for negativity, for insisting we don’t have the players.

We will put up with a lot, in the name of progress. We will endure setbacks and false starts and every shot the opposition has flying in the corner. But we may not be able to listen to many more upbeat verdicts in the face of competing evidence. That is where Kenny seems to be testing patience most.

Sultan of spin?: Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny celebrates his side's second goal scored by Michael Obafemi during the UEFA Nations League B Group 1 match between Republic of Ireland and Armenia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Sultan of spin?: Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny celebrates his side's second goal scored by Michael Obafemi during the UEFA Nations League B Group 1 match between Republic of Ireland and Armenia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

I tried the Good News Network for a while lately, beating a retreat from the endless bad news everywhere else. Did you know that the number of youth arrests for violent crime in the US is down 78% from its peak in 1994?

But it gets old quickly. There are only so many cures for cancer you can believe in for one day.

You need the light and shade, the anger and joy, the hope and ennui. So why can’t Stephen give it to us? Did he need to insist we were “exceptional at times” against Armenia? Would he not throw in the odd “bleedin’ brewtal”, just to keep things real?

Has it crept in from politics, this need for football managers to forever stay on message, to reheat core convictions, to always be appealing to the base?

That is what chancers do, when they want to fan a raging culture war, when they are trying to whip up them against us, when they are polarising opinion, when they want us to see things in black and white, rather than shades of grey.

I suppose, just as Kenny told Tony O’Donoghue that he couldn’t really give the players a bollocking, since he wouldn’t be able to put back on his good cop uniform until November, he was desperate not to slip away from us for a few weeks on a sour note — and allow pundits to paint between the lines.

But the great advantage Stephen Kenny still holds is that pundits and writers and commentators don’t really matter, while his base is so strong. With Ireland now, there is another rare outing for the spectators on centre stage.

There has rarely been more goodwill after an Ireland defeat than Hampden, especially considering it wasn’t the first defeat of recent times. There is still a giddiness out there, that international football can be that entertaining, even while we’re involved in it. There have been evenings when the assembling crowd for an Ireland match has resembled a Lowry painting. Human beings, who think they are free, braced for tedium.

But 41,000 tickets accounted for, and upwards of 35,000 in the ground on a dull Tuesday night for a deadish rubber against minnows, off the back of a loss, was more than a crowd, it was a rally.

It was people still ready to go along for the ride. Prepared to see shades of grey. To grow agitated at the shots peppered into our own feet. But also to lose themselves in the delirium of an unlikely 11th-hour reward, however meagre.

Eventually, Stephen Kenny’s future as Ireland boss will come down to black and white, to points in the ledger. But while we are still going to the match in these numbers, and living the match, he'll be fine. And he should trust us to paint our own pictures. 

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