On Sunday afternoon, Kylian Mbappé appeared at France’s pre-match press conference in Dublin. When he was asked about Ireland, he used words we are not accustomed to hearing, but which we are always longing for.
Mbappé ignored the cliches and told us instead that Ireland were an “interesting” side, making us sound like an exciting new-wave Polish film director. Our hearts skipped a beat.
Ireland had a reputation for being physical, Mbappé added, but there was more to Ireland than this. Ireland, he said, “play a lot of good football”. We purred. He gets us. Finally, somebody gets us. Now you can see why PSG paid him the big bucks and made him the de facto sporting director. Mbappé knows his stuff. He, too, can see that Stephen Kenny is making progress.
Unfortunately, the problem with being understood is that, well, you are understood. France showed up at the Aviva on Monday night and played as if they had seen this movie before. Ireland left the Aviva with their pride, but France left with three points after a workaday performance.
Benjamin Pavard’s goal was the clearest indication that France had been paying attention. Josh Cullen’s loose pass across the face of his box was the kind of ball Ireland have been playing - and not getting away with - throughout the Kenny era. Pavard made sure Ireland didn’t get away with it once more.
The result was another disappointing one for Stephen Kenny’s Ireland, the performance probably allowed everybody on all sides of this culture war to take what they wanted from it.
The Stephen Kenny Culture War is fought not on results but on the promise of what is to come or what may never come. So Monday night’s result pleased everybody (in a culture war, pleasure is demonstrated through displays of anger and rage) except those who know that the noise will soon be silenced by facts.
In the absence of any of the progressives indicators of the Stephen Kenny age, we shouted and roared our approval of the things we have shouted and roared our approval of for generations; those elements of a fighting performance that have always been part of our culture as a poor impoverished nation trying to make it on the world stage.
We cheered a throw in, we cheered a free-kick, we cheered a clearance and we cheered the clearance that followed immediately from that clearance as the ball came straight back. When Theo Hernandez mis-controlled the ball, we rejoiced. When friend of Ireland Kylian Mbappé played the ball straight out of play we cheered as if Roy Keane had just taken out Marc Overmars. This was reassuringly familiar at least.
Jayson Molumby was central to many of these elemental roars. When he charged back to tackle Adrien Rabiot, we roared and then we roared again as Molumby simultaneously rejoiced in his own tackle and encouraged the crowd to roar some more. A few minutes later, Molumby took the ball out of defence and headed off alone into the vast and eternal emptiness of the French half, disappearing into the distance like some doomed South Pole expeditionist abandoning base camp. We cheered his bravery and felt it would be applauded for generations but with the occasional revisionist wondering did he have to be so reckless? We then howled with outrage when somehow a free-kick was awarded against Molumby and we were back in Paris in 2009 again.
So we had all these consolations and distractions but the French were the egg on the plate to Ireland’s bacon. They were involved, but Ireland were committed.
Like the Aviva crowd, Evan Ferguson was reduced to trying to make the most from the slimmest of slim pickings. Chiedozie Ogbene was outstanding and even when he broke free in the second half and ignored Ferguson, he picked out Jason Knight with a great pass. In time, we might come to appreciate that any kind of pass to Ferguson is more beneficial than a better ball to another player.
Ireland’s pride in the performance was justified and the second half performance is something Kenny will want to build on. But it was characteristic of this team, too, that their best period of the match was interrupted by France’s goal.
On Sunday, while Mbappé was throwing us a bit of sugar like a guest on the Late Late being asked what they think of Ireland, Kenny was issuing another rallying cry for his supporters in the culture war. This was not the time to take a backward step. “Do we just suddenly change and not have to courage to do that? And just accept a slow death? Definitely not. I think we’ll show – we’ll need to show – fire and ice.”
Some of us wondered what was the alternative to a slow death because death in this, as in all cases, appeared to be inevitable.
As it was, Ireland played with a pragmatism and restraint which ran counter to some of Kenny’s rhetoric and, as was to be expected, he was criticised for this as well. After the game, he was criticised for being too cautious, for saying one thing and doing another and for losing. The surreal thing about a culture war is that he can be praised for two of these points as well.
Ireland demonstrated fire and ice (although France it has to be said were - like Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap - lukewarm water). In Ogbene, Molumby and Nathan Collins they had a number of performances that were encouraging, while Mike Maignan’s save from Collins provided the ‘if only’ moment.
Those of us who believe Stephen Kenny was right to insist there can be more from Irish football can be encouraged by a performance that will allow his side to demonstrate those progressive ways again another day. Nobody will have had their minds changed by what happened on Monday. There was no transformative result and there was no humiliation either.
The last ten minutes showed how Ireland can play when they have nothing to lose, but Ireland now need to perform when everything is on the line.
Kenny was asked if others would view us differently after Monday night but changing the perception of others is far down the list of priorities now, no matter how pleasing it is to hear Kylian Mbappé tell us we’re great.
The problem for Kenny is that this is a campaign that will be judged not on culture war points but on facts, on results. On that basis, it would have been helpful - if unexpected - if Ireland could have opened the campaign with something that suggested the debate had shifted.
Instead we had a brave defeat. But we have been reared on brave defeats and moral victories and it was not even the bravest defeat or most moral victory of the Kenny era.
After the high point of defeat against Portugal in September 2021, Ireland followed it up with a disappointing draw at home to Azerbaijan.
Next time there can be no disappointments. Ireland play Greece in June and if Kenny is smart, he will talk down the performance on Monday night and focus on the disappointment of the defeat. He has made it too easy at times for others to criticise him with his own selective view of results. The culture war can rage elsewhere, Stephen Kenny is now in the results business.