, who played under Stephen Kenny at Bohemians, on how and why Mick McCarthy's successor as manager will usher in a bright new era for the Irish game.
Stephen Kenny is not your typical football manager.
I was fortunate enough to be a player under him at Bohemians 17 years ago when we won the league, and it was evident even in those days that he had a special talent. He has a quiet, unassuming presence but beneath that surface layer is an unshakable confidence in his ability.
Almost immediately you understand that Stephen holds honesty and integrity as a cornerstone of his managerial style. And given the vast amount of self-learning and experience — as well as success — he has accumulated since then, I have absolutely no doubt that Ireland now possesses one of the most exciting managerial prospects in football.
Kenny demands confidence in his players and he does this by making every player feel 10 feet tall. And players trust his belief in them so that they, in turn, feel they can play without fear of making a mistake. Playing safe or within yourself is what you need to fear when playing in a Stephen Kenny team.
This coveted coaching trait, coupled with his talent for putting 11 individuals on a pitch that collectively produce fast, fluid, high-intensity football, irrespective of the quality of opponent, is the poultice needed to heal the rot of self-doubt which has affected Irish football for a very long time.
We have endured over a decade of relentless pessimism from our nation’s lucratively paid managers. The persistent assessment from former bosses and pundits alike, that Irish footballers aren’t good enough, has caused a deep-rooted problem with self-esteem in successive senior squads.
But we are seeing no evidence of that whatsoever in Stephen Kenny’s vibrant U21 side. Watching his young starlets play is a joy to behold, their current success convincing everyone that we have a golden generation coming through. Kenny has taken the amazing work being done by the Irish underage managers and is applying the finishing touches, choosing his team based on who fits into his style of play, irrespective of their age.
And, as well as producing sometimes sensational football, it’s an approach which is also delivering results. Last week’s 4-1 win in Tallaght means that our U21s have now beaten the 2015 European U21 champions, Sweden, 7-2 on aggregate and, with three games remaining, they are perched at the summit of their qualifying group, which also includes Italy, Iceland, Armenia, and Luxemburg.
I have great respect for the role Mick McCarthy has played in Irish football. For my generation of fans, he has arguably been the only manager who, during his first spell in charge, achieved success while playing an attractive and positive style of football.
This time around, the ex-Sunderland boss was brought back to the set-up as a stop-gap measure to stem the bleeding from a deepening wound. He has succeeded to a degree but the recovering patient is crying out for a completely new lease of life.
Mick is highly thought of by ex-players and staff alike, and it looks like he has lifted the mood in the dressing room. In some ways though, I get the impression that he is carrying the negative load he inherited from his predecessors instead of releasing the shackles that have bound us for so long.
In recent times, the remit for McCarthy’s managerial career has been mainly to survive and not fail, so it’s understandable to see how his approach has been moulded since his first stint in the job.
Stephen Kenny, on the other hand, has been accustomed to winning titles and progressing in European club competitions against higher-ranked and vastly richer teams, while persisting with a style of football which remains true to his beliefs. Confidence is a pillar of success and Stephen is highly aware of this, instilling it into his players in abundance.
In an interview Glenn Whelan did after the senior team’s defeat away to Switzerland, he admitted that the team lacked confidence. This throws a spotlight on how the team was feeling, and while players must shoulder a lot of responsibility for not being able to give 10 and 20-yard passes, it is managers who create the environment in which their players flourish.
This isn’t achieved in the dressing room an hour before kick-off: it’s constantly being created by positive reinforcement, in the body language and words being used.
In June, Mick McCarthy announced to the media that he would rip up the boarding pass if he was offered a point from the Denmark game in Copenhagen.
Unless he tipped off the team beforehand that he was planning on deceiving the opposition into thinking Ireland were throwing in the towel, the only way I can see the players subconsciously interpreting this statement is that he didn’t trust them to go and win.
That is obviously not what Mick meant with his throwaway, pragmatic comment, but words matter and a team needs to believe that their leader believes in them, no matter what.
The importance the mind plays in sport is severely underappreciated. A microcosm of this is when a striker goes six or seven games without scoring. It’s not his technique or physical attributes that have changed: it’s his confidence, his mental state. The same goes for goalkeepers committing a series of howlers.
Tactics and formations are forever discussed but they are only a side plate to the main dish of individual skills performed collectively, of mental state and intensity levels.
It seems to me as if the curfew on the current manager’s time in the hot seat has influenced Mick’s approach in the role. You get the impression it’s a bit of a chore dealing with the public inquisition which comes with the territory, while the next in line is like a greyhound in the traps, licking his lips at the prospect of landing the prize.
Meanwhile, our performances in this campaign have been lacking. Things were certainly better against Denmark in Dublin when, although we failed to win, we were the superior team on the night. Yet, it was obvious too that the Danes didn’t play with any great intensity. They were happy to contain us, as a draw was enough for them to qualify — which is how it panned out in the end. As a result, we now wait until next March when we’ll have to win two games away from home and come out on top of a mini-group by beating Slovakia and either Northern Ireland or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Hopefully, Mick McCarthy can navigate us through this tricky task in the spring and lead us to the 2020 European Championships on home soil. He has managed to galvanise the squad and lift the mood but Stephen’s imminent arrival is a breath of fresh air after a prolonged period of smog. The mental scars from previous regimes need urgent attention but the human trials being carried out at U21 level are very encouraging and will be coming to the market in 2020.
The circumstances surrounding the accidental masterstroke of appointing concurrent gaffers has given the wider public a chance to preview the ethos and attitude of the heir to the throne. And it’s increasingly obvious that they like what they see.
I don’t think fans, media and players alike were ready for Stephen Kenny’s appointment last November but, in some roundabout way, the FAI have managed to create a scenario where everyone is now counting down the days to his takeover. For his part, he will be excited by the thought of putting together a team from every Irish-blooded player in football, to suit his style of play and adopt his winning mentality. Whoever gets in his first team will thoroughly believe they can take on anyone, anywhere, and that their manager will expect them to win.
They will wear the green jersey with purpose and belief and hopefully ignite a new era of football in this great sporting nation.