Even as Stephen Kenny admits his team have a huge task to qualify through two away play-offs for the European Championship finals, the new manager says he is not prepared to even countenance the possibility of Ireland missing out a unique opportunity to play on home soil in the 2021 tournament.
“We have got to achieve something extraordinary to qualify and the motivation is too great not to do that,” he says. “To have the Euros in Dublin is transformative to all our lives. This has never happened and is quite historic. So not to be a part of it — I don’t even want to consider that. To have that involvement would be very special for the country.”
But then comes the reality check.
“We have not qualified through the group and we are in the play-offs because of the (Nations League) Group B thing. We have to win two matches away back to back against significant nations which we have not done in many, many years. And we will give absolutely everything to achieve that. It’s something that is too special to miss out on, I feel.”
Kenny will open his senior Irish account with Nations League games away to Bulgaria and at home to Finland but while those are competitive fixtures — and, as such, he suggests, not the context for experimentation — they will still serve an overarching purpose in helping him build towards the centrepiece of the hectic Autumn schedule: The play-off semi against Slovakia and, if Ireland are successful in that, the final against either Bosnia or Northern Ireland.
It’s rare for any newly installed football manager to be faced with a momentous game (or, hopefully, games) so early in his tenure but Kenny insists he is not remotely unnerved by the imminence of such a high stakes challenge.
“No, I actually don’t find it in the least bit daunting and I’m not just saying that. I’m ready, more than ready. And certainly it can’t come quickly enough, that’s the way I look at it.
“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.”
Although the pandemic means he has been unable to attend games in England, Kenny and his coaching staff have been busy keeping (remote) tabs on all the Irish contenders, paying particular attention to the green strongholds of Sheffield United, Brighton, Burnley, and Southampton.
“Those clubs are important for our development,” he notes. Prompted by a question about how Aaron Connolly might best be deployed in his team, Kenny — having said he reckons the rising star is well capable of playing anywhere across a front three — observes that the Brighton attacker is also symbolic of a belated wind of change in the emergence of young Irish talent.
“Believe it or not, we have this gap, if you like, between Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady who are 28 and Aaron Connolly who’s 19. And nothing, no players, in between for nine years, bar Alan Browne playing two matches and Sean Maguire — I’m talking about competitive matches, not friendlies — who played in Gibraltar.
Two players who came out of Cork City. And Aaron is from Galway. So we’ve had no players from Dublin for 10 years.
“So it’s good that we have these players coming through now, like Connolly, Adam Idah, Troy Parrott if he can get games now, Jason Molumby, Dara O’Shea… and I’m leaving loads of players out there. Players just need games now.
“Potential is one thing, becoming a senior international is another thing. It’s a big jump, and it’s part of my remit as manager to try and nurture that — to pick the best team available and, obviously, to win matches but with the chance of bringing players through as well.”
The winds of change have also blown through the Irish backroom set-up, with Kenny surrounding himself with new personnel, from coaches to physios to kit men.
“What I want to create is a real high-performance environment,” he says.
“That means raising the standards in a lot of areas. The people who contributed behind the scenes before, they all gave immaculate service. Great people, who made great contributions. But if you’re given an opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity, to manage your country, you have to be able to do it the way you would want to do it.”
Against the backdrop of structural change at the FAI, Kenny clarifies that while he will now have a voice at the association’s executive level, it will not be as a director of football.
“To be honest my job hasn’t changed at all,” he says. “I don’t have the title of director. I’m the manager of the international team, that’s all I ever wanted to be. But if I can contribute and give my experience and my views, not with the board of directors but with the senior management at the FAI, I’ll do that. I do that anyway. I think this just gives me a seat at the table if I require it.”