From a hopeless place, Ireland can face a winter of content

One last push will ensure Stephen Kenny’s desire for an extended deal is granted
From a hopeless place, Ireland can face a winter of content

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny avoids the pitch sprinklers before the international friendly match at Aviva Stadium. Picture: Donall Farmer/PA

Exceptional. A description overused in defeats during the Stephen Kenny era but fully justified for the springboard Ireland take into their final World Cup qualifiers next month.

Racking up two wins and seven goals, with none conceded, over the past week offers encouragement of a disappointing campaign ending on a flourish.

Qatar were no Portugal and Azerbaijan a distance off Luxembourg, but the habit of perforating defences and applying composure to finishing was abundantly lacking over the previous 16 games, bar a second-half blitz against lowly Andorra in June.

Callum Robinson’s availability to start just six of those, due to Covid-19 and injury, was clearly a factor, though he was as culpable as any for failing to spark in March on the night Luxembourg mortally wounded World Cup aspirations just two qualifiers in.

Five goals over the last two games has bestowed heroic status on Ireland’s CR7, especially given he’s the first player, outside of Robbie Keane, to bag a hat-trick since David Connolly’s treble all of 24 years ago. While his contribution on the field isn’t relevant to the controversy off it, the furore surrounding his vaccine stance has been at least parked.

Notably, an initial rush by fans from the south stand to embrace him on Tuesday night was halted at a two-metre distance.

Robinson claimed the match ball at the end of what he branded a “crazy week”, yet others were equally deserving of acclaim.

Qatar’s reluctance to press, or as Brian Kerr referred to it on Virgin Media as their “non-tacklers union approach”, played right into the hands of an Irish midfield conditioned to being outnumbered and overrun.

Conor Hourihane, benched for the last four qualifiers, took full advantage, his wand of a left foot effective in both open play and from dead balls.

As for Jeff Hendrick, he finally recreated the standards exhibited over the Euro 2016 journey. That may well be attributable to being deployed in the central position he favours.

All over the pitch, those three elders were supported by the emerging colts.

Kenny is now profiting off a stream of graduates from the U17s that reached three European Championships on the spin.

Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, and Nathan Collins were all in the squad of 2017 in Croatia, the latter duo joining Jason Knight and Troy Parrott the following year for a campaign in England that also ended at the quarter-final stage.

Gavin Bazunu and Andrew Omobamidele are so far the star turns from Colin O’Brien’s team that hosted the 2019 showpiece.

As shown by Connolly’s struggles — he didn’t play a minute of the two internationals after reporting into camp a day late — expectation of youngsters clicking simultaneously is foolhardy. Even Alex Ferguson’s integration of his Class of ’92 encountered a few casualties.

Together they will be tested again on November 11 by a Portuguese side intent on collecting three points to avoid being bundled into the play-offs by group leaders Serbia.

In the context of salvaging pride from the campaign, and to bolster Kenny’s case for a new contract, the visit to Luxembourg three days later carries more significance.

The consequences of dropping five points out of six at home to the Grand Duchy and the Azeris will manifest itself should Luxembourg beat the bottom seeds in Baku.

That’ll put third spot beyond Ireland’s grasp regardless of the final match, unless they elevate Kenny’s revival to dizzy heights by travelling with a result pocketed against Cristiano Ronaldo and his fellow Galacticos.

Now that would indeed be exceptional.

Backed by double the attendance of Tuesday night, Ireland will go about their business in that mindset.

The pressure will be off despite the 51,000 sell-out, variations in style have been evident since the friendly against Hungary in June, and a goalscorer in the form of Robinson has finally arrived.

From a hopeless place, Ireland can face a winter of content.

One last push will ensure Kenny’s desire for an extended deal is granted.

And, with it, scope to try to provide fans with a summer of 2024 in Germany to cherish.

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