Time for Ireland to deliver on Stephen Kenny's promises

It’s unthinkable for Ireland to be caught cold again by a nation they’ve bookended a campaign that promised so much yet invited more scrutiny on the current regime
Time for Ireland to deliver on Stephen Kenny's promises

ON THE TURN: Shane Duffy, left, and Chiedozie Ogbene during a Republic of Ireland training session at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On Budget Day, another giveaway bonanza by Stephen Kenny to Armenia will have grave consequences for the bottom line.

It’s unthinkable for Ireland to be caught cold again by a nation they’ve bookended a campaign that promised so much yet invited more scrutiny on the current regime.

Consider the calibre of opposition that daubed another black mark on Kenny’s record in June.

Armenia warmed up for that last meeting with a 9-0 mauling by Norway and have lost all four games since, conceding 14 and tacking just one goal onto Eduard Spertsyan’s scud that destroyed Ireland.

It was a result completely out of kilter with their formbook and Kenny cannot afford to be outfoxed tactically again by Joaquin Caparros, the Spanish journeyman whose undulating fraught relationship with the local media was reflected by a mass walkout from the press conference after Saturday’s 5-0 hammering by Ukraine’s reserves.

“We have two objectives against Ireland,” vowed Caparros on the eve of the game. ”Firstly is to make up for our performance against Ukraine and secondly to keep our place in League B.” 

The latter mission is contingent on winning at Lansdowne Road, thereby relegating Ireland instead and certainly activating the break clause the FAI insisted on inserting into Kenny’s contract extension brokered just six months ago.

A game that, on paper at least, looks the easiest of the series shouldn’t trigger such a crisis, particularly as Kenny has a strong squad to pick from.

Josh Cullen is the sole absentee and his suspension affords either Jeff Hendrick or Conor Hourihane a window to shine in midfield.

Set-piece deliveries promise to be crucial, offering Robbie Brady a chance of starting ahead of James McClean at left wing-back, while Chiedozie Ogbene and Scott Hogan are vying for the front pairing.

Still, making the mistake of sacrificing Michael Obafemi’s pace by withdrawing the striker with a half an hour left on Saturday should convince the manager to retain his skillset.

“It’s fair to say Michael is fit enough to start a second game,” admitted Kenny about managing the game-time of a player beset by hamstring strains.

“He missed a couple of weeks, which was very disruptive for him, but we know he’s talented.” 

Ireland’s strikers had trouble rattling Varazdat Haroyan last time out and the skipper’s return from suspension, along with Krasnodar striker Spertsyan, is a boost, though they remain without the Hovhannisyans, Arman and Kamo, both integral to the team that scalped Ireland three months ago.

To mirror the template that underpinned strolls by Ukraine and Scotland over the lowest ranked nation in League B, swift, sharp passages into dangerous areas will be imperative, rather than – as Richard Dunne put it on Monday night on Virgin Media – tapping 600 passive passes around the back.

"What is your definition of tempo?,” snapped Kenny when asked about upping the pace to stretch nations like Armenia that thrive on sitting deep.

“Does it just mean to get it forward, quicker? In my book it doesn't but we need to move the ball quicker than we did in the away game.

“Our passing needs to be crisper and we need to penetrate in a more progressive way. We’ll have to earn that because Armenia will defend competitively.” 

Ireland’s inability to break down packed, yet limited, visitors was evident against Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and, most recently, till late on against Lithuania.

It seems a stretch for the 44,000 ticket-buyers, as Kenny estimated last Friday, to all be there to whip up a storm but whatever portion turns up for a late kick-off as the cold nights close in will demand goals.

Barring a grim outcome, this game’s significance is a conduit to next year’s Euro qualifiers, completed by a pair of friendlies against Norway and Malta in November.

All of Kenny’s excuses ventilated and mitigation offered by his loyalists are based on reaching Germany in 2024 but the draw on Sunday week is increasingly pockmarked with danger.

This latest failed campaign, accruing a maximum seven points from six games, confirms Ireland’s status among the third pot of nations.

Recent slippages by England and France in the Nations League have robbed them of their pot one placings, increasing the prospects of a nightmare draw.

They must bely their standing to secure qualification as the first or second nation from the group stage contested between March and November of next year. Depending on a backdoor route through the playoffs is looking shaky too on account of their paltry points return.

“Our absolute objective is to qualify through the top-two,” Kenny asserted. “England and France are second seeds but better teams than some of the top seeds. It can balance out.

“There’s one or two strong fourth seeds as well which I don’t mind because they’ll take points off other teams.

“Let’s see what the draw brings but we’re going to get better.

“We’re going to turn our stadium into a real fortress here, like what we saw against Scotland in June, because we want passion in the ground every night to inspire our players to big victories.” 

Let’s see if they can measure up to minnows ranked 92 in the world first.

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