Tommy Martin: For a precisely engineered craft, why is Stephen Kenny's Ireland blindsided by asteroids?

What is missing? Is it simply experience, the nous to ride out the interstellar collisions that are a hazard of international football’s rarefied orbit?
Tommy Martin: For a precisely engineered craft, why is Stephen Kenny's Ireland blindsided by asteroids?

EXPLOSIVE IMPACT: Eduard Spertsyan scores Armenia's second goal at the Aviva 

Not normally known for their sports punditry, NASA provided us with this week’s perfect metaphor for football management. For what could resemble the lot of the humble gaffer better than Dimorphos, the asteroid happily hurtling through the galaxy until the American space boffins smashed a ruddy great probe into it at a speed of 22,000 kilometres per hour?

Stephen Kenny would have felt the asteroid’s pain on Tuesday night when his team’s pleasant orbit around the Armenian defence was suddenly jolted off course. Until Artak Dashyan’s 71st-minute strike made deep impact, gravity seemed set to land the Republic of Ireland’s latest mission gently on international football’s Sea of Tranquility – survival in Nations League B.

Instead, the black hole of League C beckoned when Conor Hourihane’s aimless crossfield pass lost contact with mission control and invited Armenia to equalise just seconds later. This Ireland team has a history of trouble dealing with incoming alien missiles. Just like Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and in their own triumph in Yerevan in June, Armenia locked on the Irish goal and delivered a long-range laser strike.

By that stage we were in Apollo 13 territory, disaster averted thanks to Robbie Brady’s coolness under pressure. Despite the bumpy re-entry, the manager and his admirers viewed it as mission accomplished. His critics, however, delivered their familiar verdict on the Kenny reign: Houston, we have a problem.

If the explosive impact of the NASA probe came as a shock to poor Dimorphos, the space agency was only operating under the old fail to prepare, prepare to fail principle. The mission was a test if they could knock a celestial body heading towards earth bent on global extinction off course and thereby save the planet. The space program version of an international friendly, if you will.

Stephen Kenny knows all about potential extinction events, given the calls after various bad results for his management team to go the way of the sauropods. As with NASA, it is clear his team is rigorously well-prepared for its missions, its coordinates precisely loaded, all components precision engineered. And yet they are frequently blindsided when trying to negotiate the asteroid belt of international football.

Where previous regimes adopted the Hollywood approach to any looming apocalypse, namely sending Shane Duffy riding on a nuclear bomb to a soundtrack of Aerosmith, Kenny’s team are undoubtedly a more space-age prospect. So why do they still have those moments, as on Tuesday night, when the heat shield shudders and cracks, the oxygen tanks run low and the whole thing appears to drift off soundlessly into deep space?

Irish football’s own James T. Kirk, Brian Kerr, addressed the subject in the aftermath of the defeat to Scotland. Having boldly gone where no Irish manager had gone before with his underage teams, Kerr has long been aware of the hostile worlds that lurk in the great beyond.

Musing in his captain’s log on Virgin Media, Kerr praised the performance against Scotland. “The team played quite well, there was definitely good shape about it and clarity of the roles.” But? “There’s something missing, that we keep losing matches and we’ve been out of too many groups too soon…and we’ve got to get over it from the start of the group. They can’t let that happen again in the next qualification.” 

So what is missing? Is it simply experience, the nous to ride out the interstellar collisions that are a hazard of international football’s rarefied orbit? Will time rid this young squad of the tendency to remain stuck on the launch pad as in the flaccid defeats that opened this Nations League campaign? Will they develop the nerve to stick the landing when in promising positions like they had in Lodz and at Hampden Park? Will bitter experience teach them to keep their hands firmly on the controls in situations like Tuesday night and not lurch in front of the nearest passing comet?

Possibly, though it was Matt Doherty in Glasgow who dangled out a lazy leg for Ryan Christie’s cross for Scotland’s first goal. It was Hourihane who was out of position for Armenia’s first goal and gave away the second with a terrible pass. And it was Jeff Hendrick chugging back ineffectually as the Armenians poured through the Irish midfield. None of these were on their first spacewalks.

Kenny is confident that his big bang just needs time and space, that out of the primordial soup of the Nations League campaign will burst new life. "We can see the emergence of players and that's been critical for us as a nation, critical as for us as a team,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “In a year's time they will be even better, you can see that and that's by design.” 

The manager has always been one to aim for the stars with the hope that you might land on the moon. But like many of those with their eyes on the astral plane, sometimes he struggles to keep his feet on the ground. Describing Tuesday’s win as “an exceptional performance at times” was a stretch, the latest evidence of a tendency the manager has to exaggerate the quality of his team’s work.

Whether he does this to boost squad confidence or to head off his detractors, a more blunt assessment of their performances might serve his players better. Like aiming a rocket-fuelled probe at a rock hurtling through space, at this level there is no margin for error. Lapses like the ones that allowed Armenia back into the game on Tuesday can lead to disaster and in the Euro qualifiers, no one can hear you scream.

The missing link for Kenny’s team appears to be a ruthless, winning mentality which they must acquire between now and the start of the qualifying campaign, an unfriendly draw for which could leave Ireland’s hopes taking on the quality of a moonshot.

As the good folks at NASA will tell you, you need to hit the asteroid before the asteroid hits you.

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