The ascent of Stephen Kenny to the top job in Irish football was controversial right from the start. Soon-to-depart FAI chief executive John Delaney announced that Mick McCarthy would be in charge of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, with Kenny to manage the under-21s and take over the senior position on August 1st.
The thinking behind this unorthodox move was that the steady hand of McCarthy would steer the Good Ship Ireland to qualification, and the less-experienced Kenny would take over after the tournament had ended. Of course, Covid had an impact upon this plan, as it has impacted on just about everything else in life these days.
In the event, McCarthy’s two-year reign saw Ireland finish third to Denmark and Switzerland in their Euro qualifying group. The Nations League campaign was even worse, with Ireland finishing last in their group and without a win. However, a quirk of the qualification rules meant that Ireland was rewarded by this dismal run of form with a play-off match against Slovakia and potentially a back-door route to the Big Show.
In effect, Ireland could have lost every single game under Big Mick by ten goals to nil and they still would have made that semi-final berth.
The elimination match against Slovakia was originally scheduled for March and the Euros should have been in the rear window by now. Naturally that has not happened and the championships are due to take place in June 2021.
What this meant for Kenny is that he was propelled into the hot seat just in time for the big game against Slovakia, in between pairs of Nations League games either side of it. Suffice to say, things have not gone as well as might have been hoped for.
Kenny’s first game in charge resulted in an uninspiring draw against Bulgaria in September, followed by a disappointing 1-0 loss at home to Finland.
Next up was the big one: the Euro play-off semi-final away to Slovakia. The victor would go on to meet the winner of the other semi between Northern Ireland and Bosnia, with the prize of a golden ticket to the Euros at stake.
Qualification for Ireland was extra-important this time around. For one thing, four of the games are due to take place in Dublin, the first time the country will host fixtures of this magnitude. Secondly, the reign of the afore-mentioned John Delaney has left a legacy of severe financial problems for football’s governing body in Ireland. (You can check out the excellent book ‘Champagne Football’ for the full gory details). Each qualifying country earns an automatic €9.25 million, with more millions on offer based on their results in the tournament. The FAI could really have used that boost to their bank balance.
Luck Turns Sour for Ireland
Early omens were good for Ireland, with Slovakia missing two of their star players due to Covid-related issues. However, the virus doesn’t care what colour shirt you wear and was to wreak havoc on Ireland’s chances just before kick-off.
When the squad arrived in Bratislava, Covid testing revealed that a non-playing member of the group had a positive result. Unfortunately for Ireland, two of their players were sitting on the plane within two metres of this member of staff. While in the UK a 1-metre distance as regarded as acceptable in such circumstances, Irish regulations took precedence and the 1.7m and 1.9m distance to the players meant they were ruled out of the game.
More unfortunate still is that one of these players was Aaron Connolly, widely regarded as goal-shy Ireland’s best chance of getting on the score-sheet. The other was Adam Idah, a lively young striker who stood a good chance of being launched off the bench at some stage. Without either, Ireland struggled mightily in front of goal and squandered a couple of great chances. Slovakia triumphed 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out and Ireland’s Euro dreams were shot down.
And just to rub salt in the wounds, it was later confirmed that the test result was a false positive.
More Disappointment in the Nations League
Things didn’t get a whole lot better ahead of the ensuing Nations League game against Wales. This time another positive test ruled out five players – four of whom were likely to start – leaving Kenny and his staff to drastically alter their pre-match plans. That game finished in another scoreless draw, and last night Finland repeated their earlier 1-0 victory over the Irish, this time in Helsinki. Just 3 minutes after full-back Enda Stevens rattled the Finnish crossbar, an uncharacteristic error from Irish keeper Randolph gifted the Finns the winner.
Out of the Euros and winless in the Nations League – which could have a very negative impact on Ireland’s seeding for the World Cup qualifiers – things are not looking too rosy. However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Kenny has got the Irish playing a neat, possession-based game, and he still enjoys a considerable level of goodwill from an Irish media wearied by the years of the grim fare doled out by previous managers O’Neill and Trapattoni.
As for the Irish fans, while opinions are divided, overall there is a willingness to give the new manager a fair shot at the job. Ahead of the final two Nations League games in November, Kenny will be hoping that his luck will turn and that he finally starts to enjoy the rub of the green.