| 2.9°C Belfast

Irish can prosper if new boss gets the balance right between his romanticism and realism

Close

Listen up: Stephen Kenny addresses his Republic of Ireland players in training this week

Listen up: Stephen Kenny addresses his Republic of Ireland players in training this week

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Listen up: Stephen Kenny addresses his Republic of Ireland players in training this week

There may well have been groans to go with the grey hairs of the older members of the Republic of Ireland squad when the FAI confirmed five-and-a-half months ago that Mick McCarthy was stepping down with Stephen Kenny taking over immediately.

For the younger players who had worked with Kenny, it was good news, the same applying to a veteran like James McClean who had played under Kenny in the League of Ireland.

The route to the top, which appeared to have a blockage under McCarthy, was about to be cleared: as recently as last February, McCarthy had said that positive flurries of activity from teen­agers like Adam Idah and Troy Parrott were irrelevant to him as "Slovakia is not a place for debutants".

McCarthy's Covid-related replacement by Kenny was a game changer, and while the young guns had their hopes lifted by his arrival, the rest had reasons to be fearful, not cheerful.

The Republic's results in 2019 were not as bad as the annus horribilis of 2018, but a batch of players has consistently underperformed.

There would have been no protests outside FAI HQ if Harry Arter, Cyrus Christie and Scott Hogan were never picked again.

For those with a superficial view of the Republic team over the last number of years, a cull was inevitable. With the Under-21 squad which he had over­seen, Kenny had at his disposal the most promising crop of young talent available to a Republic of Ireland manager in a generation.

And, importantly, they weren't all sturdy, solid full-backs, but attacking players like the already-capped Aaron Connolly and Parrott.

Fans, thrilled by the sight of that Under-21 side beating Sweden home and away and going toe-to-toe with the most expensive Italian Under-21 side in history, played their own game of Fantasy Football, wondering how many of Kenny's kids could be fitted into his first senior squad.

There was a live prospect of inter­national football being over for those who had been given chance after chance by Martin O'Neill and McCa­rthy but had failed to deliver.

The idealists saw Kenny taking a rusty axe to the squad he inherited. Instead, he (very lightly) used a scal­pel, with Jayson Molumby and Idah the only uncapped players in his first squad (Caoimhin Kelleher and Dara O'Shea were later added in response to injuries).

Kenny is a dreamer: the Tal­laght man possesses a vision of how the game should be played, speaking of how he found it "offensive" to hear that Irish teams can only play one way.

Even his first media engagement of the week saw his speech peppered with positive words like "pace... the ability to control games... counter-at­tack... capture the imagination of the nation".

O'Neill simply told the Irish players how useless they were and how lucky they were to have him as manager; Kenny the dreamer wants to excite a nation.

But Kenny hasn't lasted so long in management, hasn't survived being sacked three times, on dreams alone. There's steel there too.

Kenny knows he would have won over the Twitterati by performing a transfusion, importing the Under-21 squad into the senior team and letting the kids play.

Yet his first squad led to recalls for James McCarthy (last played for the Republic in 2016), Arter (last played well in... who knows?), Robbie Brady (injury-plagued for two years) and Shane Long (excluded by McCarthy).

The two Callums (Robinson and O'Dowda) have been at best tepid in the green shirt. Many FAI-watchers would have preferred to see the two Conors (Cov­entry and Ronan) move up the ladder and leave Robinson on the shelf.

Players are also projects for Kenny, who was able to turn LOI journeymen like Andy Boyle, Dane Massey, Brian Gartland and Sean Gannon into mul­tiple medal winners.

Kenny had spoken of his hopes of getting more out of the likes of Robbie Brady and McCarthy.

Kenny the idealist would have ignored Long and picked a squad made up exclusively of young strikers, but instead he's trusted his gut that there's more to come.

The romantic in Kenny would love to see a home-grown teenager like Idah score the winner in Sofia tomor­row with a goal set up by a League of Ireland player, the realist may decide that Long is the man for the job.

Matching those strains isn't easy. But if Kenny can get the balance right, Irish football can prosper.

Belfast Telegraph