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Republic of Ireland boss Kenny attempting to make his point in a world of chaos

Republic of Ireland 0 Wales 0


Off colour: James McClean protests his dismissal

Off colour: James McClean protests his dismissal


Stephen Kenny greets Wales counterpart Ryan Giggs

Stephen Kenny greets Wales counterpart Ryan Giggs

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Off colour: James McClean protests his dismissal

With a curse of rotten timing, Stephen Kenny settles into his dream job just when the rationale for international football blurs at every turn.

The world is such a hopeless warren of protocols right now that the Republic of Ireland's new manager could be forgiven feeling lost in a maze.

He took hope from small things in the still, priestly air of a deserted Lansdowne yesterday, but sounded like a preacher in an empty church.

This revolution needs a win, a goal even.

But he got neither on a day of administrative fire-fighting, the seating arrangements for last week's flights both to and from Bratislava essentially found culpable for depriving him of seven players in total.

And some seemed of a mind to haul Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah before the juvenile courts for leaving their assigned seats when traveling to Slovakia, thereby unwittingly ruling themselves out of Thursday's Euro play-off.

But when Kenny's hand was weakened by another five players yesterday - four deemed close contacts on the flight home to a player who tested positive - it called into question the very logistics of plucking players out of one professional bubble and trying to hermetically seal them in another.

So if the debate here should be about football just now, it plainly isn't.

Through a variety of circumstances, the Republic were short 13 players yesterday. That number slides to 14, and possibly more, for Wednesday's game in Finland given James McClean's dismissal and the eye injury Kieffer Moore's elbow inflicted on Kevin Long.

These Nations League games are, technically, competitive fixtures and - accordingly - of impact for World Cup seeding possibilities.

But at a time when the game's temples of commerce flounder in the absence of matchday revenue, it's surely questionable how sustainable it is to persist with an increasingly bloated international calendar that pulls their prize assets around the globe.

In the circumstances, Kenny's hand is now so threadbare, the criteria for picking a squad for Finland won't be so much evaluating likely midfield efficiency, defensive rigour or attacking potency, but simply establishing that vital signs are in order.

And, for Kenny, that's probably a preoccupation out-running the dearth of goals.

True, in six-and-a-half hours of football on his watch, the Republic's only breakthrough has been a Shane Duffy header from a corner, the very definition of hard-hat goal he remains adamant his men should aspire higher than.

To that end, yesterday was faithful to all we've seen so far. Even in their depleted state, the hosts were better than Wales. Just as they've been better than Slovakia and Bulgaria in previous games. Better, with little to show for it.

That said, Kenny - plainly - has the players' attention.

Much of what he's asking them to do is counter-intuitive, a switch of philosophy demanding they think constructively under pressure and, effectively, break out of stereotype.

It's an awkward, uncomfortable challenge for some, most notably Duffy whose passing yesterday often failed the stress test of a high Welsh press.

Yet he kept doing the difficult thing, almost always looking to play his way out rather take refuge in the traditional high, relieving hoof.

Likewise the full-backs, Enda Stevens especially, who had Harry Wilson and Matthew Smith determined to spook him on every possession only to find a player unwilling to do their bidding.

The truth is that the Republic have looked more accomplished every time they've played under Kenny, but these are cold-hearted days for the new manager.

They haven't been a goal-scoring team since Robbie Keane's retirement, yet it's hardly unreasonable to expect an international striker to score from the kind of 55th-minute opportunity that Stevens' cross delivered to Shane Long.

As Duffy put it, the "same old story" denied the Republic a victory.

And it's a moot point what appetite Kenny will now encounter in his players for this week's Finland trip given how last week's events degenerated into circus. It was hard to challenge his view that they "gave everything of themselves" here but this Nations League must be beginning to feel like an exercise in futility just now.

Worse, one exposing them to risk and ridicule.

It's clearly an eternity from what he himself ever envisaged life as an international manager would be, yet the hard truth is that even stranger days may well lie ahead.

Acting FAI chief executive Gary Owens hinted yesterday that - if necessary - they might choose to invoke Uefa's requirement of clubs to release players for competitive internationals when asked about the possibility of Connolly and Idah being returned to the squad, given the test that sidelined them last Thursday has, since, turned out a 'false positive'. But the Republic are surely running into quarrelsome territory if choosing to demand the return of players to a bubble that is now, officially, breached.

These are unprecedented days and, for Kenny, probably the worst imaginable in which to be trying to work a revolution.

He is already at odds with Owens over the necessity for all the non-playing staff on last week's flight, Kenny deeming the one who tested positive as "non-essential", Owens declaring them "a requirement of Uefa".

The truth of it is that uncertainty remains the time-bomb here.

With an estimate of one in 500 tests delivering "false positive" results, elite sport sits at the mercy of imperfect science.

And in that environment, index-linked concerns will eventually take over.

The international game is asking things of clubs already in crisis mode that they are sure to find increasingly hard to give.

And in asking them, a national manager must walk that tricky border between insistence and diplomacy.

So if there's a lot to like about Kenny's early weeks in the job, the struggle is to see beyond the smoke of Covid.

With very little difference, this could have been a wonderful start to his regime.

If McClean or Conor Hourihane or Alan Browne take the chances they had in Bratislava... If Long or Robbie Brady or Daryl Horgan take those that fell their way yesterday... If no pandemic... Night and day.

But we live in a hopelessly frazzled world, one doing the new Republic of Ireland manager few favours

He flies to Finland today with whoever and whatever remains available to him.

Just over an hour before yesterday's kick-off, the stadium PA system exploded to life with Christy Dignam's lyrics 'How can I protect you in this crazy world?', Aslan's perfect anthem for these times.

For Kenny now, the prayer must be that he can somehow find a way. And slow the cascade of misfortune.

Belfast Telegraph