Politics

Stephen Kenny justified in making future Ireland plans as things start falling into place

Numbers the FAI board and Packie Bonner cannot ignore: 37 passes before Jeff Hendrick’s perfectly weighted ball for Callum Robinson to complete his hat-trick in a 4-0 win over World Cup hosts Qatar.

Seven goals and two clean sheets in three days, as Caoimhín Kelleher and Chiedozie Ogbene made starting debuts and Burnley’s 20-year-old centre half Nathan Collins won a first cap off the bench.

Even the coffers are swelling again, with the 25,749 at the Aviva stadium on Tuesday set to double, presuming the Government give a green light on October 22nd, when Portugal visit next month.

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny refuses to keep his feet on the ground as Didi Hamann believes he should on RTÉ. Months ago, as some loud voices were calling for their removal, Kenny and Keith Andrews began planning their Uefa Nations League B campaign in June and September 2022 despite their contracts ending in July.

“In all seriousness, we are marking out a medium- to long-term strategy for the team,” Kenny revealed. “One of the things that we are looking at doing is winning the Nations League in June. There are four matches, and our ambition is to win the group as that gives you a Euros playoff, regardless of how you do in the European qualification, so that would be what we are looking to do going forward. Myself and Keith [Andrews] sat down about that a long time ago.”

In fact, matchday five and six are in September. With Ireland ranked 28th by Uefa, and therefore in League B, the draw on December 16th could pit them against Serbia, Ukraine, Sweden, Norway, or even Scotland.

This is the second time that Kenny has broken ranks from the national manager’s traditional remit by plotting a strategy that extends beyond short-term results or World Cup qualification, something Ireland have failed to achieve since 2002.

The reported suggestion that Bonner , as the only ex-international on the FAI board and having been made chairman of the ‘international and high-performance’ committee, holds enormous sway over Kenny being offered a contract extension up to Euro 2024 has been heavily criticised by John Giles.

Ireland’s Jeff Hendrick holds off the challenge of Qatar’s Karim Boudiaf at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland’s Jeff Hendrick holds off the challenge of Qatar’s Karim Boudiaf at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“That’s wrong, that’s totally wrong,” Giles told Eamon Dunphy’s The Stand podcast. “If it is true, I think it is very, very bad way to run any association. Really bad. If it is the case it should not be the case.”

The FAI board will decide the manager’s fate after the final World Cup qualifier in Luxembourg on November 14th with results this past week and the performance in Portugal making it difficult for any lingering anti-Kenny sentiment, on the new board or elsewhere, to fester.

There are multiple goodwill stories for Bonner and FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill to digest. Jamie McGrath provided a visual example of the new connection between Irish fans and this young squad at the recent TRNSMT festival in Glasgow.

“On the way back from my last international trip I met a few lads, they recognised me and we got chatting,” said McGrath. “They said they were going to a music festival on the Sunday and had a spare ticket if I wanted to come. But little did I know that my girlfriend also had tickets for Sunday as well so I ended up going and met them there and we had a bit of craic so it was nice to share that with them. They were sound fellas.”

It’s been an unforgettable seven days for two players in particular.

Robinson was agonisingly close to joining the company of Don Givens and John Aldridge as a two-time hat-trick man for the Republic of Ireland. Five goals in 166 minutes makes up for his absence against Portugal due to Covid and overshadows the avalanche of debate surrounding his vague non-vaccination stance.

“It’s been a crazy week for me,” Robinson told RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue. “My team-mates have been there for me all week with what went on in the press and stuff. We stick together and I’d do the same.”

It got lost in last Tuesday’s maelstrom, before the vaccine questions, Robinson provided insight into the methods of Andrews and Anthony Barry.

Ireland’s Chiedozie Ogbene runs past Abdelkarim Hassan of Qatar during the friendly international at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland’s Chiedozie Ogbene runs past Abdelkarim Hassan of Qatar during the friendly international at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“For instance, you could have your basic five ‘O’s’ and a bit of shape and a bit of set pieces but when we are doing our possession drills it isn’t just a small box. We do that as a warm-up – small box with two in the middle – but now we are doing possessions that are structural to what we want to [in games].

“The level of the coaching has been really good,” Robinson continued. “For the long-term, and for teams now in the Premiership and the Championship, this is where it is going and we need to stick by it.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment since the gaffer has come in because as a player you always want to be learning, and not in a different way, because a lot of managers are doing it, but a way of playing football, how to get out and how to break down a team. It has been really good.”

Ogbene is the epitome of uncharted territory, having last month become the first African-born Irish international while in Baku he became the first goal scorer and on Tuesday the winger was the first starter, undoubtedly inspiring a whole generation of Cork boys and girls.

The Rebel county’s fingerprints are all over this squad with Kelleher signalling his arrival, hot on the heels of Gavin Bazunu. The Liverpool goalkeeper had no saves to make against Qatar until the 56th minute against when he burst out of goal to claim a corner.

The crowd howled almost as loud as when Andrew Omobamidele picked up possession 30 yards from goal in the 40th minute. Fans instinctively remembered his late effort against Serbia and demanded more of the same. Like Brazilians once expected of Roberto Carlos. Despite the contagious mood, the teenager took a sensible option but his value to the cause was reinforced moments later with a perfectly timed slide tackle on Abdulaziz Hatem in Ireland’s box.

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