Things could then be about to get worse for Ireland, especially as Kenny lost even more players – Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens – to injuries ahead of Tuesday’s game. All this invites a question: so what?
A good argument could be made to sack Kenny at this time. The gist of this case is: played 10, won zero, scored just three bleeding goals. With a record like that, Kenny had to be admired for saying on Monday: “I want to build a team that really exalts Irish footballers. That’s it. Nothing more than that.
At this point, it would be easy to portray Kenny as deceived, a sort of Seán Quixote embarked on a vain project that can only end in failure and ridicule. The main difference between a doomed fool and a triumphant leader is not so much what they believe, but what they can make others believe. Kenny is not obviously charismatic like predecessors such as Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy or even Giovanni Trappatoni, who had a knack for making noise even when speaking a unique mix of several languages, including gibberish. But in the past Kenny has taken clubs to unlikely heights and most of his Irish squad are still convinced by his vision.
At least they say they are, especially the inexperienced, who are understandably excited about a manager telling them they could become kings and who they had a great time with at the Under-21 level. Admittedly, there was little evidence of players determined to follow Kenny’s instructions last Saturday when, despite their demand for a quick start, Luxembourg started and finished as the strongest team. But there was a good reason for that, or rather a bad one: Many Irish players did not play regularly at their clubs, due to injury or unimpressive form. “We have discovered that some of our players are struggling to play two matches in three days,” said Kenny after the disgrace of Luxembourg. He responded to criticism for not moving away from a full three, which had worked well against Serbia but stuck against Luxembourg, saying he felt the players needed to make any other system succeed were in a condition even poorer than those who were withering on the ground.
Worse yet, many fit Irish players play at a lower club level than Luxembourg’s big names. That’s what Kenny is up to. He has taken over at a time when Ireland’s talent pool seems shallower than it has been in decades and, ahead of each of Kenny’s matches, was even more drained by Covid-19 or injuries.
The dwindling stock of skills was already apparent under the managers who came before Kenny. Three years ago, Martin O’Neill was so exasperated by the limited technique of some players, that he advised them to practice making tennis ball guards in their backyards. His assistant, Roy Keane, resorted to alternative medicine for others, attempting to heal the wounds of Jonathan Walters and Harry Arter with a concoction of exotic curses. McCarthy started his second coming two years ago with a 1-0 win over Gibraltar that could have gone either way.
Kenny has inferior, or at least less developed, players than O’Neill and McCarthy and he’s been less fortunate, losing key influences before each of his matches. Still, he would now prepare for the European Championship if Conor Hourihane hadn’t missed a near-open goal from six yards in Slovakia in October, or if Doherty and Alan Browne had converted the penalties into a shootout. The manager is not responsible for these failures. But it’s just as good that Ireland didn’t hit the euro as they wouldn’t have been willing to do anything other than make a powerful statement denouncing the tournament’s expansion.
All of this amounts to negative justification for continuing to support a manager who is trying to rely on positive aspects. Yes, Kenny should have more time no matter what happens against Qatar. Let’s see what he can do when he’s got something closer to a full squad, and when young players like Josh Cullen, Jason Knight, Gavin Bazunu, Dara O’Shea, Aaron Connolly and Jayson Molumby have worked harder. with him and advanced their club careers a bit.
Kenny was mocked for his insistence on cultivating an uplifting style, for a supposed lack of pragmatism. But he’s not trying to recreate the Brazil of 1982, just to get players through and move with speed and precision, like they did in spells during his reign. Perhaps they are not able to do it regularly. But it is surely better to give him more opportunities to realize that ambition than to let him down and hire a manager who will aim to win 1-0 on set pieces, especially since Ireland seems more particularly well endowed to succeed in this way, Either.