The defence of the Stephen Kenny era has been based in romanticism. This romanticism is forged in a belief in what Irish football ought to be.
The first strand of this is around the League of Ireland community, who after years of being the butt of a condescending narrative within Irish sport have naturally developed a chip on their shoulder surrounding the quality of the league, which falls on deaf-ears to many of the so-called ‘barstooler’ Premier League supporters.
Kenny, as the league’s top manager, offered this subculture an opportunity to show to the rest of Irish society that the LOI is much more than the ‘chicken league’, as Eamon Dunphy once described it.
Many of those who have passionately called for more interest in the LOI, which has seen a post-covid boom in attendances, have been the journalists who cover the league. This has led them to view Kennny as a proxy battle for the league’s legitimacy. This cohort believes that the domestic game ought to be able to produce a coach capable of managing the national team. Therefore, if Kenny fails, the LOI fails.
The other side of the romanticism is based on the belief Ireland ought to be able to play progressive football, ‘the right way’, as opposed to the ‘British style’ of football which Kenny’s predecessors had been labelled with from their European counterparts. It is a hope to move away from the traditional, long ball, defensive style of play towards a more continental style of football.
Kenny has promised and been depicted as this great revolutionary who will overhaul the Irish playing style and move towards this more progressive way. Pep with a fada. Those who long for the Emerald tiki-taka to blossom fear that if Kenny fails, we will see the correction which often characterises managerial changes. The words ‘Big Sam’ keep this group awake at night.
The vast majority of fans couldn’t care less what brand of football is being played so long as there is success. When David O’Leary scored the decisive penalty against Romania in 1990, were the emotions dampened because we didn’t emulate Total Football? People enjoy watching progressive football, but they enjoy success a lot more.
During the Kenny era, the performances are giving the impression that the manager’s insistence in changing the playing style is having a detrimental effect on some of the Irish characteristics which have stood to us in the past. National teams tend to succeed when they embrace their national characteristics. Italy’s Euro 2020 win was based on cautious, disciplined defending which their game has been synonymous with since the introduction of ‘Catenaccio’ era, which emphasised nullifying opponents as the priority.
Yet when Danish international Thomas Delaney described breaking down Ireland’s defence to “opening tin of baked beans with your bare hands” we took offence to it. Argentina’s recent World Cup win also fed into the Argentine football stereotype of tough tackling and cynical tactics, sprinkled with some magic.
Even the mild-mannered Lionel Messi showed a different side of his character in Qatar, wearing his heart on his sleeve and acting far more abrasively towards opponents in comparison to his earlier career.
For Ireland, I would argue these characteristics are passion, desire, togetherness, and a belief in a David versus Goliath attitude, something which seems to be forgotten when we’re focusing on rolling the ball to Shane Duffy on the 6 yard line. I sympathise with both of these arguments. It would be great to see an LOI man succeeding at the summit of Irish sport whilst playing an entertaining brand of football. I was encouraged when he was appointed. However, ‘ought implies can’ – you are not obliged to do something which you cannot do, regardless of how righteous the argument is.
Kenny has five competitive wins from 25 games in three years across , four of which were against Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, and Armenia who are all placed outside the top 90 in the FIFA world rankings and the latter three have all taken points against Kenny’s Ireland which leaves one home win against Scotland the only victory of note during his tenure. At the level that Ireland operate at, the Nations League is the most likely route of qualification as you compete against teams of a similar level. Over the former Dundalk managers’s two Nations League campaigns, he has won two matches from a possible 12, finishing third in both groups.
We have seen zero evidence that Kenny, however righteous his intentions are, can succeed in delivering results on a consistent basis. This is the biggest job in Irish sport, not a school sports day or a dad turning up on a Saturday morning to take the local team, trying your best and meaning well is not enough.The argument against Stephen Kenny can also be viewed as a romantic one. However, this is a romanticism about the place the Ireland national team has in Irish society.
It is arguably, the single most important sporting team in the State, based on its ability to unite the country in a way which nothing in sport, and very little outside of sport, can. The GAA is the national sport and a religion to many within the country, however it is inherently parochial based in parishes and counties, this means the zero-sum nature of sport leaves one community in Ireland happy at the end of the Championship and the rest envious.
The Irish rugby team currently sit first in the world rankings and enjoy success others could only dream of, however rugby’s participation figures are dwarfed by that of GAA and football in Ireland and its elitist image turns off a small minority getting fully behind the team. Whereas the Irish national football team is an irresistible force when they are successful. Football is the global game and played in every corner of the earth, it offers nations a chance to flex on a genuine international stage.
For people of a certain vintage, the Jack Charlton era of the Republic of Ireland qualifying for their first major tournament in 1988 and followed up by back to back World Cups in ‘90 and ‘94 are some of their fondest memories in this country. Half a million people, from a country of 3.5 million at the time, lined Dublin’s city centre to welcome home Charlton’s side after making the World Cup quarterfinals at Italia ‘90. Conversely negative stories can also grip the nation, the Saipan saga before the 2002 World Cup brought the country to a standstill dividing fans, families, and pundits between Team Roy and Team Mick and dominated the media for the entire build up to the finals.
The national team has a way of transcending sport and engaging those who otherwise would have no interest in football, but see it as the perfect vehicle to express healthy patriotism. This can only be expressed on the biggest stage, at major tournaments when the team can capture the imagination.
The defeatist attitude at the moment of results seeming secondary and the ‘we don’t have the players’ argument, which Kenny claimed he wouldn’t peddle, has the potential to leave the national team an irrelevance in the sporting calendar for those not fully invested in football.
Callum Buchan – Sports Writer