The man set to revamp Irish football as we know it, the chosen one, a local boy from Tallaght destined to restore the FAI’s best days. Stephen Kenny’s reign hasn’t exactly complemented the rhetoric behind his appointment as Ireland’s most recent competitive loss to the Netherlands in their final Euro 2024 qualifier sees an almost certain end to his journey. A turbulent tenure to say the less of it, Kenny’s period has divided the opinion of Irish fans for the last three and a half years.
Let us recap what has been one of the more memorable Irish managerial stints in recent decades.
His appointment back in April of 2020 brought with it plenty of scepticism, not quite the big footballing names that Giovanni Trapattoni or Martin O’Neill are, Kenny had to build his credibility as an international manager with an uninspiring Irish squad. Kenny’s objective was simple: qualify for tournaments.
Taking on a team from Mick McCarthy which had failed to qualify automatically for the 2020 European Championships, albeit with a play-off game to play. A route that Ireland took in both the 2012 and 2016 Euros qualification campaigns, it wasn’t to be for Kenny’s men as they lost out on penalties to Slovakia, missing out on the 2020 Euros.
A defeat not many could blame the new boss for, being his first in charge of a major international qualification campaign, it was a cruel but encouraging beginning for the former Dundalk gaffer.
Attention then turned to the remaining fixtures of the ongoing Nations League tournament, and succeeding that, Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign. In the four remaining games of 2020 (three Nations League games and a friendly against England), Kenny’s side would only manage one draw against Wales, losing to England, Finland and their rematch with the Welsh.
The Kenny doubters began to realise some justification following the poor run of form, with many calling for an early firing of the ex-U21’s boss. With pressure already mounting on Kenny’s shoulders, good results were obligatory, but good results did not come.
Ireland would go another four matches without a win to their name, most notably (for all the wrong reasons of course) was the 1-0 loss at home to ‘x’ ranked team Luxembourg. What most fans considered to be one of the all-time low moments in Irish football, was labeled ‘embarrassing’ by the Irish media. The shock defeat dealt a serious blow to Irish hopes of a trip to Qatar. Stephen Kenny would at last secure his first victory as Ireland manager in a 4-1 away win to Andorra, though being a friendly, after eleven games without besting an opponent, Kenny was off the mark.
An Uptick in Form?
The minor win for Kenny seemed to spark a major boost in performances, including an impressively narrow loss to Portugal away from home which saw Cristiano Ronaldo score a late winner to break Irish hearts. Nonetheless, support began to gather for ‘Kenny ball’ and the manager’s willingness to give youth players a chance, including Ireland’s player of the match (and now starting goalkeeper) Gavin Bazunu.
Despite the growing positivity surrounding Kenny’s term, Ireland’s World Cup dreams were slowly fading, largely due to the ruthless form of their group opponents Serbia and Portugal. Following an encouraging draw to Serbia at the latter end of the campaign, Kenny found himself on the wrong side of the FAI’s commercial partners as he shared in the pre-match conference his real goal was to qualify for the 2024 Euros, not the 2022 World Cup.
“Did anyone think that we were favourites to qualify, or that we should qualify? You know, we certainly have a plan in place. I’ve taken the decision, right or wrong, that we would build this squad to be a really, really competitive team to qualify for Germany 2024 (Euros).” These comments would lead the FAI to have to address commercial sponsors of the association who had signed contracts for the buildup to the World Cup in Qatar.
Kenny was providing results though, in the last four games of 2021, Ireland won three, drew one, scored ten and conceded none. The glory days were back. Kenny had restored joy into Irish international football.
Ireland had not qualified for a World Cup since 2002, and ultimately missing out on another was seen as disappointing but confidence in the Irish manager was there, and that is all that mattered at the time.
The run of results would cautiously continue into 2023 with a draw to world no.1 Belgium and a win over Lithuania. The latter would mark Ireland’s eighth in-a-row unbeaten. A surprise defeat to Armenia followed by another at the hands of Ukraine would stall the Kenny Express slightly. His squad would bounce back against Scotland in the Aviva with a 3-0 hammering of the Scots, a match that will live long in the memory of Irish football fans.
Since that sunny Summer day in Dublin, Stephen Kenny hasn’t been able to put together a consistent run of form, losing eight of his following fourteen, and winning just four. These fourteen include an entire Euros qualification period, one in which Kenny marked as his team’s ultimate goal, finishing second to bottom in the group, would see that goal rejected.
And so here we are, November of 2023, Stephen Kenny’s stay as Irish boss has come to its conclusion. It is an end which many fans will look at as a positive, following a hopeless run of results over the last three months.
However, Kenny should be remembered as a man who sought to give the future of Irish football a chance, a man with a genuine passion for his nation, and a man who dared to rethink the limitations of this team’s style of football. It may not have worked out in the long-term, or even in the short-term, but it was fun while it lasted.
Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor