As Stephen Kenny era draws to a close, Ireland must take this bold next step
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A rather limp 1-1 draw against New Zealand was Stephen Kenny’s last game as Republic of Ireland manager, and it was an appropriately flat note upon which to bow out. A reign which started abysmally back in 2020 now comes to a close with a qualification campaign in which Ireland lost every game save for two gimme putts against Gibraltar. The question now is what happens next.
The FAI has decided not to offer a new contract to the 52-year-old Kenny, whose deal came to an end after the game against New Zealand. Kenny himself knew it was coming, and he gave a rather pessimistic interview after the match in Dublin: “It would be a dream to carry on, but my instinct is that is not going to happen.”
He was proven right. Pundits, including former Irish internationals such as Richard Dunne and Kenny Cunningham, have not been kind to Kenny’s tactics, with his attempts to force what appeared to be an ill-fitting 3-4-2-1 formation onto his squad ending in failure. Against bigger and better teams, they were often staunch but lacked threat up front. Against minnows, they saw plenty of the ball but struggled to get numbers up the field or to penetrate low blocks. The right balance was never found.
In truth, Kenny was not blessed with a great squad with which to work, not that he found a way to get the best out of the players he did have at his disposal. A dreadful start to his tenure saw Ireland fail to win any of his first 11 games in charge, a run which included a loss to Luxembourg - and while things did improve to a degree in the qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup, the turnaround never went far. A redoubtable display in a 1-0 defeat to France at the start of Euro 2024 qualifying proved to be a false dawn, and a string of defeats to Greece and the Netherlands followed.
The senior players Ireland have are, as a group, some way below the level of the teams of the nineties and early 2000s, which were packed with Premier League-quality players and had a handful of genuine stars like Damien Duff, Shay Given, and Robbie and Roy Keane. Just four of the starting XI that played against in the final qualifying game against the Netherlands play in the Premier League, and it would be reach to call any of them stars.
The decline of the Irish talent pool has been an undeniable issue for Kenny, but Ireland have also failed to develop promising talent. Young strikers such as Troy Parrott and Adam Idah have yet to live up to early hype, and only Brentford’s Nathan Collins – a standout performer over the course of 2023 - appears to have progressed as the FAI would have hoped.
Clearly, Kenny cannot be held solely accountable for young players failing to reach the levels expected of them, but a part of his role was to build a system that worked for them. Kenny had a straitjacketed tactical vision that no doubt has many merits, but did not appear to get the best out of the players he had available, including players like Parrott, who was heavily hyped as a teenager but is now out on loan with Excelsior in the Eredivisie. Whoever comes next, it must be a manager who understands how to build a system which works for young talent – because Ireland have plenty of it coming through.
As well as Collins, recent breakout star Evan Ferguson and Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, there are green shoots throughout the youth ranks. Defender Andrew Omobamidele signed for Nottingham Forest in the summer after impressing for Norwich City in the Championship, Andrew Moran is playing well on loan at Blackburn Rovers, and full-back Festy Ebosele is doing well in Serie A with Udinese. All are 21 or younger. Then there's the Under-17s team, which includes Naj Razi - a reported transfer target for Real Madrid - who recently made the quarter-finals of the European Championships. For the first time since the end of the nineties, there is genuine hope for a new generation that will be good enough to compete on the global stage.
The FAI have squandered such resources before. In 1998 the Under-16 and Under-18 teams both won their respective European Championships, but a promising group of players was not given the chance to push on. A few members of those age group sides went on to have solid Premier League and Championship careers – players like Alan Quinn, Richie Partridge and Stephen McPhail – but many struggled to make good on their promise. There are, happily, signs that things may be different this time.
The success of the Under-17s may in part be attributed to the opening of the FAI National Training Centre in Dublin in 2015, which coincided with a new “player-focused” plan for youth developed which prioritised teaching technique and creativity while prioritising enjoyment over winning. The early results of that investment and change in philosophy look impressive.
But now Ireland have moved on from Kenny, they need to bring in a head coach who understands the need to put the development of the next generation first, and who can develop a tactical system and pathway to the first team that prioritises getting the best out of those fresh talents. If the FAI push a ‘qualification now’ mentality and fail to build on the foundations they have laid, then an opportunity may be squandered. That would be a crying shame. What matters now should not be the next five years, but laying a platform for the five years after that.
It is unlikely that even the best managers in the world could achieve much with the squad as it stands, so a manager who can get the best out of young players would surely be the most logical choice. There are rumours that the FAI want to appoint former midfielder Lee Carsley, currently head coach of the England Under-21s team. On paper, that makes a great deal of sense.
The FAI, tried a similar sort of thing with Kenny, of course, installing him as Under-21 manager for a couple of years before a pre-determined move to the senior team, taking over from Mick McCarthy who had effectively been acting as an interim coach. The idea was that Kenny would get to work with the next generation and build up international experience, but it didn't pan out. Still, the principle was probably sound - it was the execution that went awry.
The hope is that Ireland can look forward with optimism but also regard the immediate future with patience. It will take time for the teenagers pulling up trees in the youth ranks to reach their potential. As Kenny’s reign ends, the best path forward seems to be for the FAI to follow their own advice for youth coaching – to prioritise technique, development, progress and enjoyment rather than worrying about qualification, at least for the short term. Get it right, and the winning will follow in its own time.
This article was updated on 23 November after Stephen Kenny's departure was confirmed by the FAI.