There was to be no measure of vengeance for Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009. France defeated the Republic of Ireland once more in qualifying for a major tournament, and this time there was no whiff of skulduggery – the only hands that played a part in the French victory were Mike Maignan’s, and they were both inspired and entirely legal.
So, no revenge – not yet, Henry’s handball was in Paris after all and there will be a second chance in September – but this was an international break that gave plenty of cause for cautious optimism, for perhaps the first time in quite a long time. This was Ireland’s best performance in a while, a superb second half demonstrating some of the grit and teamwork that has been missing from the Irish side over large parts of the past decade.
It took a Benjamin Pavard thunderbolt and a series of sublime saves from the AC Milan man between the French sticks for the World Cup runners-up to overcome Ireland in Dublin. The home side managed as many efforts on goal as the visitors, kept Kylian Mbappe quiet and looked better than they have in a big game for some time.
Manager Stephen Kenny was phlegmatic after the match, saying that Ireland were “So disappointed not to get at least a point. France are an exceptional team but we were comfortable ourselves in possession at times… We had a lot of good performances out there tonight.”
Rotherham United forward Chiedozie Ogbene, who played the full 90 minutes at the Aviva Stadium, provided a similar assessment of combined pride and frustration: “We don’t want to celebrate losses, it’s a result-based business and that’s what we’re striving towards... I looked in the defenders’ eyes and I think I could see a bit of doubt because we kept putting pressure on them.”
Ogbene, who scored the winner in the 3-2 friendly win over Latvia last week, added that despite an overall feeling of disappointment the performance had been a “massive boost”.
That the Irish side can talk in such terms suggests a mood which is steadily changing. That was likely the best performance yet under Kenny, and further cause for optimism is provided by the continued emergence of Evan Ferguson, who scored on debut against Latvia, and Gavin Bazunu, the 21 year-old Southampton goalkeeper who looked assured and controlled against one of world football’s most fearsome strike forces. They could easily play the Robbie Keane and Shay Given roles for a new generation of Irish fans.
But it will be a long road for Ireland. They won just four of their ten games in 2022, losing to Armenia and only narrowly overcoming Malta with a 1-0 away win in a friendly. All of this came after a humiliating 1-0 home defeat to Luxembourg in 2021. Improvement was almost inevitable, if only because there was so little room to be any worse.
They also face an extremely tough qualification group for Euro 2024, and a place in Germany remains a relatively distant prospect. Aside from France, they will have to get past the Netherlands, who made the quarter-finals in Qatar, and six points from their games against Greece and Gibraltar in June will be essential. With such a brutal draw, it’s not unfair to suggest that the Republic may have to wait a little longer for their first major tournament appearance since Euro 2016.
There is also a big gap between the talent pool they enjoyed at their peak around the turn of the century and the one Kenny is drawing from now. 16 of the 23 players in Japan and South Korea in 2002 were playing in the Premier League at the time, and all 23 played in England’s top tier at some stage of their careers. Only seven of the 26 selected to face Latvia and France currently ply their trade in a ‘big five’ league, including all three goalkeepers.
Talented youngsters have yet to kick on. There is no problem in net, with Bazunu, Bournemouth’s Mark Travers and Liverpool’s back-up Caoimhin Kelleher all options – but other players expected to make strides have yet to do so. Jayson Molumby failed to make the grade at Brighton, Troy Parrott has scored just two goals in 23 games on loan at Preston North End, and Norwich City’s Adam Idah has been badly hampered by injuries, scoring only once this term in a season where he has largely featured from the bench.
None of this should detract from a massively improved performance, not least because Ireland finally showed the spine and organisation that was so desperately lacking when they lost to Luxembourg or when they struggled in the Nations League. Kenny has been given time to get his house in order and the showing against the French will go a very long way to persuading his many detractors that he is steadying the ship.
But it will be some time before this side is likely to be able to compete against bigger teams on a regular basis. The Under-17 side recently qualified for their first ever European Championships in Hungary, but it will be four or five years before the fruits of that success can begin to translate to the senior squad – and perhaps a similar time frame before younger first-eleven players like Bazunu, Ferguson, Molumby, Nathan Collins and Dara O’Shea are playing at their absolute prime.
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Which doesn’t mean that Ireland cannot hope to qualify for the biggest tournaments before then. A kinder qualifying draw for the next World Cup would give them a chance of repeating their American adventure from 1994, although it remains to be seen whether Kenny can translate a steadying ship into becoming the kind of inspirational figure that Jack Charlton was.
It is to be hoped that he can, and that Ireland can continue an upward curve over the coming years until they reach that possible peak. They will have to find replacements for older players – Seamus Coleman is coming to the end of his career, while Matt Doherty is 31, which signposts a possible problem at wing-back - but if the pitfalls can be navigated, the optimism generated by Monday’s performance in Dublin may not be misplaced, and the presence of Ireland’s ebullient fan base would be welcome in Germany, or in North America in three years’ time. Monday was the first step on a lengthy and likely rocky path, but may just provide the momentum needed to make it to the end.