Few managers have ever been forced to wait so long for their first game in charge as Stephen Kenny.
The ‘new’ Republic of Ireland manager, who was announced as Mick McCarthy’s successor-to-be in November 2018 and eventually elevated to the role in April, has had to play the waiting game.
But after a long road of highs and lows in management, he is primed to take charge of the ‘Boys in Green’ for the first time on Thursday next week away to Bulgaria.
As he sat down to brief the media following his first squad announcement as senior manager on Monday afternoon, Kenny was finally fielding concrete questions about imminent competitive action, rather than musing about future footballing philosophies and addressing other such queries when it was still months until his first game at the helm.
“It’s been a long period for everyone, not being involved in international football,” Kenny said.
“But listen, people have made greater sacrifices than us. These are the times we’re in – it’s great that the games are going ahead.
“For me as a manager, I want to walk into a full stadium. That’s what you dream about. You can feel that, the emotion of that, the emotion of the support, and players connecting with the support. That’s special. But we can’t have that. I think we’ve got to make the best of everything we have. That’s the situation at the moment. The good news is that the games are going ahead, because they were in doubt – ‘Could we go to Bulgaria or not?’ Now we have the opportunity to go.”
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‘We want good international results, and that’s what we want to achieve’
A wave of optimism has swept Irish football circles following a decade of largely defensive approaches under McCarthy, Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni and the 48-year-old makes no attempt to hide his ambitions.
“We haven’t been in a World Cup since 2002, and these are the things we want to rectify. We want good international results, and that’s what we want to achieve,” he said.
“Bulgaria, they beat the Czech Republic in a Euro Qualifier recently. Since their new coach (Georgi Dermendzhiev) came in, he’s got them well drilled and they look very well organised. And we’ve got to go over there and try and win.
“[We then] play Finland who qualified out of a tough group with Italy, Bosnia and Greece. They’ve qualified for the Euros. We’ve got to try and get good results in those opening two games because we want to do well in all the competitions. We want to do well in this competition, because one of the things it does give you is a potential World Cup play-off.”
We haven’t been in a World Cup since 2002, and these are the things we want to rectify.
Kenny has made his ambitions clear
Out with the old and in with the new?
Kenny’s first squad selection brought with it a barrage of talking points. Many of the country’s most exciting young talents who were brought up by Kenny in the U21 team have being given the nod. A glimpse of the future?
“Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Jayson Molumby…They’ve come through their various clubs, through the great schoolboy clubs in the country, and emerged and come through the Irish international teams at all the levels. And now they’re in the senior international squad which represents great progress,” he said.
“Jayson Molumby played this season for Millwall on loan from Brighton, very competitive, really got an all-round game. He’s very quick around the park, very competitive, great range of passing and he can dribble. So he has all the attributes he needs to be a midfield player.
“Adam Idah is our most prolific goalscorer at under-age level for Ireland. He’s scored a lot of goals at all the levels. Again, very young – 2001 birthday, still only 19. He went from Cork to Norwich, and obviously he’s finding his way there at the moment. He has a lot of potential, and a lot of attributes – he’s quick and got good movement and holds the ball up well, has a good all-round game that a number nine should have.”
But it was not good news all-round for a young generation of Irish footballers making waves in England, as Michael Obafemi was overlooked. The Southampton forward, who enjoyed a fine season with the Saints during which he found the net against both Chelsea and Manchester United, did not shy away from airing his grievances.
“Michael will be in with the U21 team with Jim Crawford,” said Kenny. “Michael is a good player, a good talent also. He scored a couple of very good goals last year. It will be interesting to see Michael with the U21 team in the up-and-coming games.”
But it is not all young talent that has been introduced, as some seasoned campaigners have fought their way back into the reckoning.
“[James McCarthy, Harry Arter] and Shane Long also. I think they haven’t been involved in the [Euros] campaign as such,” Kenny added.
“Harry Arter, I’ve watched him live for Fulham this year a few times. I think he’s been adaptable. You have to adapt. He was an attacking midfield player with Bournemouth. And then he played the holding midfield role for Fulham.
“James McCarthy hasn’t played in over three years for Ireland. Injuries have taken a toll in that regard. He has been a terrific player, but I feel there’s even more for James to give. Very, very creative influence, and I’m looking forward to getting him into the Ireland set-up again. Hopefully he can stay fit, and be a real addition to us.”
When it rains, it pours
And so, almost 10 months after the Republic of Ireland’s last senior international, they are moving into a hectic autumn schedule. Given that international managers often find themselves frustrated at a lack of access to players, perhaps it is an ideal starting point for Kenny.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had matches and then all of a sudden we have three windows coming up together, so that’s exciting in itself and you’re right, there’ll be a quick turnover between the September, October, November [international windows],” he said.
“This is a great period for Irish football coming up because we’ve got eight games in three months. So we’ve got six Nations League games, we’ve got a Euro play-off against Slovakia, which is a very significant game. The idea is that we’ll be in a play-off final… and we’ve got World Cup qualifiers as well in March, so there is potential to have a very, very high number of games this year, if things went well for us. It could be a year like no other, and we’ve got to think like that,
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