Better results won’t make the Stephen Kenny debate vanish

David Kelly

And so another referendum for a national team that remains the tip of the iceberg for a sport where, underneath, so many complicated problems still naggingly persist.

As if one and all are braced once more for a lurch in fate, as an Irish side sought its first win on Polish soil for 46 years, a decade on from the familiar sight in this land of flailing fortunes from an outfit spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with the accelerated changes in the global game.

On a day when the final of this autumn’s World Cup qualifiers were anointed, the 20-year absence of the Irish from the global showpiece remains a piercing reminder of stasis at the top end of the sport, but also the stuttering attempts to improve matters beneath the surface.

Stephen Kenny remains the titular figure poised upon the tip of that iceberg, last night reaching a quarter century of games in charge.

A scarcely credible accumulation in such a short time, a reflection less of lingering longevity rather than the dazzling blizzard of unending international fare.

Ireland’s manager remains assaulted, with apparent ceaselessness, by the swirling storm so peculiar to his profession. One where the urgency of a snap judgment based on every public exercise of 90 minutes is routinely inevitable, regardless of occasion.

The ludicrous triangle of results linking Armenia, Scotland and Ireland illustrated the extremes.

Even the optics of a goal-kick can suffice to induce paroxysm of horror amongst some as to the apparent error of this team’s ways, as much as it emboldens others that this is indeed the manner in which a modern, emerging footballing team must seek to progress.

And so, as this mini-window has demonstrated, we lurch, whether from despair to joy, lavishly excoriating well-meaning individuals, scolding the surgeon without recognising the sickness of the patient.

We are indebted to those high priests of impossibly upbeat morning radio, the Chuckle Brothers, Dermot and Dave, for asking would we not all be better served to eradicate from these nights such feverish oscillations between elation and deflation.

Even Kenny has found it impossible to avoid being sucked into the vortex of self-justification and yet, just as he has tempered his initial slavish adherence to system and style, he too has effected a semblance of balance.

Whether his diversion from committed conviction represents truth or doubt remains as unclear.

It is, however, welcome.

Only a handful of greatest sporting teams in history have managed to wed style and substance – and then only backboned by playing quality far superior to any rivals.

Kenny can quite possibly achieve flexibility in approach – the long and the short of it, without getting too technical in the ‘expected goals’ age.

He seeks a settled identity for a team whose country currently beholds one that is utterly splintered.

Again, an extra man deployed in midfield, alas a unit perennially devoid of inspiration, was retained as a concession to pragmatism.

And, compared to the desultory submission in Yerevan, there was at least greater industry which, aside from Scott Hogan, economically applied.

That endeavour creates a chance but Troy Parrott, belying growing maturity, eschews instinct and overthinks. Ukraine create better, yet hurried chances, but the calming Caoimhín Kelleher reflects his team’s eager alertness as their confidence grows.

Ireland’s intent forces mistakes and ultimately an outstanding goal; Nathan Collins stepping up to intercept, before an impossible shimmy produces an outrageous finish. With the outside of his right boot, naturally.

Collins is also a symbol of a fitful international landscape; once barely unregistered, he now threatens to become a permanent fixture; after all, it had taken Michael Obafemi four years to become an overnight sensation.

And now Collins, a scoring centre-half that doesn’t seem to cause offence to certain sensibilities. His new manager Vincent Kompany will like what he sees; so will relegated Burnley’s accountants.

Denying ourselves a rush to judgment, it is best to simply enjoy the moment.

Ninety second-half seconds confirm this impression as Ireland’s shape and discipline implodes, Collins not alone in dereliction of duty.

Ukraine are re-energised but Ireland regain composure, if not control. In a high quality game, they look like they belong.

With occasionally reckless bravura, both press for the victory as the gaps and shadows lengthen.

Conservative switches hint at some sense of caution from the visitors as the Ukrainians sporadically spray balls to defy the wing-backs on either side.

The point is well-earned, for both manager and team. And they deserve a break from the ever-clamouring din. We all do.


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