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time for wins Faro shows Ireland have come far but wins are all that matter

Kenny’s Ireland have found a way to play but plaudits are no use if Azerbaijan are not beaten


Ireland have improved under Stephen Kenny, but they need to start winning. Credit: Sportsfile

Ireland have improved under Stephen Kenny, but they need to start winning. Credit: Sportsfile

Stephen Kenny takes notes as he chats with Ryan Manning

Stephen Kenny takes notes as he chats with Ryan Manning


Ireland have improved under Stephen Kenny, but they need to start winning. Credit: Sportsfile

There has been criticism of the Irish team over the last 18 months, and a lot of scepticism. I don’t feel the criticism was personal or over the top: people like me and other ex-players commented on what we saw on the pitch.

I don’t like criticism of the person, it’s about what they do in their job and what we see in games. I have no interest in who the guy in charge is, I am only interested in what his team does on the field.

So if the Portugal performance is the starting basis for what Stephen Kenny’s team can do, then that’s great for Irish football because, regardless of who the manager is, if that’s the standard, then I am fully behind it. Up until Wednesday in Portugal, I hadn’t seen a huge improvement, that we were taking steps forward. Portugal away was a sign of what Ireland can be.

The Portugal performance was brilliant, the team did really well, everything that the manager spoke about in previous games was evident in Faro. Tactically they set up really well, use of the ball when in possession was spot-on, they made their limited possession count when they had the ball. There were good signs there for what’s to come.

And yet it will only matter if the team put together some results now, starting on Saturday against Azerbaijan. It’s all about results now.

Everyone would settle for a bad performance with a good result against Azerbaijan. We need to win games: it’s easy to get carried away with the good display in Portugal but we still didn’t win, we’ve not won a competitive game for a long, long time, we’re not competitive in the group and we need to start winning games.

We are into a period of 18 months now where a win is needed, we need to beat Azerbaijan, and to show signs of real progress we need to beat Serbia.

I don’t think a good performance but an unlucky defeat at home to Serbia is what we should be praising. The team have shown that they can play, but they need to win the next two games.

I never played against Azerbaijan but I played in matches like this, against the likes of Armenia and Georgia. And those games are hard. You are expected to win, and win with style.

What Ireland teams have managed over the years is to just get away from those places with victories – performances weren’t always great but the team tended to win those matches.

And overall in a group the points are all that matter, winning games, if you can add a bit of class and style to a win, then great but you have to win the game. From that, you foster that spirit in the camp of winning games, and that’s the most important thing. Maybe in other games you can play a bit, look fancy, impress people. But win the game first and foremost.

Ireland will have more difficulties against Azerbaijan than against Portugal, strange as that may sound. They will be expected to go and break them down, have lots of the ball, be strong in possession, and that’s a trap we set ourselves.


Stephen Kenny takes notes as he chats with Ryan Manning

Stephen Kenny takes notes as he chats with Ryan Manning

Stephen Kenny takes notes as he chats with Ryan Manning

In the last 18 months Ireland get so focused on keeping the ball that we forget about penetrating them, getting in behind the opposition, turning them. I looked at Pepe the other night: he’s 38, and he looked it, as we turned him, we made him run backwards.

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If we’d played in front of him we would have looked so comfortable like the great player he is (or was). You need to turn defenders and if this is the way we are going to go, play the way we did on Wednesday, then we’ll get some really good results out of it.

What impressed me about Faro was that it was based on what I’d call a typical Irish performance: a strong rearguard, everyone blocking shots and defending for their lives, but also being organised and the bonus for me was how good Ireland were in possession.

Ireland teams are at their best when they get forward quickly and they did that, while keeping the ball, it wasn’t just long balls up to the centre-forward. It was good tactical play, good use of the ball but also it wasn’t the slow build-up we’d seen so much of in the last 18 months. The Irish players passed it forward and tried to get in behind Portugal and it was enjoyable to watch.

I have been frustrated watching Ireland. It was like watching England in Hungary on Thursday night, in the first 45 minutes there was nothing to it. In the second half they put their foot on the gas and blew Hungary away, and that’s what Ireland need to do. It’s been a tough watch with Ireland, a slow build-up that doesn’t really go anywhere, not having scoring opportunities, not having anything to show for it at the end of the game.

In the limited possession we had in Portugal we had chances and caused them trouble, and we can play more like that more on the front foot. Sometimes you need to concede a bit of possession to get the other team to open up, and Azerbaijan are a side who would be happy to give us the ball and let us play, knowing that a slow build-up won’t cause them much trouble, it’s getting space in behind them with good-quality passes which will create the danger to them.

Ireland don’t have that single, massively creative player who, when the opposition are all in their defensive positions, can open them up. We need to play another way. The Portugal game was a template and for Azerbaijan it’s a matter of making the most of those opportunities, to go forward quickly when you win the ball and upset their defenders, instead of playing in front of them.

You just want to win these games. I think Stephen Kenny and the players will enjoy having a crowd in for the first time in two years, and they are not easy games if you don’t go into it in the correct manner. For tomorrow, I’d go with the same team again, maybe the only change with Troy Parrott for Aaron Connolly, win the game with your strongest team and then think about Serbia on Tuesday.

It’s a test, and that’s the beauty of international football, Stephen Kenny goes for months without a game and then he has to organise for three matches in a week. But if you have everyone available, with the run of results we’ve had, we need to win the game, so you pick your strongest XI, worry about Serbia after tonight and focus on beating Azerbaijan. If the manager goes down the road of resting players you lose the rhythm he’s built up. Just beat Azerbaijan, the rest will take care of itself.

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