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Martin O’Neill asks big questions over Stephen Kenny's approach as Ireland boss

Stephen Kenny and Martin O'Neill (right). Picture: Sportfile

Stephen Kenny and Martin O'Neill (right). Picture: Sportfile

Tony Considine

Former Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has queried what direction Stephen Kenny’s Ireland side are headed after a disappointing week that saw a 1-0 defeat away to Armenia followed up by a similar result against a second-string Ukraine side in Dublin on Wednesday.

The two defeats took Ireland’s miserable Nations League record to 12 games without a victory, a run that started in the first iteration of the tournament under O’Neill back in September 2018 with a 4-1 loss to Wales.

Ireland finished bottom of League B’s Group 4 in that tournament, with two defeats and two draws from their four games against Wales and Denmark, but avoided relegation due to a change in structure which saw the groups increased in size to four teams for the 2020/21 edition.

However, the poor results were enough to see O’Neill sacked and replaced by Mick McCarthy, although the latter never got to manage in the tournament, with Stephen Kenny taking over during the period when football was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kenny’s first campaign was equally as unsuccessful in terms of wins but three draws were enough to finish a point ahead of Bulgaria and secure another season in League B.

Hopes that the uptick in form in the second half of World Cup qualifying would carry into a new campaign were dashed over the last week, with the upcoming games at home to Scotland and in Poland next Tuesday for the return Ukraine fixture taking on added significance for the under-pressure Kenny.

“The Armenia game was a big, big setback,” the ex-Celtic boss said in an interview with the Scottish edition of The Times.

“Sometimes you get a couple of (good) results in matches against sides who are not in the top 80 - teams like Andorra and Lithuania. You can start to get a false impression of where you are.

“Then you travel to Armenia fully expecting to win and get off to a bad start; it’s a major setback for them. I suppose a couple of years into Stephen’s (Kenny) reign, you’d have to ask (where things are going).

“If his remit was to rebuild an Irish side and get time to do that then that’s fine. But in international football you still have to win football matches.”

O’Neill also looked back on his own time in charge, which peaked at the 2016 European Championships in France with a 1-0 win over Italy setting up a narrow and memorable 2-1 last 16 defeat to the hosts.

His next campaign started well and included wins on the road against Austria and Wales before falling apart in a 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark at the Aviva.

And the Derryman believes that had the firepower a prime Robbie Keane provided been available, something Ireland are still lacking, his own time could have brought even more success.

“When I was managing the Republic, Robbie was ending his career,” O’Neill added.

“He was about 34 and just couldn’t do it. He could maybe play and score a hat-trick against Gibraltar but against the bigger sides he wouldn’t be able to do what he had been capable of doing.

“We would have cried out for a Robbie Keane to be maybe ten years younger but we didn’t have that. At the European Championships in France, our main man was Jon Walters. You wouldn’t call Jon prolific.

“And in the World Cup play-off that we got to, when Denmark hammered us, our main man was James McClean.

“Scotland do not possess a Gareth Bale at the minute and Ireland haven’t had one since Robbie in his heyday. Everyone is crying out for that and that is probably the difference between Scotland not heading to the World Cup.”

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