Stephen Kenny is picking up the pieces of Mick McCarthy’s second reign as Irish manager next Thursday night, but he is well aware that all the blame will fall on his shoulders if Ireland’s Euro Championship dream ends out in Bratislava.
Ireland have to play Slovakia in this one-off tie because they could not beat Denmark or Switzerland in any of four attempts during the qualifying group last year.
But if it goes wrong, Kenny, in only his third match in charge of the Boys in Green, will be the one the supporters and media will point to. For he is now, as Steve Staunton once memorably put it, ‘The Gaffer’.
The former Dundalk boss got a taste of life at the helm when there was criticism of Ireland’s loss to Finland in Dublin last month in the Nations League.
Kenny accepts the grief, but is well aware that it will turn to lavish praise if he can steer the national team into the November play-off decider against Bosnia or Northern Ireland.
“Look, it is what it is,” he says. “Those matches last month against Bulgaria and Finland were pre-season matches for many of our players. Shane Duffy hadn’t played since January, Jeff Hendrick hadn’t played a game since March as he was off the scene at Burnley when the Premier League came back.
Ireland's captain Shane Duffy, right, is an attacking threat for Ireland.
“I changed the whole midfield around for Finland as I didn’t see any sense in flogging James McCarthy and Jeff to play two matches in three days and I wanted to see Harry Arter and Robbie Brady play anyway.
“Now our players have been playing for their clubs for three weeks and they are much more advanced in fitness. We will be ready for Thursday.”
Physically, yes, but Kenny is going to have little enough time to work with his charges on the training pitch, to instil in them the possession game he favours.
The new manager understands, in a season whe there are not just Premier League and Scottish League matches today, but also Championship games involving his players. Yet it doesn’t help Kenny’s cause.
“Look, tomorrow we can only do a recovery session because so many of the lads will have played today. Tuesday, we can’t go hard at it because there’s only two days to the game and Wednesday is in the match stadium where you just run through a few things and get your bearings.”
So a lot of Kenny’s work will be done on video, imparting to the team what to expect from a group of Slovak players he has been watching like a hawk since the day he replaced McCarthy.
“It’s going to be hard, it’s a while since Ireland won a game of note abroad (Austria in 2014, with a James McClean goal), now we have to win this one and maybe then another one next month.”
But Ireland don’t have to win this one in 90 minutes – extra time or a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out will do the trick and that has to colour how Kenny will approach the tie.
“It’s where the subs will come into play with the possibility of extra time,” Kenny notes.
“We’ve seen Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk win penalty shootouts of late in European action. I haven’t thought too much about it being a one-off game, it is what it is. Of course, you’d prefer to be in front of a passionate home crowd, we’ve got good results at for anyone right now.”
It will happen, soon enough we hope, for Shane Duffy when he gets to play his club football at one of the most passionate grounds in the game, Parkhead.
The centre-half, and skipper when Seamus Coleman doesn’t play, is now a huge figure for Ireland in every sense with his forehead being one of the main weapons in Ireland’s scoring armoury.
Yet again, against Bulgaria and Finland, Ireland’s only goal in 180 minutes was a Duffy header from a set-piece. When he went to Celtic, it was pointed out that the Derryman would not be playing against top-quality international centre-forwards week in, week out.
“That is an argument, I accept that,” the manager says. “But on the other hand, if he went to a team at the bottom of the Premier League he’d be defending on his 18-yard line, making low blocks or clearing headers – and we know he can do that all day.
“That’s what Shane specialises in, defending his box, winning headers.
“With Celtic, he’s now going He’s got to defend a high line with Celtic with a lot of space in behind him in Europe and in the domestic league.
“And that’s good practice for him, because that’s the way we’ll play. He’ll learn when to drop, when to defend with a higher line.
“Plus with Celtic in possession so much, he’ll get a lot of the ball,” Kenny continues. “He’s a good passer of the ball. He’s actually underestimated as a passer. Just to get the practice of that, that’ll help him, I think.
“Just playing regular matches too, he hasn’t played in a long time. He was a very important player for Brighton staying in the Premier League under Chris Hughton, very important player. And Shane is a big player for us,” Kenny has yet to give any hint of what he will do with Coleman, his captain whose response to being dropped for Ireland last month has been to play really well for for Everton until he hit that injury roadblock yesterday.
The manager doesn’t strike you as a tactician who will change to a 3-5-2 formation in order to get both Coleman and Matt Doherty) of Spurs on the pitch if that option is still there.
Maybe he might do it, something to shock the Slovaks, after all, they will have been watching Ireland’s games as often as Kenny and his back-room staff have been watching theirs.
But Kenny ends by offering no answer to his Coleman/Doherty conundrum and instead subtlety heaps the pressure on Slovakia.
“The fact that they are at home stands to them, supporters or no supporters. They are favoured to win, even if I’ve never been bothered about that sort of thing.
“From our point of view, I enjoyed the group of people, who are ambitious and love playing for their country.
Everything is geared towards getting a result next Thursday.