old heads needed | 

Stephen Kenny would be wise to learn from past mistakes to retain control

Experience is invaluable when you are physically able to execute your tasks but it’s no substitute for when you are not.

Clash of the Celts: Stephen Kenny speaks to his players during a Republic of Ireland training session at Hampden Park. Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Gary BreenIndependent.ie

EXPEREINCE is a word that you will hear regularly on international weeks. It’s an attribute which, in my opinion, tends to be over-rated in isolation.

Make no mistake about it, there will be a real atmosphere in Glasgow this evening.

Hampden Park is going to be heaving at kick-off time.

And there’s an argument that experience for that atmosphere will be key. It’s not quite true, for it comes with a caveat. Experience is invaluable when you are physically able to execute your tasks but it’s no substitute for when you are not.

I retired from international football at the age of 32. Mick McCarthy was my manager at Wolves then and he advised me against doing so. Close friends and confidantes were saying the same thing.

But my gut was telling me otherwise. I still had physical fitness, but I didn’t have the gears any more. Difficult as it was to walk away, I knew the Ireland team must come first. It had to.

Now don’t misinterpret my words here. I’m talking about experience in the context of whether Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy – it’s likely to be one or the other – should play tonight.

I’m not saying either of them are finished. Far from it. It wouldn’t be surprised if one of these lads emerged as star performers on the night because we’ve seen it before from them.

But Stephen Kenny has to be thinking about more than experience when he makes his decision. He says he’s not afraid to make the big calls and no manager should be.

Kenny and his staff will be watching training closely to get a handle on where these lads are physically after a month on the sidelines.

Shane Duffy is always a big asset for set-pieces, but his lack of game-time this season is a worry© SPORTSFILE

I think John Egan and Nathan Collins are nailed on for that back three so, realistically, you think it has to be between Dara O’Shea, an ever-present at West Brom, or Fulham sub Duffy for the last place, although there’s a possibility he could play Coleman on the right of the back three.

Duffy’s club involvement has been sporadic for some time, yet it’s clear he has the trust of Kenny, having started 21 out of 26 games. And Kenny will remember that Scotland were terrified every time Duffy came forward for a set-piece.

It’s important to stress that for an out-of-practice defender, it’s not fitness that is the issue; it’s timing.

Duffy and Coleman have been on the bench for their clubs so they’re obviously fit. I’ve no doubt these stalwarts will have done the hard yards in training, possibly even more so than the lads who’re playing regularly and recovering.

For a defender, match fitness is about judgment calls, picking up the flight of the ball, the runs of your opponent and getting your distances and body angles right. Only games genuinely give you that. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if somebody in this position looked undercooked on their first proper start of the season, with all due respect to the EFL Cup.

So Kenny will have to be very careful with his calls here. He faces it at a time where I feel that his team is enjoying its best moment under his watch. Bar a dramatic capitulation, I don’t believe the result at Hampden will change that.

Yes, I know we heard soundbites of momentum and confidence from the camp going into the summer games but it turned out to be wishful thinking and, in truth, some of it didn’t stack up when fact checked. The target of winning the group was achievable but it required being quick off the mark to take advantage of our main rivals’ focus on the bigger prize of the World Cup. We stalled badly in Yerevan.

The initial results delivered a ‘reality check’ according to the experienced James McClean.

I recognise that one more poor result from either of these two games will quite rightly bring the overall Kenny competitive record into focus again. Yet it’s from the negatives of Yerevan and the home game against Ukraine that followed where I believe that a vital understanding has been gained.


Jayson Molumby signs autographs for pupils from Latnamard National School, Monaghan, after a Republic of Ireland training in Abbotstown. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

into the team for the Scotland game to create a midfield trio with Josh Cullen and Jason Knight was significant.

And that is why I feel this team can really start to show its worth now. The template is now in place within that three-man central midfield to allow the team to be consistently competitive – not just in fits and starts.

It’s not a negative tactic; it’s the complete opposite of that in the control that it gives the team.

We saw the obvious merits of it in the outstanding performance against the Scots and then the quintessential away performance against Ukraine in Poland to stay in the game. Both of those results highlight how you qualify for major finals – win at home and draw away against your main rivals.

It’s irrelevant if the system was stumbled upon out of necessity. The change has worked because it allows our players to get in advanced attacking positions in numbers without being stranded high up the pitch on turnovers.

The players had enjoyed the previous style of play under Kenny but the crucial thing about it is that the opposition were enjoying it too and that’s never a good thing. Scotland and Ukraine (the second time around) found it much tougher in June.

Should Kenny go with the same team again? Not necessarily. I’ve never believed in just sticking with a winning team because each match is so unique.

The boys who produced in pressurised circumstances against Scotland should only play again if he is convinced they are the best option. There are alternative choices. Up top, you’ve got Chiedozie Ogbene in the goals regularly now as a centre forward at Rotherham so he’ll have to think about whether to back Troy Parrott and Michael Obafemi again.

Hopefully Obafemi’s club issues and his aborted move from Swansea doesn’t affect his stop-start international career again. It’s not easy to immediately hit your stride again after a proposed move breaking down. Just ask Harry Kane.

Midfield is another decision. Could that Cullen, Molumby and Knight axis be the midfield three that we hoped Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy would become after Euro 2016?

Hendrick and Alan Browne will be desperate to show what they can do in this tweaked system too. That’s not to flippantly discount Browne from right wing-back where he negated one of the world’s best left-backs in Andy Robertson, but Matt Doherty is back in his specialist position and Coleman could play there too. Brady and Callum O’Dowda are there as an alternative to McClean on the other side.

I heard Doherty speak this week about how well the team is being coached so that talk has to be backed up. At the elite level, it’s all about learning from errors. Scotland malfunctioned in June; in midfield they were technically outplayed by Ukraine and physically outplayed by Ireland. Steve Clarke addressed that successfully for their win over Ukraine.

They also have a threat from set-pieces which concerns me as I still feel we have a certain vulnerability there, as was evidenced at home to Ukraine.

We need to improve on that. Scotland have shown character in their response to their summer of hurt. Can Ireland inflict some autumn pain? I believe we can.

Today's Headlines

More Soccer

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

WatchMore Videos