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world cup Stephen Kenny's reign has been bleak and dismal, a carnival of mediocrity...it's time he's held to account


Ireland manager Stephen Kenny reacts after the defeat at the hands of Finland

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny reacts after the defeat at the hands of Finland

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny reacts after the defeat at the hands of Finland

LIKE traffic cops looking the other way as a neighbour crashes a red light, the Irish football fraternity has stubbornly declined to hold Stephen Kenny to account.

His team’s manifest shortcomings, the kind that would have been held up as mortal failures on any of his predecessors’ watch, have been washed away in an unprecedented general absolution from the high priests of football analysis.

Ireland have crashed and burned under Kenny: No wins in eight games, no goal in seven, 11 largely clueless hours – often against C-list opposition – since Shane Duffy's injury-time equaliser in the new regime's Bulgarian premiere thrashing about in the sporting darkness without once finding the net.

It has been bleak and dismal, a carnival of mediocrity.

Yet Kenny’s philosophical hipsterism, combined with a reluctance to prosecute the local boy made good, has, so far, bought the former Dundalk manager immunity from prosecution.

His preferred style of play – one based on retaining possession rather than treating the ball like an unpinned grenade – has been an over-deployed get-out-of-jail card.

It has resulted in an element of the emperor’s clothes, the insistence that Ireland’s football is suddenly robed in handsome ermine at odds with the careworn evidence.


Jack Charlton celebrates his side's famous victory over Italy at Giants Stadium

Jack Charlton celebrates his side's famous victory over Italy at Giants Stadium

Jack Charlton celebrates his side's famous victory over Italy at Giants Stadium

Many of the eight games have been as joyless as a NPHET briefing, a repudiation of some of the commentary that has breathlessly heralded a new age of aesthetic treasures.

As Ireland fumbled against the Finns, wilted at Wembley and misfired against the dismal Bulgarians, it was as if Comical Ali was filtering the judgements on Kenny.

And so, the public were treated to an avalanche of delusional positivity, or, at the very least, an encouragement to “move on, nothing to see here”, even as the autumn campaign went up in flames.

It is true, that Ireland were relatively easy on the eye for periods of October’s playoff against Slovakia; it is equally a fact that the same game was lost to mediocre opponents who were so appalled with their performance in victory that they sacked their manger immediately after the game.

There has been some extraordinary revisionism: A consensus has somehow taken hold that the entire backstory of Irish football would have appeared primitive even to the cave-dwelling Neanderthals of the Palaeolithic Era.

That Kenny has arrived to liberate the game from its barbarian past.

In particular the Charlton era – all those days of thunder that carried the nation to a state of ecstatic grace – has been held up as some of kind of cultural wasteland.

Kenny, himself, in conversation with Eamon Dunphy on the latter’s The Stand podcast in 2017 said this of Big Jack: “Whether he was good for Irish football is questionable.”

Of course, the notion that Charlton fed the nation a non-stop subsistence diet of agricultural fare is at odds with reality.

Those of us who were on the terraces in Hannover as Ireland outplayed Russia in a Euro 88 masterclass that would have had Pep Guardiola purring, can present a robust case for the defence.

Ditto with Hampden Park in 1987 or Wembley in 1991, the latter a gorgeous, stirring vitamin for the soul, an English side featuring Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson, Tony Adams and David Platt outplayed as the visiting team’s football touched the heavens.

It is hardly a breach of the Official Secrets Act to reveal that more often Charlton resorted to a direct style that had highbrow ivory-tower inhabitants showily groaning even as the great unwashed convulsed with joy.

The Charlton agnostics are entitled to their viewpoint but not to rewrite that period as a grim and unsatisfying time. Those years were weighed down with life-changing glory. It gave Ireland imperishable days in Stuttgart, Genoa and New Jersey: It carried football to a new audience. It brought joy; it made life better.

This writer was frequently at odds with Mick McCarthy: Yet even after the madness of Saipan, denuded of a colossus captain, his class of 2002, led by Damien Duff’s mesmerising artistry, splashed the Oriental canvass with authentic colour.


Former Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane

Former Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane

Former Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane

Ireland sizzled as Robbie Keane’s late goal secured a memorable draw with eventual finalists Germany; amid all the recrimination of Keane’s departure, it is frequently forgotten that McCarthy came within a penalty shoot-out of leading the nation to the World Cup quarter-finals.

Martin O’Neill’s reign turned terribly sour, but not before he decorated the record books with an unforgettable Aviva victory over Germany and that eternal Euro 2016 night when Robbie Brady wrote his name into legend.

Kenny has so far been spared the heavy grade weaponry which many commentators – this one included – aimed at McCarthy and O’Neill, Giovanni Trapattoni even, in the end, at Charlton.

A quartet united by their achievement in leading Ireland to a major summer finals.

Though his early thrusts have, arguably, been less coherent than those of Steve Staunton, Kenny has – happily – not endured anything like the scale of ridicule.

Staunton’s reign is justifiably held up as a low-water mark of recent decades: Yet it began with a three-goal hammering of Sweden and included Euro 2008 qualifier victories over Slovakia and Wales as well as a draw against Germany in an unbeaten home campaign that yielded nine goals in five games.

It never descended to seven games without a goal.

And yet, as he became an ever more lampooned figure, Staunton found himself confronted at training sessions by men dressed up as muppets.

Nobody wishes such a fate to be visited on Kenny.

In these joyless times, it would be genuinely lovely to see him rise up from a miserable start, to grow into a difficult job and announce himself as an international manager of real substance.

He is patently a decent man with a brave, idealistic vision that he is determined to pursue regardless of the personal implications.

It is possible to simultaneously regard such an approach as both courageous and just a little naive.

There is an understanding that the vast majority of Kenny's squad pursue their professional life far from Broadway; that he inherited the kingdom just as the restrictive shackles of lockdown were applied; and, yes, that he has a desire to decorate any 90 minutes that carries his signature with a little soul.

Against that, professional sport is a brutal business, one ultimately governed by outcomes.

There is a requirement to evaluate Kenny, like all his predecessors, on end product.

There is some mitigation in the reality that the artisan Irish XI that takes the field in Serbia will not entice Mino Raiola or his fellow super-agents to tune in.

But, despite a grim toll of injuries, it will be populated by some upstanding professionals: Among them Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, Ciaran Clark and Enda Stevens.

For all his difficulties, Kenny can, if he so wishes, omit Matt Doherty and Shane Duffy – the Irish talisman who has been incarcerated in confidence-obliterating, mentally-destructive Glaswegian torment – and still select an all Premier League back four.

What is certain is this: Kick-off in the Balkans marks the expiry date for all the pre-packed managerial exonerations fed to the public in recent months.

Any other verdict, one that confronts the manager with kid-gloves denied his bruised predecessors, patronises Kenny.

If the Dubliner is good enough to manage the national team, then it follows that he should have the same standards applied as those who went before him. He should be similarly lionized for success and held to account for failure.

Those are the rules of the game.

A point in Belgrade, even against opponents wedged between Algeria and Iran in the world rankings and who failed to score against either Panama or the Dominican Republic in January friendlies, will be correctly acclaimed and Kenny will be up and running.

But another impotent fumbling, one that hands three points to embattled opponents and pockmarks the road to Qatar with landmines, and even the ghost of Comical Ali might understand that it is time to leave the building.

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Online Editors