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comment There are no more excuses for Stephen Kenny – only an Ireland victory will do

The Ireland manager can’t turn to the cameras and talk about performances if Ireland don’t win. It’s three points or bust

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Patience is running low for Stephen Kenny, pictured at a training session in front of the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan. Credit: Sportsfile

Patience is running low for Stephen Kenny, pictured at a training session in front of the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan. Credit: Sportsfile

Callum Robinson: Spotlight on him over his vaccine choice has been harsh. Photo: Sportsfile

Callum Robinson: Spotlight on him over his vaccine choice has been harsh. Photo: Sportsfile

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Patience is running low for Stephen Kenny, pictured at a training session in front of the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan. Credit: Sportsfile

Does Stephen Kenny want to be the man who changed the way Ireland play, or does he want to be a successful Ireland manager? Which is more important to him – his style and his hopes of changing the way Ireland play, or just the three points?

This game in Baku will say a lot, as it’s one of those occasions where the result – and now that simply means winning the match – is all that matters. There is no point whatsoever in Kenny facing the cameras or the media after the game to say that the team played well, played 500 passes, hit the post, had a penalty saved but still didn’t win the game. There are no more excuses.

He has to win the match, and probably needs to beat Luxembourg away too in the next qualifier, and beat Qatar next week. But to me, he had to win a few other games in the group and didn’t succeed. And if you reflect on the group and the calendar year next month and Andorra is still Ireland’s only win, that’s not enough.

You can’t keep saying that the team is making progress if that team is not winning: the only way you will see progress is by winning games, to understand the importance of winning matches. It’s after you win games that you can talk about performances.

This is a dead-rubber game in terms of the group, but for his own sake, for his longevity in the job, Kenny needs to win the match.

If Kenny’s side had won six of the last 12 and didn’t manage to win in Baku, he would have a bit of leeway. But with no wins in 12 competitive games there is no mercy, no breathing space, no room for a ‘great performance’ in Baku. Victory is the only acceptable outcome, and the same goes for Luxembourg away next month.

These games are tough, I know from playing in the likes of Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan is similar. It’s about finding a way to win, but winning. Good Irish teams, weak Irish teams, they found a way to win.

If you look back on Ireland’s game at home to Serbia, they found a way to get a result, even if that meant lumping the ball into the box, the team found the way. There is no need for Ireland to come off the pitch with good stats in terms of possession and passing. All that matters is the win, and if Kenny feels he can get the win by passing through Azerbaijan then fine, but if he needs to win with crosses and high balls into the box, getting bodies into the box, then that’s the route he has to take.

If the plan is just to keep passing, that’s not progress. If you don’t win football matches, it’s not progress. Playing well and losing does not matter.

Adam Idah has done well and he could be key, if he’s fit, but he needs runners around him, so I’d like to see Callum Robinson and Aaron Connolly around Idah, two players who don’t have the greatest scoring ratio with Ireland, but they offer pace.

With someone like Connolly in the side, that first pass from midfield needs to be faster, beyond the defensive line to give Connolly the opportunity to run. And a good start by the front players would put a bit of fear into the opposition, force them to defend deeper as if Azerbaijan see Ireland just play in front of them, left to right and right to left, they will be happy to set up that way and just wait, so Ireland need to disrupt them.

Robinson can be a threat, but you’d also have Enda Stevens and Matt Doherty in the wide areas. Presuming it’s still three at the back, that gives scope for Enda and Matt to do their jobs and also free up Connolly and Robinson to cut inside, play in those little pockets behind Idah as you have two really good full-backs who can overlap, they generally have good delivery.

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With the squad he has, Kenny has attacking options and with that, there is no point in playing 25 passes across your own half, you need to do that passing in the opposition half, and make sure there are bodies in the box when the ball comes in.

The build-up wasn’t helped by all the debate around vaccines among the camp. I can’t understand why Robinson, and other players, have refused to take the vaccine. But I also feel that no one should be obliged to get vaccinated, it’s a personal choice.

As a footballer you take advice from experts throughout your career, you have physios and doctors and medical staff telling you what to do, and generally you do it no problem. As a footballer you follow the advice you are given.

But you do have a herd mentality among footballers. If a cohort in the dressing room, or a particularly strong voice in that changing room, say they are not getting the vaccine, the rest can follow the leader. Social media has a huge part to play as well, players have a lot of time at home, or on a bus or in a training ground, to read social media.

If they thought about it and just made up their own minds, I’d be amazed if the majority didn’t just get the vaccine but if you simply follow the leader, that’s a sign of a weak person, if you can’t make your own decision.

So I can’t understand why those players turn around now and refuse a vaccine for Covid. Apart from it being the right thing to do, being vaccinated should make you less likely to miss games, to be physically stronger by not being susceptible to the virus. When you are constantly missing games because of reasons around Covid, you have a choice to make.

I didn’t really want to get the vaccine but I did it, I needed to be able to travel. That was reason enough for me. If I was still playing football, I’d want to be able to play in every match, to be able to travel for my club or country without difficulty and if that meant getting the vaccine, I’d just do it.

But still I don’t like the focus that’s come on players around this. The talk is, ‘it’s those footballers again, just doing what they want’ but yet you have people in all walks of life who refuse the vaccine. Have newsreaders and commentators been asked if they’ve taken the vaccine as footballers have?

The spotlight has been harsh on Callum and the other players in the squad and it’s open season on footballers again. It could come to a stage where having the vaccine is mandatory at a club, where a manager says he won’t pick a player who’s not vaccinated and that could leave some players, who are refusing the vaccine, facing the prospect of losing their careers.

If the FAI were to make that decision, and say you can only play for Ireland if you are double-vaccinated, then the players have a choice to make – and some might sacrifice an international career for their beliefs, no matter how they arrived at those beliefs.

But if it was their club career, and their contracts and their income depended on it, it’s a different story.

I don’t agree with them refusing to get jabbed. But I respect their right to choose.

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