covid crisis Weakest Irish side in decades makes the job so much harder for boss Stephen Kenny
All of a sudden, scoring the goal which would end the longest wait ever for the Republic of Ireland’s senior side to find the net is no longer the biggest problem facing Stephen Kenny.
Instead of trying to solve the conundrum which has cursed his first year as manager of the international side, Kenny has his work cut out in simply picking a team to play Bulgaria tomorrow.
Kenny’s job is not on the line in the Nations League game with Bulgaria, but Ireland’s status in the competition is, as defeat would see the Republic relegated to the grimness of League C where Estonia, Moldova and Azerbaijan await, so there’s quite a bit at stake even though our status as second seeds for next month’s World Cup draw is gone.
And yet Kenny will enter battle with the weakest Ireland squad in living memory: two players from League One, three from the League of Ireland (all Shamrock Rovers men) and without a single player who could be considered a Premier League regular at the moment.
Raiding the Shamrock Rovers dressing-room at the last minute and calling in players from Peterborough, Wycombe and Portsmouth for a game at home to Bulgaria, it’s as if Irish football has been through a Life On Mars-style time-travel process and gone back to 1978, but for the new additions, it’s an opportunity.
Confirmation by the FAI that two more players, Matt Doherty and James McClean, had tested positive for Covid-19 means that, yet again, an axe has taken a swipe at Kenny’s squad: of the 26 players named in the panel by Kenny earlier this month, 13 are now unavailable for tomorrow’s Nations League tie at home to Bulgaria, with first call-ups at senior level for Aaron McEneff (Shamrock Rovers) and Jack Taylor (Peterborough) and recalls for the previously capped Graham Burke (Rovers) and Troy Parrott (Millwall), Parrott and Taylor promoted from the U-21 panel.
It all adds up to give a very grim pallor to tomorrow’s match with Bulgaria: the worst Bulgarian team in a decade, the weakest Irish squad in recent memory, with that Ireland side on the longest, and most painful, of goal droughts in our history as a national team.
If a neutral scanned the TV listings for tomorrow’s Nations League ties, he or she might find Poland v Holland to be tasty, Bosnia v Italy intriguing as a swansong just before international retirement for the brilliant Miralem Pjanic, with maybe Belgium v Denmark the game to watch.
But Ireland v Bulgaria in a relegation play-off is one for the sadists, not the purists. If the gates were open, it would be both fascinating and depressing to see how many would turn up for the final game of a dismal 2020. The goal drought is real, scarily so, and in a year scarred by a pandemic, it seems like a virus which infects all areas of the game here.
Since March, when Covid-19 made itself known, there have been 13 games involving the senior international teams (men and women), the men’s U-21s and our representatives in the qualifying rounds in the men’s and women’s Champions League: Irish football returned two goals from 13 big matches this year.
The spotlight is on Kenny and his staff after this goal-free run but the problem is a wider one in the Irish game, and a historical one. Paul McGrath was the latest voice to wonder if Kenny’s exclusion of Robbie Keane from his coaching staff made any sense given the Republic’s lack of finesse. “Our struggles in front of the goal make Stephen’s decision to dispense with Robbie Keane’s services from the backroom staff all the more strange,” McGrath wrote in the Sunday World last week, ignoring the fact that when Keane was on the staff under Mick McCarthy last year, Ireland scored seven goals in eight games, three of them against Gibraltar (who conceded three times in 45 minutes against a poor Bulgaria side in a friendly last week).
Even Kenny’s critics could only have sympathy for the situation he finds himself in with so many withdrawals; nine of the team which played away to Bulgaria as recently as September are unavailable tomorrow and, probably for the first time in history, the Republic go into a game without a single striker from England’s top division (albeit Troy Parrott is a Spurs player on loan to Millwall).
Before the Norwich player was ruled out through injury, Kenny had talked up Adam Idah’s opportunity against Bulgaria after recent struggles, but in Idah’s absence the baton passes on, and maybe Ronan Curtis or James Collins can turn one of their near misses into a real thing and, in a time of crisis created by a virus, injuries and retirement, end the misery with a goal.