comment Why mentality just has to change for Kenny's Ireland team to turn the tide
IF reports in the Welsh media can be believed, Gareth Bale flipped around the order of his famous ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid’ list of priorities on Thursday night and caught up with the US Masters on one of the TV sets in a corporate box in Cardiff’s Liberty Stadium, while a Bale-less Wales side were playing out a scoreless draw with the USA.
At the same time, 150 miles away in London, Roy Keane reckoned Ireland were so timid in their own friendly game against England at Wembley that he could have played, even with his creaky hip and an imminent 50th birthday, the former Ireland captain annoyed by the fact that “Ireland didn’t even have a booking”.
Wales will expect that Bale is more focused, and puts Wales ahead of golf, when the Welsh host Ireland in Cardiff tomorrow. The question for Ireland is whether Stephen Kenny’s side can muster up the bite that was so lacking in London and is clearly needed to give them a chance of ending this seven-game run of matches without a win.
Because something extra is needed as a injection into an Ireland side which has plenty of promise but has become, over recent games, a side which no one fears. Injury and Covid has created unwanted chaos for Kenny but there is no time for excuses or a béal bocht.
Kenny is eager to dispense with the ‘fighting Irish’ cliche and have a side that can be successful and also have the purists purring. But in this time of crisis, tackles are needed more than tiki-taka.
Wales will expect to win, or at least avoid defeat at home to Ireland, sending Kenny’s side into Wednesday’s game at home to Bulgaria – and the current lot are widely seen as the worst Bulgarian team in decades – with confidence ripped to shreds.
And if Thursday’s games were meaningless, tomorrow’s meeting in Cardiff carries huge importance. Wales, yet to concede in the Nations League, are top of the group, a point ahead of Finland, and they see this Nations League group as more than winnable, promotion achievable. Beat Ireland tomorrow and a draw at home to the Finns on Wednesday will secure top spot for Wales.
Avoiding relegation is the immediate aim for an Irish side on a worrying win-less streak but there is a bigger picture, the seeding for the World Cup qualifying draw next month. Slovakia’s win in Belfast strengthens their case to finish ahead of Ireland in that chase for a place in Pot Two for the qualifiers. For Ireland, demotion to third seeds would make the road to Qatar, already looking very rocky, a mission impossible.
A shock win in Wales in 2017 kept Martin O’Neill’s side in the hunt for qualification for the last World Cup. “When your back is against the wall, fellas stand up to be counted,” David Meyler recalled as he looked back on that night when he revelled in his role as Ireland captain.
“It’s three years on but if we were still playing now, Wales wouldn’t have scored. We were hungry to succeed and fought for that victory.”
Last-gasp heroics like that win in Cardiff and a similar success, against the odds, in Vienna, were key elements of the O’Neill era.
Before revisionism sets in and misty-eyed romantics look back to those great days, it has to be mentioned that O’Neill’s side showed none of that grit and guile on their next visit to Cardiff, a humbling 4-1 loss which was our first-ever game in the Nations League and a night to forget in a tournament we have grown to hate.
Kenny’s aim to get Ireland playing in a different way is gaining admirers, and there’s no doubt that the team are easier on the eye than at any time in the last decade. A second watch of the friendly in Wembley on Thursday showed Ireland looking like a dominant side in the final 10 minutes, spraying the ball around, retaining possession, having two attempts on the England goal.
The image is a nice one, Ireland playing England off the park in their back yard, but the reality is painfully different, as England were already 3-0 up by then, could easily have been 6-0 up with some better finishing.
The hunger that Meyler spoke of is still there with Ireland but the confidence which Ireland showed that night is absent.
Darren Randolph is undroppable with his country but unwanted by his club, without a Premier League game with West Ham since January. Shane Duffy’s self-belief is facing the biggest test of his career and, having conceded eight goals in his last three games for club and country, could do with a spell out of the firing line, but limited options in defence leave Kenny without the option of resting him.
Matt Doherty spoke with admirable honesty after the England loss, admitting that the issue of not scoring was down to “mentality” and said “we are getting in the positions, whether we really think that once we are there the ball is going to go in”.
Mental strength and physical power are badly needed tomorrow if the beatings are going to stop.