AS PART OF his post-game analysis on RTÉ, Didi Hamann castigated Ireland’s style of play, saying they should play to their strengths.
Which begs the question – what exactly are their strengths?
Hamann’s critique has generally been interpreted as calling for a reversion to being Hard To Beat: a flood of bodies behind the ball who avoid losing the ball in midfield by playing low-risk long balls forward.
But Ireland don’t have the players to suit this style of play either. National Beacon of Hope Evan Ferguson is more practised at dropping off between the lines and linking play, while last night’s team in Amsterdam lacked the pace and athleticism to sprint up and down the pitch, chasing their defenders’ garryowens.
Stephen Kenny has correctly interpreted the futility of this approach.
“Holland were better than us”, said Kenny after the game. “What’s the alternative? Defend deep and try and see it out? They will break you down anyway.”
But what is most despairing now is the new ways aren’t working either. Kenny will leave his job shortly, and his record will sit ungainly in the history books forever more.
Of 29 competitive matches in charge, he won just six, drawing seven and losing 16. Only the victory at home to Scotland can be considered a scalp, as the other wins came against Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, Armenia and twice against Gibraltar.
It’s an appalling record which ultimately shouts down the manager’s mitigations and protestations. Ireland got landed in the group of death for Euro 2024 qualifying but truly it was more wretched than it needed to be. The defeats home and away to fourth seeds Greece were its most damning games, but that Ireland managed only two goals in the six games against sides not named Gibraltar is an indictment.
Kenny can no longer fight for his job so now he must defend his legacy, which will be burnished if the next manager is a success. Kenny has completely overhauled Ireland’s playing pool, saying he did so by necessity rather than some kind of vanity project. It is hard t0 argue with him that a rebuild was needed. In Euro 2020 qualifying, billed by John Delaney as the Mick McCarthy reunion tour, Ireland had the third-oldest team across all of 55 nations competing to qualify. This time around, Ireland were the second-youngest.
Perhaps this team was simply too callow and inexperienced to qualify. They certainly lacked on-pitch leadership across this campaign, and an ability to improvise on the pitch and accommodate themselves to the game’s flow. It’s no coincidence the best performance of the campaign came in the one game in which Seamus Coleman played, at home to France in March.
So perhaps they will blossom with experience, and co-hosting duties for Euro 2028 will make an already forgiving qualifying system even more generous. There is obvious talent in this Irish squad, and Kenny can take a share of credit for the fact Ireland’s Premier League involvement this season is going to buck a years-long trend of decline. But there are glaring weaknesses at full-back and in midfield, which are to be expected if you outsource the development of your young players to foreign clubs whose sole interest is their own.
Which, as ever, brings us to the broader point. We write these broad diagnoses after every Irish failure, and we write again in half-apology as you are probably sick of reading about it. But it remains true.
Ireland have made a habit out of not winning games, and while they only beat Gibraltar in this campaign, the only other sides Ireland have beaten in Euros qualifying group since 2011 are Armenia, Andorra, Macedonia, Georgia, and Germany. (Estonia and Bosnia were then beaten in play-offs.)
The difference with Kenny’s reign he often lost the games Trapattoni, O’Neill and McCarthy drew. Perhaps that’s down to the better quality of the opponent, perhaps it’s because of Kenny’s set-up, perhaps it’s down to squad’s age profile.
All valid arguments that will all end in Kenny paying the price.
The FAI’s decades-long dysfunction has left Irish football sinking from low ebb to lower, and is now at risk of giving its senior men’s team the status of international minnow.
Compare the fundamentals of Irish football to the rest of Europe and you will begin to ask the question not ‘how are we so bad?’, but ‘how are we as good as we are?’
No international team can thrive without harnessing its domestic league, which has been the FAI’s single greatest failing in its history. We are living with the repercussions now, and will for some time yet.
Ireland’s top professional clubs average between zero and one full-time coach in their academies, where the average across all of Europe is between five and seven. Only Luxembourg, Andorra, and Northern Ireland are ranked as low as us on this table.
According to Uefa’s benchmarking report in 2022, only the leagues of Ireland, Belarus and Kazakhstan did not return broadcast television income. Any meaningful broadcast deal for LOI clubs will only come when facilities improve to the point they gleam before television, but the most optimistic among us would concede this scenario is still years away. It’s for this reason we are told Sky Sports walked away from a deal last year.
The new FAI have happily shown an acknowledgement of the problems and have a plan to address them, but the suspension of State funding over payments to the CEO tarnishes their image in the eyes of the taxpayer and therefore undermines their hopes of being able to deliver on what they have promised.
There are talented players and heroic coaches, administrators and volunteers making the best of what they have in Ireland, but historically it is a system set up to fail. Stephen Kenny’s ideals and visions foundered in this grim reality, and soon he will be another former Ireland manager.
But who can do any better? That’s the question the FAI must answer, but no candidate is a guarantee.
We are living in a profoundly sad time for Irish football.2023-11-19T11:47:31Z dg43tfdfdgfd