Stephen Kenny brings a new era of Irish Football

Can Ireland master the free-flowing football of the under-21 side?

Over the years, Irish soccer fans have become accustomed to a brand of football which, to be generous, lacks any entertainment value. For decades, Irish teams have set up to defend against minnows and superpowers alike, have been more effective without the ball than with it, and have prided themselves on characteristics such as heart, commitment, or as Keith Andrews would say “tenacity”. Unlike other sports, Ireland have internalised their small nation mentality and refused to try and impress on the world stage. Success is generally measured in a small number of conceded goals, rather than believing that winning is the first objective.

It feels like the proverbial bus has been, not only parked, but clamped in Lansdowne Road since time began. Jack Charlton put it there and used it to great effect with Ireland’s under Charlton having reached legendary status, coming to a crescendo in the famous Italia ‘90 campaign. However, as football has developed and become a more creative and free-flowing game, the new Irish managers have made no effort to move the bus, comfortable with the toxic stability it has brought. But now there is a chance that the tow-trucks are in and the bus is out, with the appointment of Stephen Kenny as manager of the Irish under-21 team potentially sparking a creative surge in Irish football.

“The proverbial bus has been not only parked, but clamped in Lansdowne Road since time began.”

When O’Neill and Keane were sacked in November 2018 following yet another display of anti-football against Denmark, the calls for a new hope in Kenny were loud, if not deafening. Instead, the Football Association of Ireland, an organisation famously out of touch with public opinion, appeared to stick with the tried and tested formula of appointing washed up managers with some extraneous link to Ireland. 

Enter Mick McCarthy (again). 

Albeit this time, there was a twist. While McCarthy would take charge for the upcoming European Qualifiers, his contract would not extend beyond that. Upon that campaign’s conclusion, the then Dundalk manager, Stephen Kenny, would take over irrespective of McCarthy’s performance. In the meantime, Kenny would act as custodian for the promising under-21 side, the idea being that he would get some experience in a so-called “big job”, before taking the helm at senior level. This was a departure from the reductive reasoning of decisions past. This was a plan that had the future of Irish football at its core. 25 November 2018 marked not only the appointments of Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny, it marked the beginning of a country’s attempt to change how it plays football.

In the interim, the results of the senior team have been positive, though the performances are still familiar and the atmosphere still dull. Kenny’s under-21 side, on the other hand, have soared, and are undoubtedly changing expectations regarding how an Irish team should play. He has done exactly what he set out to do by setting up his teams to play a possession based game, allowing his team to be “confident with the ball” as he puts it. With one loss in eight games, it would seem this approach is working. While the senior team struggle to break down Gibraltar, Kenny’s under 21s are dispatching teams such as Sweden with ease, exuding class in the process. 

“This was a plan that had the future of Irish football at its core”

Kenny’s positive mindset is a breath of fresh air when it comes to Irish football, and has been influential in the rise to prominence of legitimate future stars. While media focus has understandably been on Tottenham striker Troy Parrott, given both his obvious talent and the level of club he is playing at, there are many more young players coming through the ranks. West Brom’s Dara O’Shea, UCD’s Liam Scales, Brighton’s Aaron Connolly, Norwich’s Adam Idah, and captain Jayson Molumby, on loan at Millwall, will undoubtedly look back on their careers in twenty years time and owe a lot to Kenny and his belief in them. 

The phrase “placing trust in youth” is thrown around quite a lot, but there is more to it than simply selecting young players. At youth level, all you have is young players. The key to Stephen Kenny’s philosophy, and arguably to his team’s success, is that he encourages the players to express themselves on the pitch and play the game with a level of confidence and enjoyment that we have not seen from any of our national sides in some time. It’s new, it’s refreshing, but most importantly, it’s working. 

Though Kenny’s spell in charge has been brief, he has managed to debunk age old myths surrounding Irish football in a short amount of time. For years, we have been sold a narrative that our players are not good enough to play a possession based game, that we are overachieving for a small island, and that calls for entertaining football are just not realistic. Kenny has exposed the idiocy underlying such assertions. Indeed, for a manager criticised for his lack of experience, he has already outperformed men whose CVs far exceed his. He puts it best himself when he says: “I don’t care what people think, I know as much as anyone else.” Kenny embraces a certain humility in his work and will hopefully carry that same positive mindset into his role as senior manager. 

The upcoming European Championships, which McCarthy is in charge for, will be taking place partially in Ireland. It is an exciting time for football in Ireland with some of the best players in the world potentially gracing our shores next summer and Ireland, at the moment, on course to join them. And while the country will follow McCarthy for the present, the future belongs to Kenny. The excitement that the nation holds for the upcoming senior fixtures should be carried over into the anticipation of seeing a new man at the helm. A man with an in depth knowledge of the young talent at his disposal and how he can fit those cogs in place to ensure that the Irish football machine keeps moving forward. 

Jonathon Boylan

Jonathon Boylan is a Deputy Sports editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.