As time ran out against Armenia in Yerevan a fortnight ago, they were throwing the ball into the mixer like a karaoke act, singing Big Cass and Big Niall’s biggest hits from the heyday.
Our days later against Ukraine in Dublin they were repeating the same tune, with Big Shane once again, in vain trying to get their heads over something that might bundle up on the line.
In both cases Ireland were so desperate for a goal that neither they, nor their managers, could no longer stand their principles. Passes and tricks had vanished in the heat of their urgency; This Lump in the Box was suddenly back in fashion. Stephen Kenny’s new model army was returning from Ireland’s dusty playbook to the coolest old comfort blanket.
Then lo and behold, last Tuesday night in ód, with time running down once more, the mixer was out and sophistication was back in vogue.
Kenny’s two years in charge of the men’s national team could be described in many ways but basically it was a struggle for identity, a gravity fight between the present and the past, the iron ball and modernity with a chain involving both ankles. It’s about trying. It is still unresolved. The creative tension between the old and the new will resume in September, away from Scotland and at home to Armenia.
So it is too early to reach any conclusion. Still, it may be worth noting that last Tuesday, in the 87th minute, Ireland stitched together a phase of possession that lasted 57 uninterrupted seconds, made up of 22 passes. He worked it left and right, back and forth, edge to edge, until he eventually found a pocket of space and Conor Horihane was sliding into Callum Robinson deep inside the Ukraine penalty area, with Chidozzi Ogbene and Jeff Hendricks was actually in the six-yard box. Waiting for the Cross. Robinson’s delivery was subdued and the offside flag was up anyway.
But, as a sign for the summer, it was a symbolic climax with which to end a four-game swing that had started so badly in Yerevan ten days earlier. Kenny’s original vision was still breathing, even though it had been battered and crippled by several punitive encounters with reality over the past two years.
Those encounters included some bad moments against Scotland in Dublin eight days earlier, when the Irish attempted to play the ball from behind, which came close to being penalized with a goal. They were very lucky to have narrowly escaped.
The manager has knocked his early idealism from a few corners through the chasing medium of the scoreboard. But as last Saturday’s events graphically demonstrated, it needs to do a few more knocks before a sensible balance between risk and reward can be reached.
If Scotland had got the first goal, as they should have, he would have been staring at the barrel of the final punishment in his line of work. A 1–0 in Yerevan and a 0–1 against Ukraine in Dublin had left him under pressure again, with tom-tom beatings being drummed into the press by Kenny skeptics about the unrest at FAI headquarters, which legitimately From 19 onwards can indicate its dismal ratio. Competitive matches: three wins, eight draws, eight losses. It is by far the worst result by any manager of the national team.
Another defeat against the Scots, with the arrival of Ukraine in Lodz three days later, could create an unstoppable momentum towards the exit door. But then they beat Scotland 3-0 and with a bound our hero was freed.
As it happened, Target managed to embody that ongoing identity crisis. The all-important opener came through Shane Duffy’s head from a corner, with Allan Brown hitting home a knockdown from point blank range. If it had to be completely believable to Irish history, the ball would have gone off Brown’s back among a pile of soaked bodies, after which he could have jokingly remarked in post-match interviews that he knew more about it. No, but he was claiming. Otherwise too. Somehow, it removed part of his anatomy by two yards, so it was pretty close to agricultural work in any case.
The second had a bit of a mix of old and new, with Kaomhin Kelleher going long on his kick-out when Duffy tried to get out from the six-yard box seconds earlier with almost disastrous results. Troy Parrott got something off a Kelleher long ball, at which point the Jack Charlton retro act ended and we were catapulted into 2022, courtesy of Michael Obafemi’s dink, which was so exquisitely weighted that it was positively up in the air. Was waiting for the parrot to come. this house.
Third, Obafemi’s wall, from about 28 yards, was pure Bobby Charlton, not Jack, which is to say that it belongs to the principle of a classic strike from any era. But the build-up was reminiscent of the best of the old Irish, with Brown and Jason Molumby kicking the ball out of midfield, making two full-blooded tackles and Parrot playing it the first touch to Obafemi who took Champagne. was unheard. Oh, what’s burning?
A strike of that caliber doesn’t belong to a manager or an era, but if Kenny could be said to have had input, it might be in the culture he and Keith Andrews are trying to build. That is to say, empowering their charges to take risks and play with some element of unconscious freedom when they are on the ball. It seems that managers and their coaches want their players to express themselves a little more clearly in their passing and movements.
Again, Obafemi seems to be the type of fella who might decide to play anyway with little freedom, to the extent that if his manager doesn’t give him a license to do so, he’ll give it to himself and not allow it. Too nervous about asking.
Of course, the quintessential display of that attitude came from Nathan Collins last Tuesday night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a star was born in Lodz. The Leixlip boy turned 21 on 30 April. Already he is a commanding player with a clear tendency to dominate his position. He is tall and strong, as any commanding centre-half should be; But he is also quick on the ground for a player of his body and position and unusually dexterous on his feet as well.
Mentally too, he seems ready for the big stage. He revealed the full list of those qualities with his goal against the Ukrainians. It looked and felt like a historic goal, one of the best scores in Irish history and perhaps the moment that launched his career on the elite stage. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, obviously, but it looks like a high-end Premier League player and Ireland captain in the future. Asked what Ireland needed to improve upon after the Yerevan debacle, his answer was impressively conclusive: “Everything.” Looks like a leader is talking.
With Collins emerging in the anchor defensive role, Kelleher or Gavin Bazunu behind him in goal, and the trio of Knight, Molumbi and Cullen in midfield, as well as allowing forward combinations from Parrott, Obafemi, Ogbeene, Robinson and Idah, It looks like Kenny has finally taken the personnel into his own hands to morph into a progressive international side. It’s starting to look a lot like his project now.
They are young, most of them, and apparently hungry and aspiring too. Most of them still have a long way to go in club games; We are not talking about the upper end of the market here. But it’s the best manager one can hope for right now, and it’s a lot better than it was in less than 12 months.
The famous last word, perhaps, but perhaps, just perhaps, Yerevan in Dublin and Ukraine was the darkest hour before dawn. Last darkest hour. There have been some of them, you like, and there may be more. But Scotland and Lodz realistically felt like a turning point. We’ve even changed some of them, again, only to drive you into another brick wall. Fair enough.
But this time — this time — the light at the end of the tunnel feels more like a summer solstice than its winter sister.