Should he stay or should he go? The Stephen Kenny dilemmaMike Finnerty 11 Sep 2023
When Germany was announced as the host of Euro 2024 all the way back in 2018, hopes were high that Ireland would get to relive their first-ever major football tournament and Christy Moore would get to add another verse to Joxer Goes To Stuttgart.
Instead, the closest Ireland will get to Euro 2024 will be from the confines of the PlayStation.
The curtain may well be falling on the Stephen Kenny era of Irish football, but there are arguments for Kenny staying in the role or leaving in favour of someone new taking charge.
Football is a results business, and a win rate of just under 28% is simply not good enough for a manager who harbours aspirations of qualifying for major tournaments.
That muggy night in Lilie in June 2016 or the euphoria when James McClean saw off a strong Welsh side in October 2017 to set up a World Cup play-off seems like a lifetime ago, and the simple truth is Ireland has never looked like a team of tournament quality.
When you see the likes of North Macedonia stinking up the joint at Euro 2020 or Wales barely keeping their head above water at last year’s World Cup, it truly makes you wonder how Ireland would even fare if they qualified.
The unofficial of Irish football since the days of Jack Charlton has been “if we qualify for a tournament, that is as good as a trophy”.
Since Stephen Kenny found himself in the hot seat, there is very little indication of Ireland achieving even that.
Kenny has had three bites at the apple to get Ireland to a tournament, and if one was to be generous, a Covid-dominated play-off with Slovakia in October 2020 can hardly be held against Kenny.
The 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign can very much be held against Kenny however.
The 1-0 loss to Luxembourg in 2021 represents the nadir of Irish football’s pretensions.
The John Delaney card is often pulled by Kenny fans, with claims that Kenny has nothing to work with as a result of chronic underfunding and other issues surrounding the FAI, but this can be disarmed by pointing to Croatia, a country that shows what Ireland could be.
Croatia made it all the way to the World Cup final in 2018 and took home bronze last December, but despite having the legendary Luka Modric in midfield, it hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows for the Slavic nation.
Just a week before Croatia began their miracle run to the final in 2018, Zdravko Mamic, the most powerful man in Croatian football with deep ties to the Croatian Football Association received a jail term for charges of corruption.
Mamic, the former head of Dinamo Zagreb, fled the country ahead of the trial where his star clients Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren testified about possibly illegal personal profits.
If these off-field incidents distracted Croatia, it didn’t show in the least, pulling off one of the great miracle runs in football.
All of that is to say, using off-field scandal and controversy as an excuse to defend a team when they are doing badly doesn’t hold water, least of all in the context of Irish football.
Defenders of Kenny argue that Kenny has worked miracles with very little, exorcising the demons of the O’Neill era that seemingly drew 0-0 with Denmark every other week and fielded players barely fit enough to pass a bleep test.
What is undisputed is Kenny’s backing of a hearty selection of young talent, giving debuts to future superstar Evan Ferguson, Ireland’s Gavin Bazunu, Nathan Collins, Chiedozie Ogbene, and Dara O’Shea, to name but a few.
The main argument for keeping Kenny is that he has developed a spine of Premier League quality players who play together consistently at an international level.
At an international level, harmony and cohesion are worth their weight in gold, and if there is any manager who knows what makes his squad tick, it’s Kenny.
Kenny is a football analogue of Gil from The Simpsons, who is a spoof of Jack Lemmon’s put-upon “aw-shucks” character type.
No matter what Kenny does, it is never enough, and often for reasons outside of his control.
Luck is also a factor in Kenny’s poor win ratio, with the 2-1 loss to Portugal in September 2021 and March’s 1-0 loss to France in the Aviva two games with Ireland genuinely unlucky to not come away with at least a point on those occasions.
If Evan Ferguson hadn’t picked up a knee injury the same day he put three goals past a Newscastle defence that was the toast of the town last season and put his skills to the test against the French and Dutch, we may not be writing this article to begin with.
Statistics however have very little room for nuance, and the other stat that matters at an international level is whether you picked up three points or not.
The bones of a good, even great Irish side are there, but it is up to the FAI and Kenny if they wish to carry on the relationship.
If Kenny was given the chance to stay on, qualification for the World Cup in North America in 2026 is the absolute number one target, with a bullet, with anything less being a failure.
Spirited defeats against France and the Netherlands are to be accepted as part of international football, but June’s diabolical defeat against Greece and laboured win against Gibraltar shows just how much work is needed to restore Ireland to the level that beats Italy at major tournaments.
Kenny may well not be in the dugout for the return Greek fixture, but the June clash with the Hellenic faithful was a Christmas exam on the Kenny project as a whole.
If we were to be generous, we would give Kenny a compensating fail, a less kind exam marker might say it showed a total lack of preparation, study and overall failure to engage with what was placed in front of them.
Should Ireland part ways with Kenny prior to the October round of games, it is imperative that Ireland has a contingency and succession plan in place.
Names like Lee Carsley, Roy Keane, John O’Shea and Damien Duff have been bandied around as replacements for Kenny, but hiring ex-players just because they put in a shift for Ireland under Brian Kerr doesn’t necessarily mean they are the top men for the job.
Not every legendary player turns into a legendary manager: for every Franz Beckenbauer, there are at least 10 Diego Maradona or Hristo Stoichkov’s.
At the end of the O’Neill era, there was something of a Sliding Doors moment for Irish football – instead of showing ambition and vision, Ireland got back with the ex.
Perhaps if Ireland showed a bit more daring in hiring Kenny sooner instead of using him as the rebound fling, Irish football may have found itself on firmer footing sooner.
It very well may be the case that Kenny will be vindicated by future historians as what Ireland needed at that particular moment and we didn’t appreciate it at the time, like Sandinista! By The Clash, or a poorly thought-out hit-and-hope effort like Darron Gibson every time he put on the Irish shirt.