Ireland: Come on you boys in… blue & white?
Only Sky Sports’ regular Ireland commentator Rob Hawthorne was more relieved than Ireland manager Stephen Kenny about an Ireland goal in October’s international break. Probably.
He might have had the line ready since the relevant story broke. The early opportunities to use it on Saturday, during Ireland’s World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan, were probably too early. And when an ideally-timed opportunity arrived very early in Tuesday’s Dublin friendly against Asian champions Qatar, he might have been as shocked as anyone by the quality of football which surrounded it…and forgot.
So, when Ireland’s Callum Robinson completed his hat-trick to put Ireland three-up against Asian champions Qatar on 53 minutes, the line’s time was now. And, like Robinson, he delivered. As Ireland’s new Robbie Keane ran to Irish fans in the Aviva Stadium’s East Stand, Hawthorne screamed: “He has injected positivity into this Ireland team.” Arf-arf. Still, BBC Sport Northern Ireland website reporter John Haughey was impressed. “Robinson’s opener seemed to inject belief into Stephen Kenny’s side,” he opined. Oh how the anti-vaxxers will have laughed.
Planned or not, the line reflected how Ireland’s build-up last week was dominated by Robinson revealing his stunningly, ahem, ‘counter-intuitive’ decision to not be vaccinated against Covid, despite catching it. Twice. Last November and this August. Missing September’s Portugal loss due to the latter. “I just haven’t done it,” he said, without specifying WHY not, despite his illnesses, their career impacts and the health risks to colleagues, whose support for him as he was criticised in the media was contrastingly admirable.
“I think it’s your personal choice,” he added, correctly citing common law, if not common sense. And “my choice at this moment in time” is not to be vaccinated. “It’s obviously annoying that I’ve caught it twice,” he stated-the-obviously. And he acknowledged that “further down the line I could change my mind.” After he completes a Covid hat-trick, presumably. He is far from the only unvaccinated or not fully-vaccinated Ireland player. But I suspect he’s the only player to have caught Covid twice and stay unvaccinated. And if I call that selfish and stupid…well, that’s my personal choice, isn’t it?
Anyway…the football. I mean, my giddy aunt. Seven goals. From Kenny’s Ireland. After the year they’ve had. Five from Robinson. After the health problems he’s had. No goals against too, although with outstandingly mature and athletic Gavin Bazunu between the sticks, that was way less surprising. And three World Cup qualifying points away from home, plus a highly watchable crushing of Asian Champions Qatar. Even BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme was disbelieving, announcing on their 6.30am sports summary that Ireland “beat Qatar two-nil.” No point keeping the Henri Delaunay Trophy from us now, eh?
Well. Yes. Don’t be, ahem, ‘counter-intuitive.’ Despite Ireland’s three-nil win in Baku, the game itself was not radically different in nature from the sides’ ‘dismal’ 1-1 draw in Dublin just five weeks ago. And I keep referencing “Asian Champions Qatar” not to hammer home what a great achievement it was to thump continental title-holders 4-0 and deserve to win by more but as a reminder that they ARE Asian champions. Because they offered not the slightest clue as to how they BECAME Asian champions, just two-and-two-thirds years ago.
It looked like Ireland’s evening in Baku from the seventh-minute moment when Robinson nearly burst the net from the edge of the box with a semi-swipe at a ball which looked as if it was just getting away from him. James McClean’s assist was a joy for ever, too, described by the Guardian’s Paul Doyle as a “slinky feint and pass,” surely the first one of THOSE in the proud Derryman’s career.
The first-half thereafter reminded me of Ireland’s 4-1 win over Oman at Craven Cottage in 2012, where Oman played copious amount of neat possession football, which proved only as creative as their methods of lousing it all up in the final third. Thus Ireland’s and Robinson’s second goal in Baku, on 39 minutes, felt against the run of play when it wasn’t quite; a deflected shot from the edge of the box which keeper Sahnuddin Mehemmedeliyev should still have stopped (a full-name badge might have done the trick).
Hojjat Haghverdi squandered the hosts’ best first-half opportunity, his head seeming to be a very odd shape when he used it to screw Abbas Huseynov’s 19th minute cross wide from six yards. And while Robinson nearly netted a Van Basten-esque effort which the watching Mehemmedeliyev wouldn’t have stopped with two full-name badges, the game wasn’t quite over as a contest. And Bazunu was busy and, when needed, brilliant throughout.
Ireland, though, were busier still up the other end after half-time, with Robinson missing four easier chances than the three he had before the break. In fact, the second half was hugely entertaining, which for much of Kenny’s reign would have been about as likely a combination of words to find in an Ireland match account as “McClean’s slinky feint and pass.”
The Azeris looked like pot-shotters in Dublin. And Ireland’s defence took a wee bit too much blame when Emin Mahmudov’s 20-yarder gave them the lead there. In Baku, nothing was unstoppable for Bazunu, although he had to throw some novel shapes in palming Gara Garayev’s 79th-minute, 20-yard curling toe-poke onto the bar. Fifteen shots, though, was a bit too many for comfort. And it meant that sub Chiedozie Ogbene’s 90th-minute header gave the final scoreline a slightly tilted look.
Understandably, given that he’d just overseen his first competitive win as senior national team boss, Kenny was metaphorically resplendent in rose-tinted spectacles. “Bar the 97th-minute defeat In Portugal,” Kenny said (that 96th-minute goal in Faro is approaching 100 as quickly as any Liverpool striker), “that’s the only defeat in the last seven games.” Which was true but lacked fundamental context, such as “one win in seven, and that was against Andorra after going behind to them.”
RTE studio pundit Dietmar “Didi” Hamann was unimpressed. “They won their first game in 13 competitive games,” Hamann noted, correctly. So “to say ‘we only lost one in the last seven’ I think is wrong. Things probably weren’t as bad as people made out but they’re not as good as he sees it.” Which seemed about right . However, former RTE studio punditry colleague Eamon Dunphy thought Hamann was talking “drivel.” So, it MUST have been right.
Brian Kerr also got the Ireland senior job due to great work at underage level, leading Ireland’s under-18s to the 1998 European Championship title. But he also got Kenny-esque pelters from the media after Ireland finished an unstylish fourth in their 2006 World Cup qualifying group. On Virgin Media, he noted that Ireland went out of three competitions in Kenny’s first year and compared Ireland, “scrapping not to finish last” to Scotland, “in a good position to make the play-offs.”
Nonetheless, when asked if people “should be encouraged” by the Baku display, Kerr admitted “Oh yeah. For sure. We all are.” Even doom-and-gloom Didi admitted that if Ireland “put in a positive performance on Tuesday” against Qatar, “things might look different.” AND Ireland looked very natty in their all-white kit.
Ireland’s blue shirts against Qatar were not natty. In fact, they made Ireland look like Rangers, never more so than when getting a 13th-minute penalty for next-to-nothing. Blue may have seemed an odd choice, though not as odd as the orange they wore in Macedonia (and, mercifully, never again). It wasn’t, though, for the same reason as its outsized shamrock badge on an uncluttered background made the shirts look like 100-year-old relics. Because that’s what they were, jerseys commemorating the Football Association of Ireland’s founding in 1921, when, for the team, blue was the colour.
Anyway…the football. The first touch I saw was Robinson’s third-minute shot, as it got deflected past Qatari keeper Meeshal Barsham. And in the first quarter, Tuesday’s ‘Ireland XI’ passed the ball around at dizzying speed; unrecognisably so, even without the personnel and shirt colour. The second quarter wasn’t as good. But Hawthorne still lacked the opportunity to practice his “Caoimhin Kelleher” as Ireland’s second-choice keeper was undisturbed by the Asian Champions (and given the ease of Liverpool’s EPL win at Watford four days later, it is tempting to wonder whether a leading keeper had ever had a quieter week.
Robinson’s “injection of positivity” was actually just the culmination of a move involving, wait for this, 38 (THIRTY-EIGHT) passes, about six more than Ireland seemed to manage in the 2012 Euros and possibly more than in the entire fag-end last year of the late, great Jack Charlton’s reign. “If there is a definitive Stephen Kenny goal, then this may have been it,” wrote a hugely impressed Gavin Cooney on “The 42” website.
Six minutes later, Shane Duffy headed home Conor Hourihane’s corner. the sort of chance he’d missed twice on Saturday And Ireland declared, rather than press for a winning margin which might have shoved them right up the Fifa rankings, where, at kick-off, they were seven places below…Qatar. As if those rankings’ utter lack of credibility and worth needed reinforcing.
So everything in Ireland’s garden is rosy. The Irish Times’ Gavin Cummiskey thinks so anyway. Things were “starting to fall into place.” ran his headline. “The players have bought in completely to the manager’s approach,” ran his sub-headline. It is now “difficult for any lingering anti-Kenny sentiment to fester.” And Kenny was a shoo-in to be the next Pope…although I may have made one of them up. Meanwhile, the Irish Independent’s Daniel McDonnell insisted that only a “catastrophic November” or “an act of idiocy by the FAI board” (don’t rule that out) “stands in the way of” Kenny being kept on for the Euro 2024 qualifiers.
Qatar were atrocious, though. Kenny didn’t “anticipate winning 4-0” because his research was icky. “They’ve been at the Copa America and only lost 2-0 to Argentina.” But that was in June…2019. Their form since a good Concacaf Gold Cup in July augurs ill for ‘their’ World Cup in 13 months. Ireland was their 20th game in a year. They should be gaining cohesion, not losing it. And Hawthorne’s suggestion that a big name might replace current boss Felix Sanchez gained plausibility with each bad pass, half-arsed tackle, retreat towards right-back by talented playmaker Akram Afif, and weak, off-target shot. All…TWO of them.
Of course, Ireland’s results and performances only mattered in so far as Kenny’s teams would likely not have achieved them last season. November’s hosting of Portugal and visit to Luxembourg will tell the true tale of Ireland’s, and Kenny’s, future prospects. The aim has to be, minimum, ‘plucky’ against Portugal and a win (is a win) in Luxembourg. And third in the group is still available, which were Ireland’s most realistic expectations at the start of the campaign.
Good signs are there, though. Yes, Robinson’s goal-blitz came out of nowhere and may yet be a blip. Nonetheless, if he does all he can to keep himself fit and healt…grrrrrrrr. Jeff Hendrick’s recent improvements may also be a blip. And a quick look back at the programme for that 2012 Oman game shows just how many current Irish players have been around for YEARS.
Nonetheless, a number of Kenny’s players are still at the “will improve with age” stage. Bazunu and, to a lesser extent, right-back Andrew Omobamidele are already international naturals. And, as too often gets pushed to the back of discussions about him, Kenny was appointed, as much as for any other reason, to, cough, ‘inject’ such talent into the set-up and manage it as successfully as he managed it at under-21 level.
This was the first international break under Kenny to make Ireland fans (myself included) seek out their shirts to wear with pride, proverbially or actually (though whether I’d go for the Rangers shirt, outsized shamrock or not, is another issue). The first to shift significant opinions towards Kenny in any way. And Kenny will be more relieved than Rob Hawthorne to hear that.