Ireland: Come on you boys in… err… orange?
Of course, nothing became Ireland’s campaign like the leaving it; a storming final quarter sweeping manager Stephen Kenny’s boys-to-men past a Luxembourg side seeking a first-ever third place group finish. And like the campaign itself, the goals improved as matters progressed.
For some Ireland fans, there was as much joy to be gleaned from Portugal’s November matches as Ireland’s. Faro is still a bitter memory for those who still think Portugal’s victory was 97th-minute robbery. And though I don’t, I allowed myself a wry Sunday smile when Serbia dumped them into the play-offs.
Portugal were atrocious in Dublin. At half-time, Sky’s Richard Dunne rightly lamented the “lack of quality within the two teams.” This also applied to Jesus Gil Manzano, who refereed as if he’d been named after the reaction to many of his first-half decisions. He was particularly fooled by Portugal right-back Danilo, who rose from the dead clutching his right cheek after Chiedozie Ogbene unwittingly but dangerously caught him very much on his LEFT nowhere-near-his-cheek.
Portugal played for a 0-0 draw as if they’d had a collective bet on one. Mostly excellent though Cristiano bloody Ronaldo was, his histrionics were histrionic even for him. If he hadn’t already hit the deck about four times, he might have had a penalty when Matt Doherty clumped him in the back on 28 minutes. Not that it would have mattered. Ireland’s teenage goalkeeping sensation Gavin Bazunu would have saved it anyway. As he does.
Ogbene probably should have scored near the end of a first-half whose highlight was arguably Shane Duffy ‘Cruyff-turning’ past Ronaldo. And Ronaldo SURELY should have scored on 67 minutes, heading Andre Silva’s cross wide from seven yards. “I thought it was in,” said RTE commentator George Hamilton. “I thought it was in,” said co-commentator Ray Houghton. “He thought it was in,” Houghton said of Ronaldo. “At one point, HE thought it was in,” Houghton added, over pictures of Portugal’s veteran perma-grump manager Fernando Santos. Houghton thought Bazunu thought it was in too. F**k me, I thought it was in. It wasn’t.
Nine minutes later, Ireland fashioned their best second-half opportunity, only for Enda Stevens to be the wrong man in the right place, ballooning Ogbene’s cross high enough over the bar to have cleared a second set of goalposts. But what the game lacked even beyond composure in front of goal was some sh*thousery from sh*thouse grand master, the sh*thouse’s sh*thouse…Pepe. Cometh the 81st minute, cometh the sh*thouse.
He’d been booked eight minutes earlier, harshly (the best kind of Pepe booking), for over-contesting a ropey handball decision. Eight minutes later, he made an increasingly trademark hash of some basic defending, as Callum Robinson lurked. And he decided, like all the best sh*thouses, that shoving Robinson in the gob was the wise thing to do. His immediate plea for video assistance was another bookable offence. And it would have been no assistance, Indeed, he’d probably have been booked for stupidity, for even imagining that it might have assisted. Consummate sh*thousery.
A man up, Ireland pressed properly at last. But with Ronaldo about, there was a restraining wariness on the pitch and in the stands. Wisely, too, as he fashioned an opportunity of sorts in the last seconds. Doherty volleyed one into the Portugal net a minute earlier. But Irish sub Will Keane fouled Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio and at least one covering defender played to the swiftly and correctly blown whistle. Apart from that…great goal.
Kenny began the Stalinist revisionism of the game by declaring Keane’s challenge “clearly not a foul.” An Irish Times headline-writer lost the run of themselves with “Irish throw it all at Portugal,” which was only even partly true after Pepe Pepe’d. And Duffy’s pride at “how the team played against one of the best teams in the world” overlooked the six Portugal players left out lest they got booked and thus suspended for the Serbia game.
Nonetheless, Ireland were credible. The draw was creditable. And debate on Kenny getting a contract extension to facilitate him managing Ireland in Euro 2024 qualifying seemed settled, unless there was a calamitous defeat in Luxembourg, with James McClean playing naked, bar a heavily-ironic poppy over his manhood, rather than wear Ireland’s new, orange, away kit. And even then, who would/could the cash-strapped FAI hire?
Yet, ex-Ireland star and current RTE TV pundit Liam Brady was unconvinced. Brady had a famously “educated left foot” in his playing heyday. His thoughts on Kenny’s future suggested that the rest of him played truant, as they made absolutely no sense on any level whatsoever.
Ireland play two March friendlies and four Uefa Nations League ties in June. Brady suggested that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) should decide Kenny’s future then. “The jury is still very much out,” he said, having clearly not popped into the courtroom for a bit. “I’d sit and wait. Why (does he) deserve a new contract?” Fellow pundit Richard Sadlier had to remind Brady of the “players (Kenny) is relying on” and walk him slowly through the kids Kenny had successfully blooded, in a tone which screamed “For fcuk’s sake, Liam.”
Brady’s ‘plan’ would give Kenny’s replacement two Nations League games and…er…that’s it before Euro 2024 qualification begins in March 2023…unless Ireland are deemed suitable World Cup finalists’ warm-up cannon-fodder. Ideal preparation for repeating the sh*te start, solid finish of this campaign. And before the Luxembourg game, Sadlier dismantled this ‘plan’ at a canter: “Going into those fixtures with a manager that we’re not sure of, or maybe isn’t up to it” was “not a runner.” The FAI postponing a decision would “read like a public vote of no confidence. If there is a doubt about Stephen, get him out of there. If there is no doubt…sign him up.”
Kenny had other views to disdain. At his pre-match presser, Luxembourg boss Luc Holtz declared: “In the last matches,” Ireland “played more with the style that they played for 100 years. More British style, this fighting spirit, more long balls, more contacts.” Yet he concluded that “Ireland are in good shape.” One wonders which “last matches” Holtz saw. Because his words were barmier than Brady’s. And Kenny gave them suitably short shrift: “He denigrated all the great players who played for Ireland. He is a good football coach. But his sports psychology wasn’t of the highest order.”
Post-match, Holtz railed against “the behaviour of the staff of Ireland,” seemingly for celebrating the win, rather than “disappearing into the dressing-rooms” as they’d done after losing to Luxembourg in Dublin. “We didn’t go to them and make them ridiculous,” Holtz added (well…off the pitch anyway). “That’s not very fair play. We are not used to that from”, ahem, “British teams.” Psychology not “of the highest order,” indeed.
The only potential psychological barriers in Luxembourg were nightmares from a previous orange-shirted performance, a folklore-ish defeat to FYR Macedonia in 1997. Jason McAteer saw red for a chest-high, studs-up combo on Macedonia’s Artim Sakiri, of which only team-mate Roy Keane, who was booked in the game, (and, in certain circumstances, Eric Cantona) could possibly have approved.
Ireland’s ‘resplendence’ in Rangers blue against Qatar had historical significance. Orange possibly offended certain political sensibilities. But sod that. It’s on the flag. No reason to keep it off the shirts…bar the fact that “Come on you boys in Orange” doesn’t scan and the inevitable “the future’s bright” references (Sky co-commentator Matt Holland winning that race). Commentator Rob Hawthorne said the shirts made him think of…Easy Jet. Sky’s travel expenses must be low.
After a creaky start, Ireland dominated a decent first half. However, the highlight was Bazunu’s wonder save from a deflected Olivier Thill shot, the full majesty of the tip around the post available from the cameras behind the goal at the other end of the ground. Bazunu’s only other save was from Dublin match-winner Gerson Rodrigues’s semi-backpass on 49 minutes, when Rodrigues had more time and space than his composure could handle.
Luxembourg ‘scored’ five minutes later. But only because Maurice Deville nudged Duffy in the back in the build-up. Hawthorne and Holland (comedy duo or legal firm…you decide) seemed desperate to attach controversy to the decision, perhaps embarrassed by the incident exposing that they were in a studio (Sky’s travel expenses must be very low). Yes, energy prices went up twice before referee Tamas Bagnar gave the free-kick. But it was a clear foul, even on radio.
Duffy “went down easily,” apparently. But he’d met each previous cross with the centre of his forehead. And he sprawled clumsily as he tried to re-adjust his position after Deville nudged him under the flight of this cross. This was obvious to anyone who’s ever played football. My career peaked in Leatherhead and District Sunday League Division Seven. Yet I knew it was a foul.
With his next key header, on 67 minutes, Duffy converted Josh Cullen’s free-kick from, literally, a yard. And Luxembourg dissolved. Supersub Jason Knight won that free-kick. Eight minutes later, his delicious backheel, after a slick three-man move, set up Ogbene to deliciously dink the ball over Luxembourg keeper Ralph Schon. And he provided a sensational assist on 88 minutes, side-footing McClean’s stunning crossfield pass onto Robinson’s bootlaces for a tap-in. Words I had not envisaged typing about Ireland goals…even last week.
They confirmed Kenny as an appalling goal-celebrator, with lack of practice no longer an excuse. But his post-match interviews have improved as much as his team. In Luxembourg, he was outstanding. He was genuinely embarrassed to hear Ireland’s fans “walking in a Kenny wonderland” as he spoke to RTE’s Tony O-Donoghue. Because “it’s all about the players.” Oh…and about “Keith Andrews, Anthony Barry and Dean Kiely and all the staff behind the scenes.” Modest…AND reading like an Oscar acceptance speech.
And there ends a campaign of contrasts. One point and no win in the first four games, eight points and no loss in the last four. No wins and two goals in four home games. Two wins and nine goals in four away games. The best performance in a defeat (in Portugal). Their biggest outclassing in a draw (home to Serbia). The kids flourished. And the star performer was 51-cap veteran Shane Duffy.
Kenny critics such as Sadlier are being convinced. ‘Accused’ by Brady of “changing your tune, big time” on Kenny, Sadlier snapped: “I did a very rare thing for people in this country. I kept an open mind.” Yet some remain in two minds. Even after Luxembourg, Virgin Media’s Brian Kerr agreed with Brady, maybe because Brady called this campaign “possibly the worst in 20-odd years,” offering a kinder perspective on Kerr’s ‘difficult’ Ireland tenure. “The FAI are broke and Stephen is carrying a good load of staff,” Kerr noted. So, he didn’t “see any panic” over Kenny’s new deal.
But Kenny won’t get a new contract because of FAI panic. On Sky, after the Luxembourg win, ex-Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan said Kenny has done an “OK job, not a great job just yet.” Which is about right, overall. But the words “just yet” are doing some powerful work there. The FAI hired Kenny to build a new, young team. And he is. “Panic” would be halting construction while foundations are still being laid, especially as this is an exciting construction project on many levels.
As with his immediate predecessors, Kenny has few English Premier League (EPL) players at his disposal, and only two current EPL regulars. But many others are on upward career curves; Ogbene (a veteran youngster at 24), full-back Andrew Onobamidele, midfielders Knight and Troy Parrott and strikers Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly (who was excellent in Portugal). While Bazunu already resembles an international natural and a finished article, a decade before a keeper’s supposed peak years.
And, pretentious though this may sound, the team is starting to represent modern Ireland, in a similar way to Gareth Southgate’s England. In July, Joe Horgan wrote in the Irish Post, the newspaper for the Irish in Britain, that the Irelands of 1988 and 2021 were “very different places” yet the teams of both eras “truly represented the Irish nation.” 1988’s side mixing “the Irish-born and those born in Britain to Irish parents or grandparents.” 2021’s with “four players of African descent.” And “if you want to know how Irish those lads might be, talk to Ogbene, the only one of the four not born in Ireland, about his time as a youngster playing GAA.”
Kenny had a difficult, dreadful start. But past performance is no guarantee of future results in a good way too. Everyone had every right to expect Ireland to finish third in World Cup qualifying. And Kenny has every right to expect the opportunity to finish the job for which he was hired. Whatever colour Ireland wear.