Ireland: In Kenny We Trust (Just)

by | Sep 11, 2021

Last Wednesday week, early in Ireland’s game against Portugal in the Algarve, Sky Sports football pundit Matt Holland assessed Irish hopes and prospects for their three September World Cup qualifiers. Their target was seven points, Holland declared, clearly driven semi-mad by so long analysing this Ireland team. And they’d be happy with four. Yet, bizarrely, they possibly deserved five and were a Serbian goalkeeper’s fingertips away from four, despite three matches which were as “WTF was THAT?” as any international break under current Ireland manager Stephen Kenny.

Holland also said of Ireland that “I’ll tell you what, they’ve deserved this” after the comical pinball own goal which gave them a point at home to Serbia on Tuesday, clearly driven completely mad by so long analysing this Ireland team. Twenty-four hours later, I watched my team Kingstonian win an FA Cup replay 8-1. And I’m unconvinced that the Ks game was more one-sided.

None of Ireland’s games went as expected, even if the composure-free display against Azerbaijan might have been feared by those still having Luxembourg-themed flashbacks. They might not even finish bottom of Group A, which now seems almost a cause for celebration for Ireland fans, so low has the bar been set. Northern Ireland’s results last week, wins in Lithuania and Estonia and the home 0-0 with Switzerland, were results which Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni managed at their best. They are pipedreams just now for Ireland.

It seems long ago now. But Ireland were at their O’Neill/Trapattoni best in their 2-1 loss to Portugal in Faro. Yet the “star” of the night was not Cristiano bloody Ronaldo, despite the preening prick’s terrific, record-breaking, game-winning final two minutes, plus “five” minutes’ stoppage-time; a contribution made all the more remarkable by CBR7 being sh*te for the first 80 minutes (plus the six-minute long “five” minutes’ first-half stoppage time). No, that accolade belonged exactly where Slovenian match referee Matej Jug wanted it to be…with Slovenian match referee Matej Jug.

It was clear from the immediate aftermath of his ninth-minute penalty award to Portugal that Jug was going to be a piece of work. Not so much the award itself, which was far from the worst penalty decision, especially as Portugal should have had a penalty for Ireland’s stupidity in playing out from the back in a scenario which screamed “clear the fcuking thing” (or was that me?). But for his seemingly interminable toss-arguing with Italian Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Paolo Valeri. Jug knew the cameras were on him. And he was in no hurry for them not to be.

His list of crimes against competent officiating was long, if maybe not quite as long as most Irish fans suggested in their hot-takes. Much was read into Jug’s grinning mug when he booked Ronaldo for his shirt-divesting winning-goal celebration. But rather than Jug acting the Ronaldo fanboy, he likely just recognised the absurdity of having to book anyone in such a situation. I mean, Jug would probably have laughed if it was Jeff Hendrick in…no…I’ll stop there.

There were credible suggestions that Ronaldo deserved a red card for his infantile slap of Dara O’Shea during the delay with the penalty. But O’Shea reacted as if punched. And many observers would surely have shouted “the game’s gone” if Ronaldo was dismissed. And although Jug really did appear to be playing “next goal wins it,” after second-half stoppage-time should have receded into history, there were seconds to add for a mystifying VAR check after a wasted Portugal corner. Which, unless he’d pleaded with Valeri to find a penalty for CBR7 to score, wasn’t Jug’s fault.

Jug also revelled in getting the small but significant decisions wrong. Giving Portugal make-believe corners. Booking O’Shea for feigning an injury so demonstrable that he limped out of the game three minutes later. And, game-changingly, awarding a free-kick for accidental handball against Josh Cullen, despite playing an advantage to give Portugal a clear-cut chance which they squandered (their equaliser came very shortly after Bazunu saved Ronaldo’s stinging setpiece).

But his worst “error” was denying Ireland a 59th-minute penalty when Alves Palhinha crashed arse-first into Connolly’s back as Connolly looked set to convert Egan’s downward header. More was made post-match of Jug’s other ‘interventions.’ And, at the time, of why Egan was so far upfield in open play. “Sure why not?” RTE commentator Darragh Maloney opined. But how WASN’T it a penalty? Palhinha eventually SAT on Connolly, FFS. Maloney noted that Connolly “ended up on the ground…again,” which may have offered a clue as to Jug’s ‘thinking.’ But if that was Jug’s thinking, it caused a…well…clear and obvious error. If only VAR was in operat…ah…

As for the actual football, this was easily Ireland’s best attempt to play it properly under Kenny. Until keeper Gavin Bazunu’s excellent penalty save, they resembled the out-of-depth shambles of many pre-match predictions and previous match realities. The penalty incident wasn’t the first misguided attempt at playing out from the back. And Ireland spent almost all of the previous nine minutes in their own half, as if the halfway line was a Doctor Who/Star Trek-style forcefield.

Bazunu’s brilliance, though, gave Ireland the belief to provide a genuine threat on the break. Thirty-eight-year-old Pepe only had shithous*ry left to give (still plenty of it, mind) and his fellow defenders had little more to give in the first place. Germany 4 Portugal 2 in this summer’s Euros made sense as Connolly began running them ragged.

Not that Egan’s stoppage-time header from surprise midfield selection Jamie McGrath’s corner was on any cards. But nor was it against the run of play. Indeed Portugal only re-asserted their early dominance after Jug decided to give the words “at least” some heavy lifting in the phrase “at least five minutes’ stoppage-time at the end of the half.” And Jug blew for half-time the moment Ireland got into Portugal’s half again, over six minutes into said stoppage-time. The signs were there, if only we’d known to look.

Had Ireland gone two-up on the hour, Portugal would have needed CBR7 to find his true class before he did. As it was, Portugal should have scored before they did. Bernardo Silva actually did well to lift his 84th-minute shot over the bar from six yards. And Ronaldo would have netted those headers against better goalkeepers than Bazunu (not many of them just now), better defenders than James McClean (many of them just now, though not Ronaldo himself, who lost Egan for Ireland’s goal) and less tired teams than Ireland. Cristiano BLOODY Ronaldo indeed.

“Plenty to build on,” was the post-match mantra. And against Azerbaijan, Ireland DID build. For ten minutes. Seamus Coleman missed the best first-half chance, firing left-footed wide when he had time to switch the ball to his “favoured” right. But the early noise from the first Aviva Stadium crowd in 22 months dissipated as the team’s quality dropped. Emin Mahmudov’s 20-yarder in, legitimate, first-half stoppage-time was a brilliant finish though. No more down to slack defending than Egan’s goal three days earlier.

Yes, Bazunu’s excellent 80th-minute save after Rustam Akhmedzade’s unhindered swan downfield and left-foot shot prevented certain defeat. But Ireland’s inability to keep their headers down proved more costly than any perceived defensive failings. And their equaliser was mainly down to Azerbaijan’s V-shaped offside trap, with centre-back Hogat Haghverdi surveying Josh Cullen’s fabulous cross and Duffy’s odd-looking back-header from two yards behind his defensive colleagues (this is the “L-shaped offside trap” when full-backs do it).

Alas, though, Duffy is no CBR7 (just ask any Celtic fan). At the final whistle, RTE commentator Des Curran noted that French referee Jerome Brisard “was maybe not as generous with his added time as we saw on Wednesday.” But this was after five minutes and 48 seconds of “five minutes” stoppage-time. So Curran’s comment was inaccurate and a little desperate. A neat summary, then, of Ireland on the evening.

There was a little desperation about some post-match analysis, too. Maloney was RTE’s presenter after his Algarve commentary stint (must have a good agent). And he semi-pleaded that “this was a much better Irish performance than Luxembourg” and “we did create chances.” But this was surely devil’s advocacy, an RTE trait, as observers of Gaelic Games presenter Joanne Cantwell know well. Articulate analyst Kevin Doyle noted, “we were relying on the centre-half to get us out of trouble again.” And when the solution is Shane Duffy’s forward play, the problem is a biggie.

It could be, and is about TO be, argued that Ireland were little better against Serbia. Bazunu made not so much a string as a 20-metre washing-line of fine and fantastic saves as Serbia were over the hills and far away the better side for 85 minutes. And while Kenny bemoaned Ireland’s poor finishing on Saturday, he also needed the Serbs’ poor finishing on Tuesday to keep his team off the bottom of Group A on goal difference. Well, that and their superb finishing, and creativity, in their own six-yard box.

The sub-editor-unfriendly Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s 20th-minute header from Dusan Tadic’s near-post corner was a mirror image of Egan’s goal in Faro. But so comical was “Ireland’s” goal on Tuesday that you could play the whole clip in the “What happened next?” section of BBC quiz show “A Question of Sport” and people still wouldn’t guess. “WTF happened THERE?” more like.

Only the ubiquitous Egan got closer to an assist than the surely disbelieving cameramen or photographers behind the goal. He headed Matt Doherty’s cross against Nikola Milenkovic, the loose ball falling to Milinkovic-Savic, who fired his attempted clearance against Milenkovic, from whence it bulged the net. So, not only are Ireland’s defenders getting more goals than their strikers, so are Serbia’s. Foul throw by Callum Robinson to start the move, too. But when you’re on, you’re on.

In-between times, Bazunu used his hands, knees and boomps-a-daisies to keep the Serbs at bay, especially Aleksandar Mitrovic, the least surprising wearer of a black eye in modern football. It was Bazunu’s own private save-of-the-season competition, each one making you forget that he is only 19. And if fellow 19-year-old Andrew Omobamidele’s 93rd-minute long-ranger hadn’t been saved by Serbian keeper Predrag Rajkovic, we would have been introduced to the sound of 25,415 people (less the few Serbians present) simultaneously laughing in disbelief.

“One defeat in six,” Kenny noted afterwards, spinning recent history wildly out of control. And, again, it was something “to build on,” although quite what “it” was remains unclear. Sky Sports studio pundit and former Ireland striker Jonathan Walters repeated his claim that “I’m still not seeing it” so often that it’s probably the answer to his security questions when accessing on-line services.

It was, ironically, also unclear what he was “still not seeing.” Ireland playing out from the back, maybe? Although, if so, his insistence that Ireland should do this in the “other half of the pitch” was a bit counter-intuitive. But Ireland playing out from the back has been all too easy to see, so slowly do they do it and so often does it go wrong (see Portugal’s penalty for details). And if Walters really wanted to see how to play out from the back, Serbia had just spent 85 minutes showing him.

Virgin Media pundit and former Ireland boss Brian Kerr knew what he’d seen. Ireland getting “out of jail” having been “battered for 85 minutes.” Supporters, he said, “probably came along fearing the worst…and it was the worst for most of the game.” Every time Kerr speaks about Ireland, nails cover their heads for protection.

Less nail-on-head was James McClean’s insistence that Ireland’s media “get a kick out of us not doing well.” He called Ireland’s media “as bad, if not worse” than England’s. And McClean is, let’s say, not noted for pro-English opinions. But, given Kenny’s record, speculation about his future after the Azerbaijan game was understandable. And much of his Irish media treatment has actually been quite kind.

The Irish Examiner newspaper’s Ian Mallon referenced the “green shoots” of this international break and claimed Kenny could “rightly expect” a “new deal” from the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) if those shoots showed “further growth and development.” “Green shoots” also “emerged” alongside “reasons for optimism” in Irish Times headlines over pieces on Omobamidele and Bazunu.

“In Kenny we trust,” read the oft-filmed banner at the Serbia game. In Kenny I trust too. I believe unpopular courses can prove the right courses over time. The youngsters he’s picked will improve, and improve the team. The under-21s’ win in Bosnia last week suggests there are more coming (remember the name, Colm Whelan). But “when?” is a legitimate question, especially for FAI commercial partners reportedly undelighted with Kenny’s admission last Monday that his focus had always been more on qualifying for the 2024 Euros than Qatar.

However, RTE pundit Lisa Fallon noted last Saturday: “You don’t get currency from glorious defeats against big teams if you cannot put smaller teams away. And that’s the bottom line.” Sadly, the ‘bottom line’ also incorporates the fact that Ireland’s results are those of a smaller team. After all, as one fan wrote last Saturday, “we’ve closed the gap to five points. On Luxembourg.”