Ireland In The Nations League: Oh My God, Finland Killed Kenny
There were mitigating circumstances for Ireland’s stultifying caution in their Nations League draw in Bulgaria and more-comfortable-than-one-nil-suggests home defeat to Finland. The focus of new Ireland boss Stephen Kenny, whose full international managerial away and home debuts these games were, was clearly on Ireland’s Euro 2020 play-off in Slovakia, on 8th October. Many of the boys-in-very-dark-green were auditioning for a place on the bench in Bratislava.
At least, I hope so. I missed the first half in Sofia and have been reliably informed that it was Ireland’s best over the two games. Again, I hope so. Because the three I saw made Irish football media comments about “a work in progress” seem like some sort of euphemism world-record attempt. And Kenny’s selections were surely, ahem, ‘experimental.’
In Sofia, Ireland certainly passed the ball a good deal more than they have in years. To each other too, quite a bit. The half-time possession figure of 59% just didn’t look right. And it brought me to a second half during which Sky Sports pundit and Kenny’s immediate predecessor Mick McCarthy stated, often, that Ireland would win because they were the “better team” and that they would win with a goal/goals from a cross/crosses.
McCarthy was half-right. Ish. Ireland scored from a stoppage-time corner. But it was only an equaliser, which owed as much to Bulgaria’s copy of “Defending Corners for Dummies” having the “Put a Man on the Posts” chapter missing as it did to centre-back Shane Duffy’s aerial prowess. And Duffy owed Ireland, having been so badly positioned for Bulgaria’s 56th-minute goal as to be out of half the camera angles of ludicrously-coiffured Bozidhar Kraev’s neat nutmeg of keeper Darren Rudolph. Celtic fans, delighted by the previous day’s news of Duffy’s loan move to their defence, probably had Marvin Compper flashbacks (look him up, if you dare) when that went in.
It didn’t feel like an awful Ireland performance. But only because that bar has been set so low over do many years. There was an encouraging number of English Premier League (EPL) regulars on the pitch (rather than the EPL ‘squad members’ of recent Ireland selections, many with more international than EPL minutes under their proverbial belts). Matt Doherty. Enda Stevens. John Egan. Jeff Hendrick. Conor Hourihane. James McCarthy. Even Duffy appeared 20 times for Brighton. And the genuinely international-class Seamus Coleman was on the bench.
Yet the sum of their parts they were not. Striker Aaron Connolly ran lanes through Spurs on his first EPL start last October, scoring twice. But he’s only netted once for them since. And in Sofia, he was a willing runner but never looked like scoring, even when clean-ish through on 13 minutes. Fellow front-man Adam Idah’s first Norwich City goals were last January’s FA Cup hat-trick at Preston. But he hasn’t scored for them since. And in Sofia, he was an equally willing, but largely ineffective, runner.
The midfield created little…even Connolly’s chance was from a Bulgarian mistake. And while the defence had less to do than in most Ireland away draws, they did even less on the goal. They deserved the draw. But Bulgaria had a home Euro play-off against Hungary rather than Nations League glory on their minds. A game to be filed under “when was that?”
If only the Finland game could have been so forgettable, rather than filed under “unforgettably bad.” Much was made on Sky of Finland having never beaten Ireland before, including a 1-1 draw in which Finland boss Markku Kanerva played, which Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne revealed, was “Liam Brady’s testimonial.” No disrespect to 1990-Finland (well, maybe a bit). But that encapsulated the ignominious end to Brady’s Ireland career.
However, this history was irrelevant. The current Finns are better than many predecessor sides. They have already reached next year’s Euros, their first-ever such qualification (although they’d surely have qualified for 24-team finals). It wasn’t the strongest group by a stretch. But they finished just two points behind Italy and four and five ahead of Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the latter due to play Northern Ireland, with the winners meeting the Bratislava winners in the Euros play-off final.
Alas, Ireland made Finland look rather better than that. And if Norwich striker Teemu Pukki had shown his Euro 2020 form (ten goals in ten games) rather than his 2020 EPL form (two goals, penalties both, in 18), Finland could have won in Dublin by the sort of comfortable margin with which they despatched Euro group lower-seeds Armenia and Liechtenstein.
Phil Babb’s face at half-time in the Sky studio said everything about an Irish first half which was lower-key than John O’Shea’s semi-whispered monotone co-commentary. Just as well, really, as my telly lost sound for a bit, possibly rendered speechless by what had just been on it. The half’s one clear chance fell to Pukki. It was a near-twin of Kraev’s chance in Sofia, as the voices inside Duffy’s head told him to play a one-man offside trap while watching Celtic fans started crying. But Pukki shot straight at Ireland keeper Darren Randolph..
Ireland improved after half-time. But they’d have had to defy the laws of physics not to. And most of their chances came from Finland’s ill-constructed efforts to play out from the back, sub David McGoldrick failing to get a shot away when presented with the best of them, which encapsulated SO much. Meanwhile, Finnish sub Fredrik Jensen had more successful touches of the ball in his first 25 seconds than Idah had in the 63 minutes to that point, the last sliding Robert Taylor’s cross into the net. And 11 of those seconds were spent waiting to receive a throw-in.
Irish sub Callum Robinson brought a Peter Schmeichel-esque save from Finn keeper Lukas Hradecky. But the taped crowd noise for most of Ireland’s efforts seemed ironic. And Rudolph made one outstanding save to keep Ireland in vague contention. A late flurry, driven by sub James McClean running about, sometimes with the ball, gave the match stats the look of a more even game than it was (in fact, on reflection, the second half wasn’t terrible). But the liveliest Irish-named player was Finnish defender Daniel O’Shaughnessy. A cosmopolitanly-named bunch, these Finns.
Much was made of Mick McCarthy’s torrid/horrid start to his first Ireland managerial tenure, often by McCarthy himself on Sky, to his credit. Much was also made of the fact that Kenny would be the first Ireland boss since then to lose on his debut, until Duffy and Bulgaria’s unguarded posts intervened. As it was, Kenny was the first to lose his home debut. So the point, that things improved considerably for McCarthy, remained timely.
After McCarthy’s early setbacks, he suggested that if he was half as successful as his predecessor, a certain Jack Charlton, he’d be happy. “Long way to go yet, then,” sneered the critics. Yet despite my critical sneering here, I’m sure Kenny will improve similarly. He is undoubtedly the right appointment and what finally got him the job, his admirable spell as Ireland under-21 supremo, will stand to him if and when those under-21s become part of the senior squad establishment.
His gameplan may have failed last week. Ireland teams since Italian ‘pragmatist’ Giovanni Trapattoni first sat in the green hot seat were as hard to watch as they were to beat. But at least they WERE hard to beat. Mostly. But… but at least there IS a game plan. Hence Ireland’s football media largely being “its early days.” Kenny was a popular appointment and recently enough for the media to appear hypocritical were they to get on his back now AND Kenny’s club and country managerial career to date suggests that this game plan can work.
Long way to go yet, though. And, with the Slovakia game three-and-a-bit weeks away, not a long time to get there.