Ireland: Oh My God, Have Luxembourg Killed Kenny?
After Ireland lost to Serbia in Belgrade last Wednesday, I drafted the following opening paragraph to this article, assuming that no events in their home game against Luxembourg would overtake ending a 678-minute goal drought with two in a game: “Like London buses, Ireland can’t defend crosses…no…wait… Well…yes. But I meant that like London buses, no Ireland goals come for ages then two arrive at once. So, there will BE a 2021 Ireland goal-of-the-year competition, unlike 2020.”
Worse, I added: “Manager Stephen Kenny’s Ireland have at least looked like a proper international team this week, albeit not always a good one.” Those last six words betrayed my fear that Ireland would huff-and-puff to an unconvincing win over Luxembourg. Before Serbia, Ireland’s last two-goal ‘haul’ was at home to Gibraltar, in June 2019, a 29th-minute own goal and a 93rd-minute Robbie Brady header. I was ready for similar struggles on Saturday. Luxembourg are better than Gibraltar. But Kenny’s Ireland would be better than Mick McCarthy’s Ireland. So, I wasn’t ready for…THAT.
Even if Ireland’s goal drought went beyond Belgrade, it was expected to end against Luxembourg. After all, when did Ireland fail to score against a three-figure-ranked team beginning with “L”? OK, 3rd June 1995, 0-0 in Liechtenstein in a Euro ’96 qualifier. But that was a freak. Forty attempts on goal…and Ireland won 5-0 there 15 months later in a World Cup qualifier. Luxembourg have always been better than ‘the Liechtensteins’ of football, though. And their current world ranking of 98 demonstrates how misleading those rankings are. Everyone relevant was ready for an improved Luxembourg. But no-one was ready for…THAT.
Ireland are effectively out of the 2022 World Cup. “We’re not going. That’s decided,” RTE pundit Richard Sadler declared after the match. The advance order of Factor 50 sunscreen by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) can be cancelled, if the €70m-in-debt association can afford the cancellation fee, because no Boys in Green (bar Mexico and maybe yet Northern Ireland) are going to Qatar next November, unless Kenny can resurrect the dead (topical Easter joke, there). If, that is, Kenny gets the chance, an “if” the size of the Wicklow mountains after…THAT.
Luxembourg not only won in Dublin on Saturday but were the better team almost throughout. The perceived wisdom was that Ireland should start fast, get on the front foot and stay there. Instead, they started slow, got caught in the crease and stayed there. And Gerson Rodrigues’s 85th-minute goal was worthy of winning a higher quality game, a 25-yarder right into the inside of the side-netting, beating debutant Ireland keeper Gavin Bazunu ‘all ends up.’
The cliché “take nothing away from” the opposition usually pops up here. But Ireland’s dysfunction took plenty away from Luxembourg. Bazunu was one of few non-abysmal Irish players. And another, captain Seamus Coleman, saved some of his best form for aborting his storm off the pitch at the final whistle in order to seek out Rodrigues and congratulate him. Oh for such class DURING the game.
Bazunu wasn’t just the busier keeper early on, he was the only keeper with any work to do, as Luxembourg passed and moved the ball better than Ireland, i.e. at all. It wasn’t until the 18th minute that the supposed minnows offered up the space in midfield that minnows are supposed to offer against ‘proper’ teams.
This led to a sitter for striker James Collins. But from five yards, Collins hit unsuspecting Luxembourg keeper Antony Moris. The chance wasn’t replayed from behind-the-goal which offered the perfect camera shot of Rodrigues’ winner, suggesting that Ireland’s only first-half shot on target might not have been on-target at all.
And that was it for Ireland until half-time. Playing into a strong wind should only make a difference in in non-league, or Gaelic, football. But the wind, like Luxembourg in almost all 50-50 tackles, was too strong for them. They were gusted into anonymity, while Marvin Martins got enough namechecks to leave the phrase “marvellous Marvin Martins” in my head for some hours. And Rodrigues brought a fine 42nd-minute save from Bazunu, with a wind-assisted 30-yard lob which a back-pedalling custodian acrobatically palmed away from under the bar.
Half-time sub Robbie Brady upped Ireland’s experience and, briefly, quality. But the unmarked Alan Browne impostor in their no.8 shirt headed a Brady cross wide from eight yards on 55 minutes (such a bad miss that it wasn’t in the FAI’s official highlights clip). And Luxembourg had nearly led on 48 minutes when Oliver Thill’s free-kick nearly caught Bazunu out at his near post. Then, on the hour, Oliver’s brother Vincent tiptoed through the tulips of an Irish defence resembling actors in their second rehearsal for “The Keystone Cops on Ice,” having attended the first rehearsal via Zoom, with Bazunu star-jumping to the rescue.
Ireland fashioned some half-chances which, against quality opposition, would have had the pundits purring. Alas, they looked more impressive in Sky’s post-match highlights reel than they felt in real time. No-one looked like scoring, whatever the quality of the set-up. Collins’ speculative overhead kick was not far wide, But, otherwise, if he was the answer, the question should have been rhetorical.
And there was no coming back after Rodrigues leapt on an attempted tackle by an over-stretched Josh Cullen and fired home despite the close proximity of three, let’s say, defenders. “Oh no!!” screamed Sky Sports commentator Rob Hawthorne, the enormity of the impending shock result momentarily dismantling his impartiality. It was Luxembourg’s sixth-EVER World Cup qualifying victory, in 135 games going back to 1934. Oh no, indeed.
As they were on the pitch, Bazunu and Coleman were impressive post-match interviewees, Coleman breaking the world brow-furrowing record as he lambasted the team for failing to “show pride in the shirt” and the senior players (“we”) for “having Gavin’s debut tainted like that.” Bazunu himself sounded mature beyond his years, already ready for a media punditry career. True, “I’m not really sure” was his answer to most questions. But who could blame him for such uncertainty? As Coleman said many times, there were “no words” for…THAT.
Thus, all the post-Serbia optimism evaporated, even if some of it was over-stated. Between games, the Serbia display improved immeasurably. In Saturday’s pre-match interview, Kenny claimed that Ireland were brilliant in Belgrade, which hinted at a career as a revisionist history teacher if the football doesn’t work out. But you couldn’t have asked for much more after their qualifiers’ build-up. Added to the injuries which have impacted most national set-ups in this truncated club season, Ireland lost assistant coach Damien Duff and goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly in early January.
Both departures were media-linked to the FAI’s handling of the fabricated furore over a motivational video shown to the team before their 3-0 trimming by an ‘experimental’ England XI at Wembley last November. But no formal reason was given for Duff’s departure, nine months after he left Celtic, where he was first-team coach for 18 months. And Kelly felt the “time” was “right” to go, “with Covid-19 still viciously circulating in our communities,” having left the camp before the Uefa Nations League relegation six-pointer with Bulgaria, six days after Wembley.
To adapt the old joke, if Ireland had wanted directions to Qatar, they’d have been told “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” So their start in Belgrade was a particularly pleasant surprise. And at 8.03 (of course I checked), Browne nodded Ireland ahead, Ireland’s first goal in 678 minutes. But the rest of my forecast reaction, manic laughter mainly, didn’t emerge. There was an other-worldliness to the goal, Serbia’s back-line almost visibly wondering “are we really here?” as Callum Robinson’s clipped cross floated pinged off Browne’s head past Serbian keeper Marko Dmitrovic.
The custodian dived short of the header almost as if he’d been slipped a few dinars to so do (Dmitrovic played five Championship games for Charlton in 2015, so he’d never do that). “The scrambling Serbian stopper,” BBC Sport’s Matt Gault euphemised in his website match report. And Ireland popped the ball around like they knew what they were doing…and why. Apart from Dusans duo, Tadic and Vlahovic, Serbia were timid. Until Vlahovic converted Tadic’s40th-minute flick-on, a standard move which looked odd, as it originated in the central midfield area rather than from a setpiece.
Ireland’s approximately 17th-choice keeper Mark Travers, Sky co-commentator Matt Holland told us every 84 seconds, was “well-protected” until then. And he coped OK when that well-protection nipped off for half-time a few minutes early. He had looked nervous, however. And this would ultimately matter, though not before the lack of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) came starkly into focus, as early second-half penalty appeals at either end left Italian referee Davide Massa unconvinced.
Busybee Brighton striker Aaron Connolly “fell under” Stefan Mitrovic’s 51st-minute challenge. But Massa gave a corner, believing that Mitrovic got the toe-end of his cranefly-esque right leg to the ball (the post masking the incident from what would have been the VAR’s best camera angle). Four minutes later Coleman undeniably upended Vlahovic, though he equally undeniably slipped as he approached the “Fiorentina forward” (Gault succumbing to his alliterative instincts again).
But Serbia were worth their 68th-minute lead via 63rd-minute sub Aleksandr Mitrovic’s exquisite 25-yard chip. There’s probably a suitable golf analogy for his shot, likely involving ‘wedge,’ but I’m proudly golf-illiterate, so “exquisite, it is. It was, nonetheless, a frustrating goal to concede, as TV pictures exposed the ill-advisability of Travers’ rush towards the 18-yard line and his belated retreat. This didn’t make Mitrovic’s task simple, his goal still left Fulham fans wondering why he “can’t/doesn’t do that for us.” But it made him decisive when decisiveness was required.
Seven minutes later, Mitrovic headed Tadic’s cross between Travers’ flailing arms and the final score looked set to embarrass Ireland. Indeed, a better team than Serbia might have embarrassed them. But clown-car defending let Collins score a second Irish goal (a concept last seen in November 2019), when Stefan Mitrovic’s 86th-minute header back to Dmitrovic fell a yard short and Shane Long nipped in to set Collins up. Indeed, a better team than Ireland might have forced a grandstand finish. But…well…y’know.
As the ‘Balls.ie’ Irish sports website tweeted: “the funny thing about that match is how it provided plenty of ammo for both the pro-Kenny and anti-Kenny camps.” They also noted that “the performance versus results dichotomy continues,” possibly not precisely echoing the thoughts of a nation. And definitely not after Saturday, when that dichotomy came to a shocking end.
“Humiliation, toothless, dismal, horrible and embarrassing dominated newspaper headlines. Satirists used international teams’ protests against Qatar’s human rights record to suggest that Ireland were boycotting the World Cup. And one fan tweeted: “This is made all the worse by not being able to have a post-mortem over a pint, followed by more pints.” While another cited a certain John Delaney of the FAI: “Irish football was allowed to wither on the vine under a celebrity CEO and this is the result.”
There was also much thoughtful TV analysis. But Roy Keane spoke too. During ITV’s Albania/England coverage, he suggested that “when your best player is a full-back, it’s not a good sign,” which probably didn’t delight match co-commentator, Lee Dixon, ex-England…full-back. Keane even lost the “most Cork-accented perspective” award to Virgin Media Sport’s Damien Delaney, who noted that “What we are trying to do is right but we got it horribly wrong tonight”.
In contrast, Sky’s incomprehensively tartan-clad Phil Babb offered some disturbing hints that Ireland should revert to a long-ball game. But he asked a very pertinent question: “Robbie Keane…why isn’t he involved?” Because Keane could probably still nab a place in the goal-shy squad. AND he is on the FAI payroll, on half-a-million euro a year, after signing a four-year deal in 2018 to join Mick McCarthy’s coaching line-up and failing to agree a pay-off when Kenny chose not to retain him. No…really.
The calls for Kenny’s departure have understandably increased in number and volume. But adjacent calls for a complete overhaul of Ireland’s set-up overlook the fact that Kenny was appointed for just that project. And even in the brief post-Serbia glow, there were concerns about the age profile of the best players available to him, with players in their early 20s or early 30s and little else. Balls.ie’s Gary Connaughton wrote on Friday: “Like many things (Kenny) is trying to fix, this will take time (but) at least we are moving in the right direction.” A good point, which has not aged well.
I write before Ireland’s friendly against Qatar in Debrecen, Hungary, because that ludicrous game is designed solely to help Qatar be competitive in a World Cup for which they bought qualification. But whatever the result, Kenny dare not still be winless after Ireland play Andorra in a June friendly in Spain.
I believe he should be afforded the full qualification campaign to develop ‘his’ Ireland. Such patience, after all, served Luxembourg well. But that’s understandably an increasingly minority view. Because there’s no denying it. Despite the old cliché about there being “no easy games in international football,” there are plenty. And, on Saturday, Ireland looked like one of them.