When one looks up the word ‘dystopia’ in the dictionary, the definition they will find is “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.”
Judging by the reaction of many fans and pundits alike, one would easily be forgiven for thinking that this is where Irish football appears to be heading towards. Five games into the Stephen Kenny era and it is fair to say that we have already learned a lot about the future vision of Irish football. Like many aspects of life which have changed this year however, it is uncertain of whether or not we will get there.
What is most concerning however is it appears that many so-called Irish football fans are not too enamoured by the future judging by their present actions. It has been a long-held opinion of a small but dedicated group of football journalists in this country that the “best fans in the world” tag is not quite fitting for this nation. Many fans and indeed pundits such as Johnny Giles appear to be opposed to what Kenny is trying to do. Giles has claimed that “we’re not going anywhere” while Eoin Hand believes that it is “ too much risk with too little reward” despite the fact Ireland have only conceded 2 goals in 5 games and have looked progressively more coherent the more they play.
This is nothing new of course. It is well documented that Irish sports fans in general love the big occasions regardless of what sport it is or one’s knowledge of it. We were all cricket fans in 2007 when Ireland beat Pakistan in the world cup on St. Patrick’s Day. We all donned the green jersey just a couple of weeks ago as Sam Bennett won on the Champs- Élysées but how many know that he is riding in the Vuelta a España at present? While it is great that we are supporting our athletes, where are we when they are competing in regular events when the going is a little less glamorous?
Irish football fans have critics also, most of whom are silenced when the team qualifies for major tournaments. Everyone fell in love with the boys in green at Euro 2016 when videos emerged of fans cleaning streets, fixing cars and singing The Fields of Athenry on our way to a Last 16 exit to France. Yet still, how many of those very same fans go to League of Ireland games on even a sporadic basis? How many attend Irish matches when the Aviva is regularly half empty? This is not meant to be an attack on Irish football fans but rather asking the questions that need to be asked in order to propel Irish football into a bright new era which is very possible with the current manager in charge.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the current divide is the most famous phrase in Irish football, the “we don’t have the players” argument. It is an inferiority complex that has held Irish football back in the past leading to incidents such as Saipan and must be banished with the past. Firstly, out of Stephen Kenny’s full-strength squad before Covid-19 played its havoc; 17 out of the 23 players play in the Premier League while new captain Shane Duffy will be playing in the Europa League with Celtic on loan from Brighton until the end of the season while Idah played with Norwich in the top tier last season.
At Dundalk, Kenny’s team managed to play an attractive style of football in Europe to great aplomb which saw them reach the play- off round of the Champions League in and the Europa League group stages 2016/17 where they picked up four points in their group. Surely the skill gap between Dundalk and the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg is wider than that of Ireland and Wales for example? Kenny has also shown his ability to be flexible with any system he chooses to use and will not be as stubborn as his predecessors to change personnel.
Speaking of which, for the first time in recent memory there are exciting young players ready to take the new era by storm with young, hungry players such as Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly and Jason Molumby all coming through and making an impact in starting 11 and have graduated from the under- 21s with their manager. 18-year-old striker Troy Parrott is another huge talent who could become a first team regular if he can get a run of games at Millwall and stays injury free. Expect this to become the norm in Irish football as the new philosophy is built on the backbone of a strong development pathway for players to progress through the age groups playing a style of football which is in tandem with the senior team. The most important part of a house is the foundations and Kenny and the young coaches such as Damien Duff must be given time to get the house in order.
What is hugely encouraging about this new ‘house’ is that the whole squad appear to be buying into the new project and have played with an energy and confidence that has not been seen from an Irish team for a long time. An Irish team dominating possession and creating chances even if they have only scored a solitary goal for their efforts so far. Callum O’Dowda, a player who should have a big future under Kenny said that “ I think the gaffer has been brilliant, the attention to detail is something I’ve really noticed, probably the best that I’ve worked under so far in terms of that aspect.”
American novelist Ann Lamott once said that “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.” This is exactly what Stephen Kenny is preaching to Irish football and its followers right now.
It’s a new beginning on and off the pitch with new FAI CEO Johnathan Hill coming in November 1st. Hill has an impressive CV to date with roles such as being the commercial director for Euro 96 and has an extensive sports marketing pedigree. In a statement released by the FAI on October 16th, Hill asserted, “I am truly honoured to be appointed to the role of EO of the FAI and I am greatly looking forward to working with the staff, the wider football community, our commercial stakeholders and the Government moving forward, driving the development of football at every level within Ireland, overseeing the ongoing process of business transformation within the organisation and, of course, facing the challenges that Covid presents for our game.” Words of welcome were issued from the FAI, including from Interim CEO Gary Owens who said he looked forward “to Jonathan’s arrival and to working alongside him during the transition period.” Like Kenny, Hill is trying to change the culture of Irish football and how it views itself. As a result, he will also need time to make this change.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we must take off the rose-tinted glasses in order to see it. Good things come to those who wait.