After the fallout cleared from the not-so-graceful departure of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane from the Republic of Ireland team, attention turned to who shall now take the reins of our national team and attempt to try and restore order to a team devoid of purpose and structure. Speculation began early with Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny as the early frontrunners. The resulting decision by the FAI is definitely an unexpected one: Kenny will be brought in as the Under-21 coach, with McCarthy taking control of the seniors up until the end of the Euro 2020 qualifiers. Following the 2020 qualifiers (And tournament if we qualify), Kenny will then assume command of the senior team. It is an unprecedented move but appears to favor Kenny and looks to give him a platform to build upon for the future. Kenny should benefit from the transition period as he has time to assess the needs of the team, the players will know well beforehand what is coming and have time to get familiar with Kenny, and as U21 coach, he should have a unique insight into the team selection. McCarthy, of course, has a huge responsibility in coordinating Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualification charge but it looks like Stephen Kenny is the choice to lead the Republic of Ireland into its new age. So, what is it about Kenny that has made the FAI bestow so much faith in him?
Well firstly you have to look at his spectacular successes. We have come to the end of another Irish domestic season with a similar result, Dundalk and Cork City playing out an enthralling battle over 8 months with the Lilywhites edging it. With all the negativity surrounding the league in recent years due to clubs having financial troubles and low attendances, there has been one huge shining light and it comes in the form of the man above. Stephen Kenny is arguably the most decorated LOI manager in history now winning his second double with Dundalk and a 4th league title in 5 seasons. This is quite an incredible achievement considering the club was on the brink of relegation to the First Division the season before he took over after a disappointing spell at Shamrock Rovers. With the Republic of Ireland vacancy arising again, I and many others in the media and pundits alike, agree that Kenny may be the man to drag Irish football from the doldrums just like he has done with Dundalk. There are three main reasons that the 47-year-old is worth a punt:
- His attractive footballing philosophy
Kenny is not your typical Irish manager who encourages a pragmatic, safety first approach. Dundalk are renowned for playing attractive football while also maintaining a strong defence which has only conceded 20 goals while scoring 85 in the process. Martin O’ Neil has always been declaring how the players he has are not suited to playing an attractive style of football, yet Kenny has managed to do this with players who many were part time at the start of Kenny’s reign. Indeed, in Europe, Dundalk earned plaudits for sticking to their philosophy which nearly got them out of the Europa League group stages in 2016. Surely the skill gap between Dundalk and Zenit (they topped the group and only beat Dundalk by a single goal) is wider than that of Ireland and Wales? This did not stop the Lilywhites from picking up a win against Maccabi Tel-Aviv and a draw against AZ Alkmaar.
- He has transformed players careers
Kenny has managed to rejuvenate many players careers after their return from England and has also produced Irish internationals. Take Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle for example, these are two players who were terrific for Dundalk until they got called up in 2017. Daryl Horgan has gone on to win 6 caps for the national team. Richie Towell another important player for Kenny left Dundalk in 2015 and has now been included in Martin O’Neil’s provisional squad for the games against Northern Ireland and Denmark. Michael Duffy who was let go by Celtic and Pat Hoban who had a disappointing spell in England with Macclesfield are widely tipped to be the next graduates to international senior level. Pat Hoban broke the scoring record in the LOI with 29 goals this season which is down to the faith shown in him by Kenny. There is no doubt about it, Stephen Kenny has this unique ability to galvanize players who are seen to be inferior, rise above themselves which is an important trait to have for all international managers.
- Michael O’ Neill
This is possibly the strongest argument of them all as Michael O’Neil is the perfect example of what can happen when a LOI manger is given the opportunity an international level. O’Neill took Northern Ireland job in 2012 after a hugely successful stint with Shamrock Rovers who became the first Irish team to reach the group stages of the Europa League. O’Neill has transformed a struggling Northern Ireland team with a small pool of players who are arguably inferior to that of the Republic. Yet they reached the last 16 of the Euros in 2016 and were only controversially defeated by Switzerland in the World Cup play offs last November. Michael O’Neill has shown that a LOI manager is more than capable of taking the reins of national team and making them into a competitive side.
This is a perfect time for the Republic of Ireland to try something different. In Kenny we have one of the most talented managers to have ever come from our domestic game. He will get us playing a more attractive brand of football while also maintaining our solid defence. The FAI have come up with a solution that seems to have pleased everyone, the vast majority of fans were behind Kenny having seen his success first hand, whilst McCarthy advocates pointed towards his experience. The next two years in Irish football could go anywhere but the system that is being introduced now is cause for us all to be hopeful for the future of out national side.