World Cup should be an extreme eye opener for Stephen Kenny who can learn a lot from two teams in particular
The usual football withdrawals that occur after a World Cup have been quickly quashed with the swift return of the club game but the itch for Ireland lingered throughout.
As an Irish fan, the finals are usually a lonely time and have been for the last 20 years. They tend to follow the same pattern, pin your support to one team, hope to God England don’t bring it home and wonder how Ireland would have fared.
Despite being on the cusp of Russia 2018, Ireland’s rigidness and what would have been an injury crisis during that summer tournament seemed like a potential disaster averted despite the excitement a World Cup trip would have brought. However, Qatar 2022 would have been a downright nightmare.
In reality, Stephen Kenny’s charges were a few moments away from big results against Serbia and Portugal. Mark Travers’s calamity in Belgrade, Ronaldo coming up with the goods after stoppage time in Faro, Andrew Omobamidele’s wonder strike nearly hitting the top corner in the return game against the Serbs and Will Keane’s questionable disallowed goal when the Portuguese came to Dublin all worth mentioning.
However, there is no getting away from the home disasters against Luxembourg and Azerbijan. We celebrated away victories against these sides like we had qualified for a World Cup, but many would worry about how we would have fared even against those considered ‘minnow’ teams who are now learning how to adapt.
Saudi Arabia caused an early shock against the eventual World Champions Argentina with their technical ability and comfort on the ball evidential despite no household names to the global fan. South Korea and Japan also found a way out of the group stage against the odds while even some of the tournaments poorer placed sides such as Canada, Serbia and Iran all played expansive brands of football.
Stephen Kenny can learn from all of these sides given their preference of using technically gifted players. Irish sides in the past have gone for grit over technique, perhaps out of fear or a lack of belief, most notably under Giovanni Trappatoni and then Martin O’Neill. Although Kenny has tried to be contemporary, this has crept in at times during his tenure.
For example, as impressive as he has been, Jayson Molumby’s bite, energy and typical Irish football smash bang approach may get the crowds going but Will Smallbone’s creativity and composure may serve Ireland better if they are to stay up to date with the international game. Molumby is key to how Ireland play, but how Ireland play, judging by the World Cup, is becoming a little redundant.
There are two sides Ireland could learn a lot from who performed well at the finals and both for different reasons, Australia and Morocco. On paper, Ireland’s squad does look stronger than the Aussies who boast a number of SPL players, several second tier players from around Europe and a clatter of A-League players (Where Andy Keogh and Roy O’Donovan ran riot).
However, they utilsed their technical players such as Aaron Mooy and Riley McGree, played a balanced side and deployed a controlled yet functional game lead by veteran coach Graham Arnold and Sir Alex Ferguson’s former right-hand man Rene Meulensteen. Guus Hiddink also linked up with the backroom team prior to the tournament and most likely gave some valuable input.
There was an evidential bond in the group which was seen after their huddled debriefs after each game, in particular when injured Hibs winger Martin Boyle was included in them whilst hobbling around on his crutches.
Arnold also fully stretched his player pool, using nearly triple the amount of players called up by Stephen Kenny in 2022 to create competition for places and assess as many options as possible.
In terms of learning from Morocco, you could say that they learned from Jack Charlton’s Ireland. A staggering 88.5% of their squad was born outside of Morocco and could have represented the likes of Holland, Germany, Spain and France. Despite this figure, all were proudly wearing the Morrocan shirt as they became the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final, defeating some powerhouses along the way.
Irish views of the ‘Granny Rule’ have been hurt with the wound still gaping wide open following the Declan Rice and Jack Grealish horror stories. However, many European countries are making the most of the eligibility rules to make their sides more competitive.
Wales who have an excellent production line emerging from within the country, couple this by approaching players as young as 14 to get immersed in their system. 84.5% of their squad was born outside Wales but still belted out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau with utter pride.
Ireland have their thinest player pool in decades but have a plethora of youngsters playing or on the cusp of first team football which is also something not seen for an age. This shows that we, like the Welsh can produce our own and enhance our depth with eligible players concurrently.
By getting more aggressive like other countries in recruiting players, Stephen Kenny will increase his limited player pool, improve competition for places and in the process and could uncover a gem in the process.
Many Irish fans may not like this approach but forget that it is elite international sport and not a war. For a small country where GAA still rules the roost, Ireland need to maximize the available resources or simply just settle for what we have which is thread bare. If these resources were not explored under Charlton, imagine all the memories that would be wiped from Irish football history. Morocco