In this two part opinion piece, Nick unpacks the perceived pros and cons of the Stephen Kenny era and asks if Stephen Kenny’s tenure was a complete disaster, or one that will provide the foundation for Irish football to evolve
He changed the style of football?
Kenny took charge after a stop gap term served by Mick McCarthy in which the style of football was functional and subsequently bland. McCarthy got fans excited by suggesting he would encourage a similar style of football that was seen by his 2000-2002 side. Many forgot the lack of calibre available in comparison to that fruitful time and McCarthy navigated a lacklustre Ireland to a play-off that they were already assured.
This made Stephen Kenny’s appointment an exciting one having maximised a Dundalk side to play a high energy style of football on the European circuit. His under-21 side which was stacked with talent, displayed a fluid passing game and an adaptability. Each player seemed to know their role and the philosophy the manager wanted translated on the pitch.
Fast forward to Kenny’s planned promotion to the senior role and early on, even football fans with the most basic of tactical awareness would have seen an evidential change in the style of football. A move progressive passing game and far more chances created compared to McCarthy’s second reign where the team was sometimes averaging one or two shots on target per game.
Ireland struggled for goals, failing to score in 7 straight games in 2020. The style was prettier on the eye but even McCarthy’s sides were eventually find the net. Anthony Barry’s appointment coincided with Ireland breaking their duck. A switch to a 3-4-3 formation coupled with Kenny’s encouragement to pass the ball saw better possession stats and with that, the goals came, albeit, without results.
The football looked better but an 11 game winless run also unearthed serious flaws to Kenny’s side that was perhaps excused somewhat because Ireland were attempting a possession based game that fans had been starved of. Ireland’s end product was poor and also Kenny’s rigidness began to develop. An over loyalty to players who were not performing and reluctance to change became evidential.
A glaring issue was the midfield which admittedly was limited pool wise but not utilised correctly. Dan McDonnell of the Irish Independent pointed out on Social Media that an obvious problem in Ireland’s Nations League home loss to Ukraine was the space afforded the opposition by Kenny’s deployment of a flat midfield two which had been a feature of Kenny’s line-ups for several games.
In the following game, Kenny switched to a balanced midfield three and Ireland survived some early Scottish turbulence to run out 3-0 winners. Perhaps, the high point of the Kenny era. Barry was out of the picture at this stage but Kenny seemed to hang on his ideology which no doubt would have been altered if her remained with Ireland, something Kenny failed to recognise himself.
Even recently, a switch to a back four against Greece came far too late. This side had been playing the same rigid system for the guts of two years without any opportunity to experience a plan B that was really only unlocked in the second half against Gibraltar at home. What many had perceived as positive ‘Kenny ball’ was actually a pigeon holed approach making it easy for opposition coaches given the predictability of how Ireland would play.
What really was the nail on the coffin was Kenny’s team selections, particularly towards the latter end of his reign. Kenny would play players out of position or in positions where their quality could not be maximised. This already set Ireland up on the backfoot and was always going to make a positive style of football difficult to execute. The recent home game against Greece epitomised this when four of the starting XI were played in positions that they would not usually feature in at club level.
Stephen Kenny changed the style of football but it was certainly nothing revolutionary and nothing any modern day football isn’t capable of. Even some of Europe’s lower ranked nations have played a passing style of football for years now. Kenny’s Ireland passed it around for the sake of passing around with very little purpose. Kenny also limited the style through his over loyalty to inconsistent players, some who actually weren’t capable of playing the style he strived for. It is hard not to feel that any contemporary manager worth their salt would have encouraged a passing game, but perhaps may have gotten more out of the players.
At international level and when working in such short windows, managers need to maximise their resources, especially if those resources are limited. Kenny made things seem elaborate and revolutionary and so many bought into it. In reality, they were basic, dated, rigid and ultimately, proved contrary. This Ireland team has the spine of a side that can play a contemporary brand of football but too many were fooled into thinking Kenny got the ball rolling.
Nick, The Green Machíne Podcast