In part two of this opinion piece, Nick provides the perceived pros and cons to the Stephen Kenny era and asks if his tenure was a complete failure, or one that has laid the foundations for the evolution of Irish football.
He developed a golden generation?
Stephen Kenny’s appointment as Ireland under-21 manager certainly heralded a new era for Ireland’s eldest underage team having massively underachieved under the tutelage of Don Givens then Noel King. Kenny began his apprenticeship for the Senior job, expected to deploy a passing style of football and somewhat of a ‘golden generation’ was now available for under-21 duty.
Kenny, to his credit, had his homework done on what was available to him. He had scoured the underage sides and broadened his horizons to a plethora of youngsters getting first team opportunities in the League of Ireland. He even identified a then First Division prospect at UCD Liam Scales as a potential call-up to his youth side.
Kenny’s reign started strongly in European qualification and the Toulon tournament, both competitions featuring a vast bulk of the current senior side. Kenny was happy to select players for the under-21s who were still eligible for younger age grades. Gavin Bazunu are just two examples and many feel that they perhaps benefited from the experience of such a test.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Kenny’s first squad. Naturally, the team was flooded with players who featured in the latter stages of the O’Neill era and the second coming of Mick McCarthy. Kenny had however also named two of his most trusted under-21 internationals. Adam idah and Jayson Molumby, Idah starting his first game against Bulgaria.
Gradually, more and more young players started coming into the senior setup, displacing many veterans in what was very much a transitional period coupled with a time where Kenny’s Ireland squads were constantly depleted with injury and covid. It was the perfect time for these players to come in, especially the fact that so many were getting first team football meaning that essentially, they were really some of the best players available to Kenny.
By the end of 2021, Gavin Bazunu, Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea, Andrew Omobamidele, Jasyson Molumby, Adam Idah and Troy Parrott were all Ireland regulars. All, bar Parrott were given debuts under Kenny. More recently, the likes of Michael Obafemi, and Evan Ferguson have become important players first capped by Kenny and in his last squad, Andy Moran was brought in. A lot of ‘Kenny’s kids’ now have the guts of 20 caps despite some being eligible for last summer under-21 European Championships.
Capping these players was certainly admirable by Kenny and the fact that managers for years to come will have such experience will be invaluable. However, it is hard not to see how any manager in charge would have picked these players. Ireland has one of its most limited player pools in decades and the reality is, the youngsters that were capped were arguably some of our best available players and all had considerable first team experience prior to their senior international debuts.
Internationally, these players had been well immersed and thought of within the Irish underage systems before Kenny came along where the likes of Colin O’Brien, Tom Mohan and former FAI performance director Ruud Dokter must take a huge amount of credit for the international experience these players had experienced. Ultimately, in terms of development, even more credit has to go to some of the schoolboy teams in the country such as St.Kevins, Belvedere and Shamrock Rovers just to name a few for producing such talent that has gone on to play first team football and subsequently senior international football at such a young age.
The players clubs must also take credit with a huge bulk of Irish teenagers making Premier League debuts over the last several years, something many thought was a thing of the past. The schoolboy teams, clubs and work ethic of the players themselves are what got them senior international caps and this combination put them in a position where they were the best options available to Stephen Kenny at the time.
Kenny capped them yes, but the alternative was dipping into the lower leagues in England and perhaps the league of Irelands. In the latter stages of his reign, Kenny actually did more damage to his ‘youth promotion’ philosophy than anything. In last years dour friendly against Malta, he went for the tried and tested rather than using the game as a chance to see some new talent. Liam Scales was brough and didn’t get a minute in a nothing friendly. A year later, his Champions league starts under Brendan Rogers, prompted Kenny to recall him to the squad and throw him straight in for his debut against Greece, albeit out of position.
Recently, recalling the likes of Shane Duffy and Enda Stevens, even James McClean who had announced his retirement has gone against what he will claim the legacy of his tenure to be. Although he capped these youngsters, he hasn’t exactly gotten the best out of them or any type of consistency. Evan Ferguson is perhaps the prime example. A plyer that the Ireland team should be built around is racking up caps in a system that provides him with very little service. For all the praise he receives, Gavin Bazunu has been inconsistent and Ireland’s most expensive player Nathan Collins was dropped for Shane Dufy in the last window.
Kenny certainly gave youngsters a chance but certainly didn’t create the pathway, nor did he enhance their game at international level. It will still be considered the glowing aspect of his time with Ireland but when the flesh is stripped back to the bare bones, he did the minimal of what any manager worth their salt would do in his situation.
Nick, The Green Machíne Podcast