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Monday, December 4, 2023

Stephen Kenny divided us and brought us together

Of course it is. Stephen Kenny will be clearing out his desk in the next few days. His three-year innings as Ireland gaffer up, run out by lack of results. This is, to misquote Lloyd Cole, his last weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam. Although even Kenny’s sourest critics might be getting cold feet with every new list of bookies’ favourites to replace him.

Still, results or not, we’d do it all over again, wouldn’t we? He hadn’t the oratorical flourish of a Billy Graham, but we needed Stephen Kenny’s evangelism, his positivity, his conviction that we were exceptional at times against Armenia. 

We needed Steo to keep track of every unbeaten run, every possession stat that showed us in a favourable light. Who else was going to do it for us?

He wore, to go back to misquoting Coley, his heart on his sleeve like a stain. He promised us the sun, moon and new stars. He might have come up short on delivery but he gave us the likes of Chiedozie Ogbene and we definitely needed him.

There was even something neat about the failings, the way they were packaged tidily, our downfalls coming in patterns and memes. Conceding off every shot from downtown, conceding before we’d returned to our seats, losing a coach every few weeks.

In the end, he even gave us fresh appreciation for plainer experiences, had some people pleading for the rare exotic treat of knocking it into the mixer onto Shane Duffy’s head.

Go even further and look at this a different way. If the FAI could wipe all our minds right now, and God knows this is a superpower the FAI could use, would they appoint Kenny all over again? Would they happily live this three-year rollercoaster of hope and disappointment and reprieve and despair and eventually ennui? 

Wasn’t it as good a way as any to live? Blooding youngsters. Keeping the ball. Promises. Big crowds. Uncommon tolerance for a lack of results. And a nice little culture war bubbling away to distract from the association’s more fundamental failings.

All the reign lacked were those results and the high of a major tournament. A rush we’d probably come down heavily from anyway.

Maybe qualification would have attracted a sponsor, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the FAI is still too toxic for that. Maybe Irish football hasn’t benefited from the trickle-down economics of qualification, but would it be right to give Stephen Kenny some credit for the trickle-down positivity that seems to be washing around the game here? Even if he just helped whet appetites for going to a match.

In the ongoing efforts to explain the record crowd at last week’s FAI Cup final, most of the credit has rightly gone to work on the ground. To the building of bases. Bohemians membership secretary Dave Rothwell has talked about how the club’s activism and work in the community has helped foster a sense of belonging.

“People are buying into the values as opposed to results,” he says.

Underfire Bohs manager Declan Devine will assure you it’s still a results business and we have typically left values to the rugby lads. But hasn’t there been some intangible growth in the self-esteem of Irish football? And surely Kenny did his bit to fortify that, maybe even sowed more seeds of self-confidence that someone else can harvest.

Could it be that Ireland too needed to build something that would stand independent of results? Might it have been three years well spent even if all we worked on were values? 

We hear now that ‘the experiment is over’, that we ought to empty the test tubes, and knock the ball into the channels. But would it be wise to rush in another direction and strip it all down again?

Watch Ireland’s underage teams or any decent grassroots team in the country and it’s obvious the way Stephen Kenny wanted Ireland to play wasn’t pie-in-the-sky fantasy but pretty standard optimism. But as the rugby lads also tend to say, he just didn’t execute.

So of course it’s over now. Results keep the heating on for values. No doubt there are still a million obstacles Irish football faces. The FAI’s payroll intrigue looms large. The grassroots is still not BFFs with the League of Ireland. How can the passion in Cork not produce a powerhouse? Our international ranking, to misquote Paul Merson this time, is sliding down a glass mountain with slippers on.

We are hardly yet a harmonious football family, but might we be a slightly tighter one? Values won’t take us to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, but they’re not bad stepping stones towards other dreams, such as a sustainable football industry and a sensible ladder that talent can climb.

Alright, an apparition like Even Ferguson seems a freakish miracle. 

And perhaps it’s just our scaled-down view of things, but Ogbene’s trip from Tramore Athletic to Cork City to Limerick to the Premier League now doesn’t seem so distant. Or Liam Scales’ from Arklow Town to UCD to the Champions League. We can’t give Stephen Kenny much of the credit for that, but we can spare a little.

The night after disappointment at the Aviva against Greece, two Ireland internationals stood happily with friends watching a Munster Senior League match and it just sort of made sense. 

These days, grassroots clubs sometimes, not always, celebrate proudly, instead of cursing their misfortune, when one of their own makes the step to the League of Ireland. 

Irish football’s grandfather, John Giles, has been watching Shamrock Rovers matches and giving Stephen Bradley debriefs and that seems perfect. The rise of the women — that was a results business — has expanded the family.

And as much as he divided opinion, surely a man on the touchline who has kicked every ball everywhere on this island played some part in drawing us together.

Keep VAR, axe the ref? 

Uefa have been promising the women VAR this week, after Chelsea suffered some comical injustices against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Another open goal for equality missed — just take if off the men instead. 

If VAR was a manager now, it would need a big performance next time out. It would already have received the dreaded vote of confidence.

But there is no going back of course. As much as you were warned about it here, this page has made peace.

You even get the impression there are fellas milking it a small bit now.  Who can’t watch football any more because of VAR. A lot of these are the characters who couldn’t watch it because of the wages, after Manchester United stopped winning. 

I know some still bemoan an inability to properly celebrate a goal, but to those of us with a glass half full, that works both ways too. Haven’t you come to sneakily enjoy that little moment after conceding where you can hope for a reprieve? Where minds turn towards the bunker for salvation.

Still, there is change needed for sure. The guys who can see everything in the bunker seem to be paralysed, at times, in case they cause offence to the man in the middle who has half seen things. They seem to be over-considerate to his feelings, this old pal in the middle, seem reluctant to adjudicate that he has made a clear mistake. Or even an obvious mistake. 

There seems to be one easy solution to that one. Keep the VAR and lose the ref. 


The Underdogs: Barbara O’Connell of these parts is star of the show so far. And TG4’s entertaining women’s football season of the popular series highlights sections of the football family not often in the spotlight.


Everton: The first of the guilty parties. Were the Toffees not able to take it to the corner flag with the legal timewasting? Or might this be the perfect season to take a 10-point penalty on the chin?

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