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Ireland's Lost Generation: Stephen Kenny Missing Key Ingredient Of Successful Teams

Ireland's Lost Generation: Stephen Kenny Missing Key Ingredient Of Successful Teams
By Gary Connaughton Updated

Green shoots are appearing for Ireland.

It is easy to write off so-called 'progress' as Ireland failed to win yet again in midweek, but a quick look below the surface and you will see that strides forward are being made.

The fixture in Belgrade was arguably Ireland's best performance under Stephen Kenny to date. They played well, with a couple of mistakes and moments of class from the opposition making the difference in the end.

Serbia are a team who are much further along in their development than Ireland. While they may have also failed to qualify for Euro 2020, they have some quality players in the likes of Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and Aleksandar Mitrovic. They are players with a proven track record in Europe's top leagues and in international football.

On the other hand, Ireland's starting XI had five players with less than ten international caps to their name.

There was certainly a mix of youth and experience in that Ireland team, with the likes of Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark having plenty of international appearances under their belt.

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However, there was a somewhat strange dynamic to the side. In Aaron Connolly, Mark Travers, Dara O'Shea, and Jayson Molumby, Ireland had four 21-year olds in the team.

On the other end of the scale, Seamus Coleman, Ciaran Clark, Matt Doherty, and Enda Stevens, are all aged over 29. In fact, Doherty is the only one of that group that has yet to hit his 30s.

The trio of Josh Cullen, Alan Browne, and Callum Robinson were the only ones to fall into the 24-27 age category.

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That is not just down to players being unavailable. If Ireland were to select their strongest 23-man squad, the only players in that age group likely to be included would be the ones mentioned above, as well as Callum O'Dowda and possibly Jack Byrne.

That may not seem like much of an issue, but it is quite often the players in that age group that tend to make the difference at international level. They possess the correct blend of youth and experience, with pace also a key part of success in the modern game.

A quick look back at some of the most recent World Cup winning sides provides proof of this. Four of the last five teams to win the World Cup had nine players aged 24-27 in their squad, with Italy in 2006 the only exception.

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The squad members in their mid 20s also tended to be the key players, often having won 50 or more caps despite their age. For France in 2018, you could look at the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane, and N'Golo Kante.

The England squad that reached the 2018 World Cup semi-final is another example, with 13 of their 23-man squad aged 24-27.

This is the demographic that is currently lacking in the Ireland squad.

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Why is that the case? It seems to be largely down to the lack of a pathway from the underage sides to senior international level.

That is something Stephen Kenny has spoken about on numerous occasions, with one of his main briefs as Ireland manager being to fix this glaring issue.

Consider this: with the exception of Alan Browne, the last Irish players to graduate directly from the underage setup into the senior side were Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, both of whom are now 28-years old.

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That is a remarkable gap of lost potential talents, something a nation of our size cannot allow to happen.

The likes of John Egan and Matt Doherty, two of our most talented players at the minute, were not given the opportunity to impress at international until they reached their last 20s. That was something that confounded Stephen Kenny, who said in his first press conference as Ireland boss in April of last year:

Matt Doherty, for example, is 28 and John Egan is 27. Matt Doherty has two competitive starts for Ireland, and John Egan has two-and-a-half, because he came off at halftime against Denmark.

It's hard to fathom that, because three years ago John Egan went for £4million to Sheffield United from Brentford. In my eyes he was probably ready then to play in the first team.

Over the last couple of decades, the pathway from the Irish underage sides to the senior team simply did not exist.

The U21 side especially was treated as an afterthought. How many Ireland U21 games can you remember off the top of your head from before Kenny took charge? Our guess would be very few.

For example, how many of this U21 squad from 2016 (players who are now in this demographic) have established themselves at international level?

Structures have been put in place to change this. All Ireland teams now employ a uniform style, playing a possession based game in some sort of 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 system.

By using this approach, it allows our players to switch seamlessly through the age groups without needing much time to adjust. As proof of that, three players were named in the squads for both the U17 and U19 European Championships in the summer of 2019.

We can be hopeful that we are now moving in a new direction.

While inexperienced now, the likes of Connolly, Molumby, and O'Shea will hopefully be seasoned international players a few years down the line. That will add a different dynamic to the team as they enter the early stages of their primes.

You would also have to be hopeful that the conveyer belt won't stop there. A couple of players coming through every year is key to keeping the squad fresh, something that has been an issue for Ireland in the past.

Like many things Stephen Kenny is trying to fix, this one will take time. At least we are now moving in the right direction.

SEE ALSO: Here's The Ireland Team We Want To See Against Luxembourg

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