For Those Calling For Stephen Kenny's Head, What's The Alternative?

By Gary Connaughton

In a manner befitting much of their UEFA Nations League campaign, Ireland's game against Armenia perhaps only served to confuse the masses when it comes to judging the progress of this team.

It was a victory, with spells of excellent football capped off by a couple of very good goals. The team featured seven players aged 23 or younger, all of whom have established themselves in the side under the current manager. On paper, a win earned while playing an attractive brand of football should be all that we can ask for.

And yet, many of those who walked away from the Aviva last night would have felt unfulfilled.

It's easy to understand why. Ireland may have won the game, but the manner in which done so has to be concerning. They went from two goals and utterly dominant to being drawn back on level terms in the space of a couple of minutes. What followed was a very nervy ten minutes or so where it looked entirely possible that the team were about to lose the game.

In many ways, it sums up the Stephen Kenny era so far. The obvious bright spots have been countered with equally glaring deficiencies, with the latter often outweighing the former.

Those who have questions about the current manager are correct to do so. Results haven't been good enough, and while there has been progress made with younger players, the same issues seem to keep presenting themselves on the pitch.

The Euro 2024 qualifying campaign will be the real litmus test for Kenny. He will have been in the job for almost three years by then, at which point it is reasonable to expect to see a genuine uptick in results after the process the team has gone through.

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As for those calling for his head now, perhaps a bit of perspective is needed.

Patience and perspective needed when judging Stephen Kenny

It would have been easy for Stephen Kenny to come into the job and continue down the path that Ireland were travelling on.

That was one that involved the use of very conservative tactics, ones that minimised the chances of conceding a goal but also seriously hindered creativity at the other end. It meant selecting the 'old reliable' set of players, one that had plenty of experience on the international stage even if they had often underwhelmed.

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Had Kenny gone that route, you can all but guarantee that he would have a few more victories under his belt at this point. That was the safe option.

He went in an entirely opposite direction, one that was always likely to result in a period of adjustment and leave him more open to scrutiny. It was a long overdue move for Ireland, but one that was not necessarily easy to make.

While there have certainly been growing pains, it's difficult to argue that the future of the team is not now looking brighter because of this change in policy.

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Look at last night's starting team. The likes of Gavin Bazunu, Nathan Collins, Dara O'Shea, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight, Troy Parrott, and Michael Obafemi now look like part of the bedrock of this team. Would any of them have been given a sustained under previous managers?

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That seems doubtful.

Let's compare the most recent Ireland fixtures managed by Stephen Kenny and his predecessor Mick McCarthy as an example.

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As mentioned above, seven of the starting line-up against Armenia were aged 23 or younger. The outliers were John Egan (29), Robbie Brady (30), Matt Doherty (30), and Jeff Hendrick (30). 26-year old Josh Cullen would have started in place of Hendrick had he not been suspended.

Now consider McCarthy's final game in charge, the Euro 2020 qualifier at home to Denmark. The youngest player in the starting line-up on that occasion was Alan Browne, who was 24 at the time. Browne wouldn't have even been in the side were it not for injuries to other players, meaning the youngest player likely would have been 27-years old if everyone was fit.

In other words, seven players from last night's team were younger than the youngest player in the side for McCarthy's final game. That is a remarkable change in philosophy.

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It also featured four players over the age of 30, one of whom was 35-year old Glenn Whelan who had been tempted out of retirement by McCarthy.

Despite being 27-years old, John Egan was making only his third competitive start for Ireland against the Danes. There is every chance he wouldn't have made any in that campaign were it not for an injury suffered by Richard Keogh, with McCarthy favouring the then Derby man prior to that.

Egan and Matt Doherty are prime examples of the previous failings of Ireland managers.

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Doherty was the most in-form Irish player for two years, but still couldn't break into the team under McCarthy unless there was an injury to another player. On the days of his 27th birthday, Doherty had five caps (two of which were starts and none of them in qualifiers) to his name.

It was madness, with both players having been very consistent performers at Championship level for a number of years and then establishing themselves in the Premier League.

The path chosen by Stephen Kenny ensures that this type of situation won't repeat itself. He said as much himself during his first press conference in the role.

Debates can be had on whether he is the right man to lead Ireland forward. What can't be debated is whether he took the right course of action once he came into the job.

The future of the Ireland team looks much brighter now than it would have had another manager in the ilk of Martin O'Neill or Mick McCarthy taken over.

Kenny will be given the Euro 2024 campaign to prove himself, as he should. From there, more accurate judgements can be made about his long-term future.

Regardless of if he is the right man or not, whoever is in the role moving forward will be in a better place because of what he has done over the last two years.

He deserves credit for that in the very least. Now it's up to him to show the footballing public that he can do even more.

SEE ALSO: After 18 Months From Hell, Robbie Brady Is Ready To Star For Ireland Again

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