Football

Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain: Kenny Already Pointing Towards Bright Future

Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain: Kenny Already Pointing Towards Bright Future

So close, but yet so far.

Ireland will not be participating at next summer's European Championship, with a penalty shootout loss in Slovakia sealing our fate.

Normally in these circumstances, the postmortem would already be underway. Every play-off defeat feels like the end of the road for a given Ireland team. The squad is deemed too old, the manager is said to be finished, that we simply don't have the players.

There is something different about this one. Not every defeat is a crisis, just as not every victory can be judged as a vindicating triumph. Football cannot be viewed in those binary terms.

Not being at the Euros is going to be heartbreaking, especially when some of the games are taking place in Dublin. Hopefully the world as a whole will be in a better place by then, and it would have been quite the sight to see the Aviva Stadium packed out with green jerseys as Ireland played a major tournament on home soil.

It can be difficult to look at the bigger picture in times such as these, but it has to be done this time.

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That was the best Ireland performance we have seen in some time, perhaps in over a decade. Ironically, we haven't played football like that since the last occasion an Ireland game went to extra time, the play-off loss to France in 2009.

That performance featured everything that is usually lacking when Ireland take to the pitch. They kept the ball well, moving it with pace and incisiveness into forward areas. They were brave in the final third, playing without a fear of losing possession in trying to create chances. Players got in the box.

How often have we seen an Ireland team clinging on for dear life late in games, hanging onto a draw? On this occasion, the Irish were the ones who attempted to win a game.

Winning games seems like the most basic goal in football, but all too often in the past we were more concerned with not losing. You could see that wasn't the case last night.

Stephen Kenny has changed the mindset of this team.

Many people were quick to criticise him after two questionable showings in the UEFA Nations League last month. You get the feeling such opinions were formed before Kenny had even taken over the national team, and as such are unlikely to be changed on the back of a penalty shootout loss.

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We're not sure how you can't come away encouraged after last night's game. Some will blame Stephen Kenny for our failure to qualify, but the reality is that if had he been given the job instead of Mick McCarthy in the first place, there's every chance that we wouldn't have needed the play-off.

The 18 months wasted aimlessly wandering through the group under McCarthy could have been used to give the former Dundalk boss a real platform to improve this team.

He has already done that. When you consider the very limited time he has had with this group of players, the growth has been very impressive. Ireland managed to look much more fluid in attack without giving up any of the defensive solidity that has been a trademark of this team.

The back five (including the goalkeeper) look set in stone for the World Cup qualifying campaign. Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens looked much improved tonight, with the latter putting in arguably his best performance in a green jersey. They will be key players going forward, ones who will improve greatly as they grow more accustomed to Kenny's system.

The midfield showed promise, especially after the introduction of Alan Browne. He will rue his pair of missed chances, but there is no doubt that he made a huge impact after coming on.

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In the front three, both David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson were immense. It's just a pity we couldn't see Aaron Connolly alongside them.

The substitutes also made a genuine impact after coming on, pushing Ireland's performance to another level. How often have we been able to say that in the past?

In a sense, this game was something of a bonus for the new management team. Yes, we badly wanted to qualify for the Euros. However, doing so was not part of their remit when they was originally pencilled in for the job.

Now, the Stephen Kenny era can truly begin.

Last night's game was a small sample of what is to come. The rest of the UEFA Nations League can be used to hone a squad which will get their World Cup qualifying campaign underway in March.

Heading into 2021, even without the promise of a major finals appearance on the horizon, we feel like the cloud has been lifted over Irish football for the first time in quite a while. Ireland have an exciting young crop of players coming through, they are playing good football, and have a long-term vision. How can you be pessimistic about that?

We look forward to seeing what the future brings.

SEE ALSO: Ireland Player Ratings As Kenny's Men Suffer Heartbreak In Slovakia

Gary Connaughton

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