Football

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Stephen Kenny Era Has Arrived

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Stephen Kenny Era Has Arrived

Gary Connaughton reporting from the Aviva Stadium

The early portion of the Stephen Kenny era was defined by a 'culture war' in Irish football.

The results were not not good enough, that much was obvious. Many felt this was clear proof that Kenny was out of his depth at international level, that the team was drifting aimlessly as they picked up poor result after poor result.

Of course, there were others who wanted to trust the process. They preached the importance of placing the benefit of long-term gain over short-term pain, even if some outcomes over the last 12 months have been hard to stomach.

For a while, it was difficult to know which side of that argument would win out. There was progression being made and young players blooded, but would it be of a level to ensure we knew this team was heading in the right direction?

Now, there is no doubt.

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This has been brewing for a while. The 2-1 loss to Portugal saw Ireland put in an excellent, and largely unexpected, performance in Faro. They could well have won that game and it seemed like a real turning point despite the final outcome.

That has proven to be the case. That match was followed by a draw with Serbia, as well as two convincing wins over Azerbaijan and Qatar. There were questions about the quality of opposition in those last two fixtures, with tonight set to provide a real litmus test as to how far this team had come.

Ireland do not often come away from a game against one of the world's top sides disappointed with a draw. That was the case against Portugal, with Kenny's side playing the top of football we have rarely seen from the Republic of Ireland at senior international level.

It was fast, positive, brave, and at times scintillating. The Aviva Stadium, hosting a capacity crowd in a football match for the first time since November of 2019, was absolutely rocking.

In many ways, that had been one of the ingredients missing under Stephen Kenny. The 'culture war' mentioned earlier was not fought in the ground, but instead on social media and in newspaper columns. Were the diehard fans ever really doubting that the former Dundalk boss would eventually turn things around? It is difficult to know, but that is certainly not the case at the moment.

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The type of football on display last night was exactly what we hoped we would see under Stephen Kenny. It took a while to get there, but his ideas are now very much ingrained in the team.

Ireland are trending in the right direction. It has come too late for this campaign, although it bodes well for their UEFA Nations League and Euro qualifying endeavours in the months ahead.

Just look at the team that started against Portugal. Of the XI that took to the pitch, only Shane Duffy, Seamus Coleman, Enda Stevens, and Jeff Hendrick would have been considered as nailed on first choice players for Ireland before the Stephen Kenny era.

John Egan, Matt Doherty and Callum Robinson have come into their own, while Josh Cullen has gone from fringe squad member to perhaps the first name on the team sheet. In Gavin Bazunu, Chiedozie Ogbene, and Jamie McGrath you have just three examples of players Kenny has brought into the international fold.

It is still early days, but the green shoots are now beginning to sprout.

If nothing else, the debate around Kenny's future in charge of the team is now dead. There is no doubt that he is the man to lead Ireland forward into a new era.

How that will play out remains to be seen. There is still a long way to go and Ireland will need to prove they can continue their recent bout of good form for the long haul.

However, the Irish footballing public should now finally be united behind this team. That was always half the battle for Stephen Kenny.

SEE ALSO: Ireland Player Ratings As Kenny's Side Come Agonisingly Close To Famous Portugal Win

Gary Connaughton

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