There’s a saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Ireland’s football team of the past few years embodied a dog half deaf with a limp leg.
Our condition could be attributed to our obsession with consistently looking at the past to guide us to the future. Abject failures in recent qualification campaigns alongside the barrage of criticism of the team instilled in us a sense of pessimism over our national side. Us, the same nation who once sat 6th in the FIFA World rankings would just have to accept mediocre results and football. Not even the dog whisperer could teach us.
This approach has led us to countless national embarrassments such as the hammerings in Euro 2012 and the pathetic playoff defeat to the Danes in 2017. On a lesser note, Ireland’s match in Tbilisi in 2017 where they only managed 214 passes compared to Georgia’s 621 passes encompasses this abjectness.
Albeit, as the Dalia Lama famously said, change must come from within and with the events in Gibraltar in 2019, the tectonic plates of Irish football started to rupture. In Gibraltar, the FAI’s CEO whose dealings have been laid bare in great detail was ousted from his position and so began Ireland’s cultural revolution.
Since taking the reins in April 2020 it’s fair to say it’s not been all plain sailing in the Stephen Kenny era. Whilst COVID-19 caused major problems with the initial Nations League campaign, a more worrying outbreak was found within the national press as the fear of change infected many talking heads.
On the surface our performance in the 2nd tier of the Nations League where our only goal came from a set piece, and we only staved off relegation by a point could be considered dreadful. On a wider scale this campaign should be seen as the sowing of seeds for a cultural revolution.
Debuts and increased play time for Adam Idah, Jason Knight and Josh Cullen amongst others outlined the emphasis Kenny had for promoting and playing the new generation of Irish players. These players, unfazed by the labels placed on the Irish teams of the past, got crucial exposure to the international game within these meaningless games. Whilst the results were far from ideal with 3 draws and 3 losses, the transition to a new international team culture was never going to be easy.
Albeit this was not alright for the conditioned ex-internationals who abruptly called for normal service to resume immediately. Ireland players passing the ball more than once? Having a player under the age of 24 playing? Hold your drink. We don’t do that around here.
Their armour was enamoured by our rocky start to our 2022 World Cup campaign. Narrow defeats against higher seeded Serbian and Portuguese outfits were understandable whilst draws with lowly Azerbaijan and Qatar were disappointing, but a loss to Luxembourg gave Ireland its biggest football debate since Saipan.
Stick or Twist. New vs Old. Light vs Darkness.
The second half of the qualifying campaign began to reap the seeds sown all the way back in the nations league. Notable draws against Portugal and Serbia could and should have been converted into wins. Meanwhile clinical performances against Azerbaijan, Qatar and Luxembourg showed a ruthless Irish side not seen in decades. Callum Robinson’s 39 pass goal against Qatar was close to Ireland’s 79 total passes in the first half in the infamous Tbilisi game 4 years ago.
Further players in the form of Chiedozie Ogbene, Gavin Bazunu and Andrew Omobamidele have found form at international level where previous managers might not have even considered calling them up.
As we wound up the qualifying group with a streak of 6 matches unbeaten with 4 clean sheets and 12 goals in those matches, Kenny is finally getting vindication for his transformative efforts.
Whilst we should not get carried away by these results, the groundwork has been set that’s revolutionized the Irish style of play and turned us into a more defensively solid, expansive team who can play a number of separate ways.
Whilst still allowing for some context against Portugal, they were able to bring on Atletico Madrid’s 126 million euro signing Joao Felix whilst we were able to call upon Wigan Athletics’ Will Keane.
Whilst comments from Luxembourg’s manager Luc Holtz about a “British style of play” would have been a complement to the turgid Irish teams of the past, Stephen Kenny’s offense to the comment showed we are not the Irish teams of the past but a new modern Irish team.
This dog is learning how to bark.