FEW IRISH MANAGERS have ever talked about their job with the passion with which Stephen Kenny has brought to the role: how cruel that his endgame has been such a lengthy and drab epilogue.
Ireland’s Euro 2024 campaign was holed beneath the water line once they lost their second game to Greece in June, and it was dead after the Dutch inflicted a fourth defeat in five games in September. Nobody expects Kenny to be offered a contract renewal, so the last two months has been a long, long process of letting go.
Even the byzantine and forgivable Nations League play-off system will not save Ireland now. Slovakia’s 4-2 win over Iceland on Thursday night officially confirmed there will be no backdoor to the Euros. Kenny’s contract therefore expires after next Tuesday’s friendly with New Zealand.
His final competitive game in charge will be tonight in Amsterdam, where at least one team has something on the line, as Netherlands will qualify with a victory. But if the Dutch can’t do it tonight, they’ll get the job done against Gibraltar next Tuesday.
Alan Browne says Ireland will not be motivated by the prospect of spoiling any Dutch party, while Kenny says he is motivating his side to reach for a rare prize: an away qualifier win against an elite nation.
The players should also be motivated to burnish Kenny’s spot in the record books. He has won just six of his 28 competitive games in charge, and only the victory over Scotland counts as any kind of scalp. The other wins were over Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Armenia, and twice against Gibraltar.
But where Kenny’s imprint has been left is in the make-up of his squad. Of the 24 players picked in his initial squad, Kenny gave all but four of them their competitive debuts. He has completely overhauled the player pool, and if Andrew Moran makes an appearance tonight, he will be the 21st debutant during his tenure.
“Collectively, it’s obviously been quite a radical shift over the last couple of years and there’s criticism for that, for using too many players too soon”, said Kenny. “In my view they were the players with the greatest potential at that period of time and I think that will prove to be the case going forward.”
But regrettably what potential is in the squad has not been parlayed into results under Kenny’s watch. Alan Browne spoke yesterday of the accumulation of small margins, of which Ireland are seemingly always the wrong side.
“I think there are just little moments within games that have cost us”, said Browne. “We have had chances and haven’t took them. Teams at this level are going to punish you if you don’t take your chances. We obviously found that out the hard way.”
Kenny, meanwhile, did admit that some of Ireland’s most damaging errors are theirs alone.
“It has been well documented that we concede a lot of goals from outside the box, and that was an issue. But in the games against Greece and Holland, the two home games, the disappointing thing was we conceded on the counter attack. Against Holland we were one-nil up and we had a chance to go two-nil up. We committed to a game plan, to be fair, and didn’t drop off one we scored.
“But we got caught on the counter attack for their penalty so that was something we could have avoided I feel. We got punished. They will punish you, Holland. Every space that you leave at critical times is exploited and you are punished. It was a harsh lesson.
“We found that against Greece, when we were in the ascendancy for a long period before half-time. We had a lot of the play, territorial, lot of corners, throw ins and then we concede to a counter attack in the 48th minute. We can’t blame anyone else only ourselves for that.”
Ireland made a furious start to the home game against the Dutch in September, pressing intensely and pressing high. As to whether that can be repeated away from home remains to be seen, but injuries have robbed Ireland of much of their pace, had they wished to play on the counter-attack. Chiedozie Ogbene is a major loss, while Festy Ebosele’s injury is poorly timed, as he was in line for a start.
Evan Ferguson is mercifully fit, but Ireland must find a way of bringing the best out of him against better sides. Kenny has swayed to a back four more and more in recent games, but a starting back three might be the canniest move in a game such as this.
If that’s the case, Nathan Collins should return following his rather abrupt axing at half-time at home to Greece. Liam Scales should keep his place, while there’s a sense that Shane Duffy has been returned to the team partly for his leadership skills in a team badly lacking those qualities.
Josh Cullen and Alan Browne will continue in midfield, while Jason Knight’s energy and utility means he will keep his place. James McClean has been called to cover for Ebosele, but Ryan Manning is now ahead of him in the pecking order at left wing-back, with Matt Doherty available to start on the right. McClean is retiring from Irish duty after the New Zealand friendly next Tuesday night, but he may have a role to play tonight, as Ireland will need to curb Denzel Dumfries across the 90 minutes.
The biggest question mark is over who should partner Ferguson. Mikey Johnston would be the most compelling candidate but is horribly short of club minutes, while Will Smallbone is out through injury. That may open the door for Jamie McGrath, who has proved his fitness and has always delivered for Ireland.
The Dutch press have been talking about a kind of defensive injury crisis for their side, with Nathan Aké, Sven Botman, Micky van de Ven, Matthijs de Ligt, Jeremie Frimpong, Jurrien Timber, and Lutsharel Geertruida all out. Ronald Koeman is remaining calm, saying he has “sufficient alternatives”, one of whom may be Ajax teenager Jorrel Hato. Frenkie de Jong is absent too.
Despite the meagre jeopardy, the atmosphere tonight should be a tangible, tactile thing: the roof is expected to be closed, and both sets of fans will have had a long run-in to what is an 8.45pm kick-off local time.
Once more then, with feeling.
Netherlands (Possible): Fleken; Dumfries; De Vrij, Van Dijk, Blind; Hartman; Wieffer, Reijnders; Simons, Gakpo, Malen
Ireland (Possible): Bazunu; Doherty; Collins, Duffy, Scales; Manning; Cullen, Browne, Knight; McGrath, Ferguson