New Ireland Under-21s Boss Stephen Kenny Learns First Opponents

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Stephen Kenny has learned which teams he will be competing against for qualification for the Under-21 European Championships after he was appointed Ireland boss last month.

It was an appointment which caused more than a little surprise from some areas of the Irish football world. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane left their roles with the Republic of Ireland national team following a less-than-successful UEFA Nations League campaign, while Noel King left his position as manager of the Under-21 side. The news of their respective successors was announced in a double decision with a twist.

Stephen Kenny will manage the Under-21s while Mick McCarthy will take charge of the Ireland first team but only until 2020. Following the European Championships, Kenny will move up to the senior squad to take the former Wolves and Ipswich manager’s position.

“I think the first thing is, obviously I’ve been announced today as the under-21 manager first of all,” Kenny said following the announcement.

“And it’s just a huge privilege to be named under-21 international manager and be here for the next four years really and beyond, I hope.”

After a less than successful playing career, Kenny started his life in the managerial hot seat at a young age. He was appointed boss of Longford Town at the age of just 27 and proceeded to move around the Irish and Scottish football leagues for a number of years. Kenny joined Dundalk FC in 2013 and has enjoyed a remarkable run of success with the side, winning four League of Ireland titles and two FAI Cups.
“A week ago, I couldn’t have envisioned this,” Kenny went on. “But it’s an arrangement that I’m perfectly happy with, I’m delighted with. It’s a great opportunity and one that I’ll work extremely hard to do it justice.”
It certainly is a rather unusual decision. It’s rare for this sort of planning to be announced and discussed so openly so there will obviously be an extra level of pressure on both Irish teams for this to work out. The same day on which the announcement was made, Mick McCarthy was seemingly unaware of the Irish Football Association’s grand plan. A reporter for the Irish Daily Mail claimed that McCarthy’s camp was unaware of the intention to give Stephen Kenny the manager’s job in 2020.

Things may not have gotten off to the best of starts for this new Irish setup but football waits for no one. The draw for the qualification campaign for the 2021 Under-21 European Championships has been made. Ireland have never qualified for the tournament before and it looks as if it will be difficult to change that fact this time around.

Only one team from each group can qualify for the tournament which will take place in Hungary and Slovenia. The Republic of Ireland were drawn in Group 1 alongside Italy, Sweden, Iceland, Armenia and Luxembourg. Kenny’s first competitive match as the boss will be at home to Luxembourg on 31 March but the former Dundalk boss is certainly warier of another side in his group: Italy.

“They will be a strong team,” Kenny said and he’s not wrong. Italy always produce quality young players with this current under-21 side amongst the best in Europe. They are 5/1 on Betway* to win the 2019 Under-21 European Championships next year.

“Italy have done very well in the Under-19s recently but I’m happy; there are exciting games in there with Italy and Sweden coming to Dublin. It will be tough but we will prepare accordingly.”

Ireland’s aim of qualification will only be made more difficult by their managerial setup. Kenny will, of course, be joining the Ireland first team in 2020, a whole year before his current under-21 side would be playing in the Under-21 Championships were they to qualify. Kenny would even miss the final qualification group match against Italy on 13 October 2020 because by then, the former Dundalk boss will have already stepped up to the Irish senior squad.

The FAI will be hoping that everything is settled by then. The Irish Under-21s haven’t qualified for a European Championship tournament before and have been handed a tough draw in their pursuit to make history. Italy are the clear favourites to qualify but the side’s new manager Stephen Kenny won’t even be in charge of the team for that crucial match. Let’s hope things work out for both the youth and senior Irish national teams because if they don’t then this unusual managerial appointment will be an easy target for criticism.

*Odds correct as of 12 December.

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