After seven days of international football, during which much has been said, written and tweeted about the Ireland team, what has happened? Two losses, one of which was semi heroic, and a draw against Qatar, the current champions of Asia. A game, which in current form, Ireland should have expected to lose.
As with every international break under Stephen Kenny’s reign, there were plenty of ups and downs. There were several casualties missing from the initial squad, more picked up injuries during the three games themselves such as Aaron Connolly and then there were the results themselves. Not so many ups but getting a draw with Qatar can be construed as a positive, as is the transformation to 3-5-2. It may have looked more effective against Serbia than Luxembourg but any formation that allows Coleman and Doherty – despite his current club woes – to play on the same pitch for Ireland is a good thing in the eyes of many Irish fans.
Goals were scored too, after 600 minutes of sadness. Still no win, but three times the ball hit the back of the net from an Irish foot or head (partly with the help of a Qatari shin). It may not mean much – goals will always be rare for this team – but with a renewed focus on attacking play from the back, at least the prospect will increase. Whether these chances are converted is another thing. As it is no current player looks set to trouble Frank Stapleton’s previous record of 20 goals for Ireland, let alone Robbie Keane’s haul of 68.
While Stephen Kenny stands in the eye of a media storm, the new management has created competition for places. No longer can pundits and fans alike confidently predict a starting XI. Serbia and Luxembourg were faced with plenty of players that many Irish fans may not have known this time last year. Those line-ups didn’t quite work out and against Qatar, it was out with the new and in with the old – Duffy, Brady, McLean, Long, Hendrick all returned and within 4 minutes, they had proven the selection right, with a well worked set piece. The approach play and pressing that has become commonplace over the past week was on display but so too was the poor finishing, with Shane Long missing the best of the chances in the first half.
At the back, it looks like Ireland will be covered for years to come with the arrival of Gavin Bazunu on the international scene. Against Luxembourg, all eyes were on the goalkeeper situation. Randolph and Kelleher had been ruled out, while Mark Travers had a night to forget against Serbia. Bazunu came in and showed the maturity and calmness missing from Traver’s performance days earlier. At least, if Ireland can’t rely on anyone to score regularly, it seems that someone to stop goals going in is taken care of for the foreseebale future.
There were negatives aplenty too with some deep soul-searching among Irish media and fans alike. Stephen Kenny has a philosophy that can get results but whether he has the players to do so is up for debate. With friendlies against Andorra and Hungary in the middle of summer and a nothing-to-lose qualifier against Portugal in September, there are chances for further development and to make a statement of intent. Hopefully, pandemics will be a thing of the past by then and much like the rest of the world, Irish fans can start looking to the future with a bit of hope.