Ahead of his first game in charge, Craig Banks explores the extraordinary rise of new Irish manager Stephen Kenny and the players to watch out for.

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No romantic send-off, no lap of honour, no waving of the tricolour. The Mick McCarthy era 2.0 ended on a muted note. The Barnsley man’s contract with the F.A.I coming to an abrupt end in light of the Covid-19 global pandemic; maybe Mick would have continued in the role had Ireland automatically qualified for the now postponed Euro 2020 but who knows? 

The departure of McCarthy may have been abrupt but football fans already knew who the next Republic of Ireland boss would be; a contract agreed back in November of 2018 outlined that Stephen Kenny was to be Mick McCarthy’s successor. The appointment surprised a good chunk of the country.

Some fans are of the view that Kenny does not carry the ‘high level’ capabilities of what is expected for a senior International football manager; others across the nation, especially League of Ireland fans, are excited by the appointment. Kenny has been in football management for over 20 years which is an eye-opening fact considering he is only 48. From his early success story at Longford Town to Europa League nights with Dundalk FC, he has achieved an astonishing amount of success for a young manager on this island. Apart from spells at Dunfermline and Shamrock Rovers, Kenny is remembered with affection by most clubs on his CV. 

Five League of Ireland winners medals, three FAI Cups, seven League Cups and a historic 2016 Europa League run which saw Dundalk become the first Irish club to pick up points in a European group format; this success is not to be sniffed at no matter what the standard. But some football supporters highlight Kenny’s subdued time in Scotland between 2006 and 2007 with Dunfermline as the moment where he had his opportunity at a ‘higher level’. In saying that, he still led Dunfermline to a Scottish Cup Final in Hampden Park against Gordon Strachan’s Celtic only to lose 1-0 to a Jean-Joël Perrier-Doumbé goal in the 86th minute in a forgettable final. 

Image: Tom Beary @tombearyphoto 

Kenny, however, is remembered for his relegation from the Scottish Premier Division in the same season. Can football fans not move on from 13 years ago? It is amazing that one relegation with an ordinary Dunfermline side (which Kenny did not build; he inherited) can override the amazing success that he has achieved. It’s a sad indictment how some sectors of the footballing community in this country regard the League of Ireland. 

There is no denying Kenny’s success since his arrival back at Derry City in December 2007. The success stories of Longford Town, Bohemian FC and Derry have been eclipsed by the incredible six years Kenny spent as manager at Dundalk FC; a club which when he took over was on its knees financially in December 2012. The season before his appointment, donation buckets were passed around from ground to ground during league fixtures in Ireland in an attempt to save the club from extinction. ‘The Town’s’ first league title in 19 years in 2014 heralded the most successful period in the club’s history. The European adventure in 2016 which included a huge Champions League qualifying victory against BATE Borisov, Europa League group scalps against AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv with narrow one goal defeats to the 2008 UEFA Cup winners Zenit St. Petersburg alerted the nation to Dundalk and the League of Ireland. It’s a period in Irish football that may never be repeated.

The Tallaght native brings an attractive brand of football to the table; which not many can say the same about the previous three national managers in Trappatoni, O’Neil and McCarthy. He uses width, plays out from the back and aims at suffocating the opposition when they have the ball in a high energy format. He also brings a winning mentality; the success story at Dundalk was followed by a hugely successful period in managing the Rep/ of Ireland under 21 national team. The underage side are on the cusp of qualifying for their first UEFA under 21 European Championships in its existence thanks to memorable victories over Sweden, Luxembourg, Armenia and a promising point against group favourites Italy. These results have put Ireland in poll position in Group 1, top of the table with three games remaining and have people sitting up and taking notice of what Kenny had to offer. The task of qualification is now left in the hands of Jim Crawford and John O’Shea.

The results achieved since Kenny’s appointment has built optimism around the country. For years the under 21 group had been mismanaged. Players picked by name and not on merit resulted in years of inconsistency, poor results and low attended crowds often meant that Ireland usually lingered around fourth spot in their qualifying groups. 

There is no doubt it is a difficult age to manage as when young Irish players make any sort of dent at their respective clubs in England the senior squad usually comes calling. This current crop of under 21 internationals is a promising bunch, not since the halcyon days of Brian Kerr’s late 90’s underage success has a positivity surrounded an Irish squad. Players like Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrot, Dara O’ Shea and Jason Molumby have provided the nation with a glance of what is to come. The likes of O’Shea who has become an integral part of his West Bromwich Albion promotion to the Premier League in recent months has shone for manager Slaven Bilic. The coach recently stated that instead of going out and signing a new centre back in the January transfer window to bolster his squad he declared “We didn’t want to force to buy a new centre-back because of him, because we believe in him (O’Shea) so much.” Quite the compliment from the former Croatian defender, part of the famous World Cup semi-finalists squad in France 1998.

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The same can also be said about Molumby who has been a starter week-in week-out for his loan club Millwall; his performances have shown maturity for a 20-year-old in the centre of midfield in the tough and highly competitive Championship. Molumby is fearless on the ball and a constant thorn against opposition; a high energy work rate coupled with excellent technical ability make this an individual the Ireland senior set up has been crying out for years. Molumby’s constant want for the ball is something refreshing from an Irish point of view; he is constantly looking to move the play forward and begin a new attack. The hope is that he can now push on with Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League under manager Graham Potter. 

Connolly’s two goals back in October of last year against Champions League finalists Tottenham Hotspur was the first time since Shane Long in 2015 where an Irish player bagged a brace in a Premier League game, this was followed with a call-up to the senior International squad for the qualifying games against Georgia and Switzerland. The Georgia game still lingers for Irish fans. Lets face it, it was diabolical; a 0-0 draw against the hosts realistically killed off our hopes of automatic qualification but Connolly was the only shining light that evening in Tbilisi, with 10 minutes remaining he was brought on for his senior competitive debut, in that time minutes he caused more worry for the opposition than the more senior players in a horrid display lacking creativity and spark. He finished off a very impressive debut season with a fine solo effort against Burnley at Turf Moor. 

But a huge amount of promise and media attention has been aimed at 18-year-old Troy Parrott. The Tottenham U23 starlet has shone in the Premier League 2 and the UEFA Youth League for Spurs; the thing is with Parrott is that he has hardly played any Premiership football or senior football for that matter. There was pressure on Mick McCarthy to include the teenager in the squad for the pivotal Switzerland qualifier in Basel, McCarthy was adamant on the point that players merited their place by playing on a regular basis for their club at senior level, something that Parrott had not done; now like Molumby last year, Parrott has been sent out on loan to Millwall from Spurs, following in the footsteps of a certain Harry Kane in 2012. 

The players mentioned above and the likes of Gavin Bazunu, Conor Masterson, Conor Coventry, Daniel Mandriou and Adam Idah show that Ireland may be producing a new generation of extremely skilful and promising young talent. Now time is required. Patience isn’t a word that exists in modern football. Ireland are going into the unknown with the new boss, a real ‘new beginning’ feel to it.

That is unless Kenny were to lose his first couple of games in charge, it’s an unforgiving game but the hope is that he is given space to build a project that will be of benefit to the country. The idea of not qualifying for one or two tournaments is not a great thought but if it meant blooding these young players and letting them blend as a squad, it could be exciting to see what position the Republic is in 2026 for Canada/Mexico/USA. But this requires patience from the FAI, the football community, and support across the nation.