A new era begins
Stephen Kenny’s tenure as Republic of Ireland manager begins in Sofia on Thursday evening, but the proudest day of his managerial career will bear no resemblance to how he originally envisaged it.
There is huge expectation around Kenny’s appointment in Ireland given his stated intention to try and alter perceptions about the side he has inherited and a buzz around the quality of young players that are starting to knock on the door.
The Dubliner ultimately landed the job on account of a trophy laden spell at Dundalk where the highlight was an unlikely run to the Europa League group stages in 2016. It wasn’t just the results that generated hype; it was his team’s expansive style of play even when faced with strong opposition.
Kenny was handed the senior job in an unusual succession plan that saw him serve time as U-21 manager while Mick McCarthy was given responsibility for the Euro 2020 campaign.
But he couldn’t manage automatic qualification and then the pandemic delayed the playoffs and the finals themselves. The FAI opted to go through with the time locked contract so Kenny starts his journey with a UEFA Nations League window that will be followed next month by a Euro playoff semi away to Slovakia.
It means he is landed in at the deep end, but the dramatic improvement of the U-21 side under his watch has increased enthusiasm levels around his appointment. But it will invite a whole new level of scrutiny and pressure. His first game in charge away to Bulgaria is a behind closed doors affair, similar to Sunday’s visit of Finland in Dublin, so there will be no fans, friends or family present for either occasion. These are curious times, yet his mission is to present an Irish XI with a different personality.
This is not a bad start for Kenny. Bulgaria are a diminished force right now, although Georgi Dermendzhiev did a register a victory over the Czech Republic last November after taking over in the wake of the 6-0 loss to England and the surrounding racism storm that was so damaging for the game there. An experimental Irish side comfortably defeated the Bulgarians in a friendly 12 months ago and they are short on emerging talent; they have had to nationalise players operating in their local league due to a dearth of locally produced options. There is no Dimitar Berbatov coming through.
By contrast, Kenny has a sprinkling of players arriving in good heart for various reasons. Matt Doherty is the man of the moment after completing his high profile relocation to Spurs, and it would be a statement of intent from the manager if he got the nod ahead of Seamus Coleman at right full.
Adam Idah (Norwich), Jayson Molumby (Brighton) and Dara O’Shea (West Brom) have been promoted from the U-21 squad after taking strides forward in their club career during the ten month international football hiatus.
They are putting the squeeze on established squad members too, and don’t expect Kenny to radically make changes to his team for the sake of it. Idah is a strong contender for a central striking role, but the manager also feels he can get more out of performers such as Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady and has recalled James McCarthy and Shane Long all of whom had limited impact under McCarthy.
There’s a good balance in his squad and he will go with a positive 4-3-3 system although it will be closer to a 4-2-3-1 when faced with a more difficult opponent. Kenny deliberately listed recognised wingers James McClean and Callum O’Dowda as forwards in his squad list and they will compete with the likes of Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson for wide responsibility depending on the nature of the test.
Perhaps the sheen of a new manager can be deceiving but Kenny has exuded positivity and freshens up the backroom staff with Keith Andrews and Damien Duff coming in as back-up to assist on the coaching side of things. He will be looking at this away date as a means to explore a strategy for Slovakia next month so this will be taken very seriously by the guests. The mission, he says, is to create a modern progressive environment that players enjoy and with home advantage neutralised by the closed doors, this fixture is quite an attractive starting point. It may well be that the obvious bet, the away win trading around [2.4], is staring punters in the face.
It’s understandable why punters will feel this could be a low scoring affair. Most players are coming out of pre-season, there will be no fans to urge the crowd on, and neither side is blessed with attackers that have a proven track record at international level.
These are all fair points. But they can be countered by fears about Bulgaria’s defensive prowess and the likelihood that Kenny will urge his full backs Enda Stevens and Doherty (or Coleman) to press on.
If James McCarthy is fit, he will have shielding defensive responsibility, but there should be goalscoring opportunities for both sides in this fixture. Either way, it just feels like the market is over reacting with Over 2.5 goals drifting to [2.52].
With the away side expected to burst out and operate at high intensity, this is worth a play and it offers trading potential if the deadlock is broken early.
For an alternative selection to support the bottom line belief that Ireland should win, we revert to Sportsbook.
Jeff Hendrick is a project player for Kenny who is conscious of his frusrations around the direction of recent Irish displays as they share the same agent. Kenny strongly feels that Hendrick should be encouraged to attack. He won’t be asked to sit deep or play off the right and the Newcastle newcomer will be encouraged to press on. In that context, the 11/5 about Hendrick getting one or more shots on target really is tempting as he will be given the freedom to make his presence felt.