It was his fine work with the Under-21 side that ultimately saw Stephen Kenny being handed the reigns of the Republic of Ireland senior side.
Kenny led the young Boys in Green to seven wins in his twelve games at the helm, and there was a distinct swagger about the way they went about their business.
That was a continuation of the 48-year-old’s fine work with Dundalk, where again he oversaw an attacking, aggressive style.
It’s a philosophy that will be music to the ears of Irish football fans, and especially those who were left rather disillusioned by the lack of dynamism and confidence shown during Mick McCarthy’s tenure.
The Green Army looked hapless in front of goal at times during their Euro 2021 qualification campaign, and in a group containing Gibraltar – regarded as the worst team in Europe by UEFA – Ireland managed just 1-0 and 2-0 victories against an outfit that conceded 31 goals in their eight outings.
While not blessed with attacking talent, Kenny will still have the likes of Scott Hogan – who found some real goalscoring form for Birmingham City prior to the disruption – and the exciting Callum Robinson to call upon.
And it’s not just about the players, either. It’s about intent, and a willingness to take risks tactically, while giving players the confidence to express themselves in the final third of the pitch.
What an opportunity Kenny now has. The Euro 2021 play-off semi-final against Slovakia is a wholly winnable tie for a side given a jolt of life by their new manager, and, indeed, the Irish are favourites for the fixture in the online football betting odds.
Win that, and there would follow a final against either Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Herzegovina – that would be all that separates the Greens from another major tournament appearance.
It’s a baptism of fire for Kenny, make no mistake, but in his managerial career so far, he has shown a willingness to meet such challenges head-on.
Attack the Best Form of Defence
“Traditionally, we limit ourselves in how we think we can play. We don’t think we’re good enough as a nation. To me that’s unacceptable. We have to demand more from ourselves.”
That typically frank outlook from Kenny offers an insight into how he will approach life as Ireland’s head coach. In his stints as the under-21s boss and at Dundalk, he impressed upon his defenders a desire to play out from the back, while instructing his attacking players to try things – be it expansive through balls or taking on an opponent with the ball.
After a 1-0 win over Armenia with the junior side, Kenny praised his side for being ‘relentless’ as far as their high press was concerned, putting their opponents under pressure throughout the 90 minutes. You suspect he will be looking to adopt a similar approach with the national side, and so expect those with huge engines – Jeff Hendrick, for example – to thrive.
Ireland will be looking to retain the ball at all times, which was a hallmark of Dundalk’s forays into the Champions League. From a position of despair, the Irish really can now dream of taking their place at Euro 2021 in a group that would contain Spain, Sweden and Poland – with the matches against the latter pair played at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
If he can pull it off, Stephen Kenny’s career as Ireland head coach would get off to the best possible start.