What next for Stephen Kenny and the Republic of Ireland?

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Ireland lose on penalties
8 October 2020; Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny consoles Alan Browne, right, following defeat in the penalty-shootout of the UEFA EURO2020 Qualifying Play-Off Semi-Final match between Slovakia and Republic of Ireland at Tehelné pole in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
“I’m really disappointed for the players because they deserved better and I can’t really ask any more of them” 

It was a tough pill to swallow for Stephen Kenny and his Ireland team after losing out to Slovakia in a play-off semi-final shootout. No EURO 2020 for the Republic of Ireland. Another opportunity to play at a major tournament that has fallen through the cracks.

In Ireland’s defence, there has been a limited amount of time for Kenny to implement his playing style. This was his third game in charge and although the result was disappointing, there were several glimpses throughout the game of what this team is capable of. Take for instance Conor Hourihane’s chance which would’ve been the icing on the cake of a wonderfully worked move.

At the other end, Shane Duffy and John Egan commanded the game, keeping the Slovakian attack relatively quiet for the entire 120 minutes. On several occasions Kenny could be heard from the touchline, “keep the shape!” They didn’t let him down. What did let Ireland down was their missed chances. Hourihane’s the most obvious, while substitute Alan Browne also squandered two glorious opportunities. All in all, the Irish team rued these chances as the game ended in penalty shootout heartache.

So what is next for Kenny and this team?

The next tournament on the horizon is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, giving Ireland two years to prepare. But the transition will be brisk. After a flurry of Nations League fixtures this month and next, World Cup qualifying games are due to kick off in March of next year.

It is well known that Kenny is a fan of the youth, with a large pool of Irish youngsters now to choose from. Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah and Jayson Molumby have all featured under the new boss having impressed him at U-21 level. Players including Troy Parrott, Dara O’Shea, Josh Cullen and Jack Byrne will now be knocking on the door. Some difficult decisions lie ahead in this period of transition.

“They showed themselves to be a real team, there was a tremendous team ethic and everyone did as much as they could tonight.”

The players did Kenny proud last night with a valiant effort. He won’t want to turn his back on them. However, the average age of the starting eleven against Slovakia was just above 29 years old, with Callum Robinson the youngest at 25. In two years’ time, this average will have crept above 30.

Now, more than ever, is the time for Kenny to start blooding the youngsters. Time is of the essence. Despite an improved style of play, it is clear from the play-off game that Ireland are in need of a goal-scorer. David McGoldrick was outstanding on the night, dropping deep and dictating the play. But goals aren’t his game. Connolly, Idah, Parrott and Obafemi are all chomping at the bit to fill the void left by Robbie Keane four years ago.

Like previous managers Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy, there is a sense that Stephen Kenny will remain loyal to the current crop. On the other hand, he is also aware of the talent coming through the ranks from his successful period with the U-21 squad. Now it is time to find the right balance between experience and youth. EURO 2020 may not be happening for Ireland, but there is still plenty to be positive about under the new manager.

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