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More than a few will want to salute Stephen Kenny's effort tonight

THE CROWD FOR tonight’s friendly against New Zealand won’t match the number that swiped barcodes through scanners for the qualifier against Greece, the game it was ‘bundled’ with.
There are clear reasons for this. Yet there will still be an attendance in the tens of thousands, there are reasons for this too.
Some have season tickets, some go to every game home and away come what may, some have kids as part of the bundle who would not consider a no-show and a few might feel like saying thank you to Stephen Kenny, a man who has tried.
My main reason for the trip, in truth, has more to do with taking the young lad along, but I’m glad to be able to say thanks in person to Kenny, by way of some respectful applause from the far back seats. As Bodie Broadas in the Wire explained to the florist before D-Angelo’s funeral: when you stand with someone you stand with them to end … “otherwise you ain’t nothing yourself”.
Others may want to boo, or remain silent, or revel in the gallows humour that has again become necessary to deal with the distressing state of the team, and every fan has the right to react as they feel – yet I’d suspect a few will want to salute the effort and the dream that’s gone.
You couldn’t manage at any level of the game without being committed to the cause. The field is too competitive, every paying position too coveted for those who do not think about the game almost non-stop to be accommodated.
With Kenny and the Ireland job, it went beyond the usual obsession. This was ideological, the focus of not just a life’s work but a life principle that Ireland could take its place among the other football nations of the world and meet them with something more than spirit, flashes of skill and pragmatism.
We don’t have the players, he was told by many in advance, and more now. Kenny has never, ever countenanced this – out of loyalty to those in the dressing room who were not afforded the same respect by some of his predecessors, but mainly because Kenny actually believes in them. He believes in Irish football, from your local U6 team to the players representing the country at the highest level; he sees us as not inferior but possessed of the same imagination and technical potential as anybody. This was the hill he was willing to fight and die on and now, well, it’s over.
To me at least, there is an echo of glory in this failure. That can be dismissed as a statement in keeping with a lot of media comment about Kenny, which is said to have been soft. Yet I offer it not as any type of expert, just as a fan whose most exciting days cheering on Ireland came on Kenny’s watch.

I’m well old enough to remember 1990 and 88 and the atmosphere of the time, but I wouldn’t get too nostalgic about the football played. Anybody who does ought to go back and watch a few of those games from start to finish.

Billy Stickland / INPHO
Kevin Sheedy takes the game to Russia in 88.

Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland-Russia in 88 and Ireland-England at Wembley in 91 were great, but loads of the rest of it was tedious if you liked football and were sober, which rules out a few.
What made Kenny so thrilling to me was that everything lined up for once. Every child that gets into football will try to dribble, shoot and eventually pass and move as they get a bit older. Few will choose to lump it long and hope. It’s the same for the rest of us slow-turning 40-somethings still plodding the astroturf. At least we try to play ball.
One of the upsides of this ageing process is the chance to watch our children take up the game and learn to do the things we like to think we once could. Every weekend I see volunteer coaches encouraging youngsters to play it out from the back, to be brave in possession. It makes little sense for this approach to pervade all the way up the pyramid only to stop at the top level in the name of not being naive.
You can see the sense in going longer sometimes and not always passing through the thirds as a dogma which serves to make Ireland and a lot of teams predictable. Yet the grim prospect is we will soon revert to playing without the ball, in an abundance of hard-headed common sense which will leave us back where we were before Kenny took over.
You would hope that Kenny’s departure doesn’t mean a total departure from the notion that we should actually try to play. A lot has been spoken about the bad luck Kenny has endured as Ireland manager, from untimely Covid lay-offs to injuries to Evan Ferguson before Paris, and much more besides. There’s no point in going into all of that again, as Ange Postecoglou said of his injury crisis at Spurs, there are just two states for a football manager: either you’re under siege, or it’s coming.
The most destructive moment of Kenny’s tenure was not down to luck but to the career progression of coach Anthony Barry, who left for Belgium in early 2022 and is subsequently at Bayern Munich.

Dan Sheridan / INPHO
Stephen Kenny and Anthony Barry look on.

Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It’s no slight on Kenny’s coaches now to say they are not world class. Barry is, as his record and list of willing employers attests. If there was any way for him to take the reins now, even with his lack of experience as a No 1, it should be explored. Realistically, his prospects elsewhere are too good for him to consider the job.
And even if he could be persuaded to take the job as a No 2 to Pep Guardiola, with Jurgen Klopp employed in a motivational role, we’d still struggle.

The we don’t have the players line may be true, but it is trite. The question is, why don’t we have the players? And what can we do about it?
The 42’s Gavin Cooney set out reasons on Sunday, which range from under-investment in coaching and facilities to years of mismanagement by the governing body here.
Only when we appreciate the position we’re in can we truly progress. I’m not sure there’s ever been a reckoning in Irish football, as there has been elsewhere.
I remember being on a coaching course in England not long after the 2010 World Cup. The coaches there, some of them FA employed, were painfully aware of how far off the pace England were as a football power. Even the England fans, who we here would have long regarded as deluded about their status, had few complaints when they lost heavily to Germany then.
There was a general acceptance that things needed to change radically. In the 13 years that followed, England has progressed to become a nation capable of producing technically proficient players as a matter of routine, albeit with considerable help from their clubs’ academies.
A full appraisal of where we are now is not something to look forward to, but it has to be done. The welcome progress of the League of Ireland, the strides being made by Irish underage teams are hugely positive, yet these trends or the sterling work of many at grassroots level should not be used to shield the fact that we are way behind our competitors of similar stature.
Kenny was right in that we have as much innate ability as anyone and we should always strive to realise that potential – not slump into dour realism.
You’d hope the debate which follows his tenure centres as much on where the investment in Irish football is going to come from to help us improve as it does on the next batter up to face curveball after fastball. That’s for another day.
Today, for some, is about Stephen Kenny, a man who gave everything he had to give and failed. We hope the next man can fail better, and Kenny will one day be seen as someone whose vision was worth the fight.

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