The Republic of Ireland wanted to play England at Wembley primarily because the limited travel for a squad based entirely in Britain made Thursday’s match about as prudent as an international fixture can be amid a pandemic. In a footballing sense, however, this is a particularly risky showdown for Stephen Kenny, even if it is only a friendly before Sunday’s Nations League encounter with Wales and, more importantly, the start of World Cup qualification in March.
For a manager who has yet to gain a victory after five matches in charge, losing heavily to England, of all teams, would amplify criticism. Ireland have not lost to their old rival since 1985, winning once and drawing the other four matches (not including the 1995 friendly in Dublin, in which Ireland were leading 1-0 before rioting by England fans caused the match to be abandoned).
Even when the resources between the teams have seemed lopsided, Ireland have found a way to achieve parity, at least. It is partly because of this record that “You’ll Never Beat the Irish” has become a favourite chant of fans. There will be no crowd to witness Thursday’s match but the outcome may still trigger a loud response.
Thhe potential rewards for Kenny are uniquely high: there could be few better ways for an Ireland manager to get his first win than by upsetting England at Wembley. That scenario is unlikely but the whole point of the renewal that Kenny is trying to inspire is that it is bold, rooted in the belief that Ireland can grow to outplay opponents rather than just frustrate or outfight them. Critics say that is a pipe dream given the players available. Ireland fans want Kenny to bring success, but some believe he is in for rude awakening. Patience is vital. And finite.
There were enough shortcomings in Kenny’s first five matches to sustain the critics who insist Ireland are not capable of implementing the style Kenny wants: chiefly, the lack of a cutting edge was galling, and the manager’s options up front have been diminished even further by David McGoldrick’s decision to retire from international football following October’s Euro 2020 playoff elimination in Slovakia.
But there were encouraging signs, too, most notably Ireland’s ability to build play, passing and moving with confidence and, at times, actual menace. In Slovakia, where they lost on penalties after a 0-0 draw, observers saw the rare sight of Ireland outpassing and outwitting a decent home side, occasionally cutting them open. All that was missing was a goal. That has been the story, more or less, of those five matches, during which Ireland have scored only once – against Bulgaria through a Shane Duffy header from a corner, that old reliable Irish threat.
Yet this really is a new Ireland. Stressing the scoring problems is too negative at this stage in the manager’s reign. They predated his arrival, and his attempts to address them have been hindered by rotten luck, with Kenny’s plans persistently undermined by the loss of key players, particularly in forward areas. Wednesday brought two more blows, with news that the striker Aaron Connolly has been ruled out with hamstring trouble and Callum Robinson tested positive for Covid-19.
The loss of Connolly is particularly bothersome. He is one of several exciting players who Kenny worked with at the Under-21s, where he enjoyed success with the style he previously nurtured at his clubs and now hopes to employ with the senior team.
The plan is for the likes of Connolly, the 19-year-old Norwich striker Adam Idah and the 21-year-old Brighton midfielder Jayson Molumby to mesh with more established internationals in time for them to qualify for the World Cup. Despite the lack of wins and goals, the players do not look or sound close to giving up on a manager who believes in their ability to win with skill as well as guts and organisation. “We want to be playing a stylish brand of football, we want to try to keep the ball – without losing that fighting spirit,” said the midfielder Harry Arter. “I feel very excited for all the young lads going to experience a new Ireland.”
Thursday’s match is about bringing the future closer. “England are an excellent team with excellent players throughout,” says the captain Séamus Coleman. “It’s a great test of the way we’re trying to build going forward, a test to see how we cope with how they press and can we play out?”
Getting good results in this test, and against Wales and Bulgaria, will improve Ireland’s seeding in the draw for World Cup qualification and swell belief that Kenny can make Ireland hard to play against and pleasing to watch.