Eoin Hand, Ciaran Kilduff and Paul Doolin on the task facing Stephen Kenny.
HE CAME IN with a bold new style of play that long-time watchers of the Irish team were unaccustomed to.
A vocal minority of supporters had been against his appointment from the outset, suspicious of the footballing culture from which he emerged.
He made some controversial selection calls, leaving out big-name stars in favour of younger, less experienced players.
After a number of disappointing early results, including in vital qualifiers, his teams were branded ‘unwatchable’.
His name was Jack Charlton.
Of course, the late Englishman eventually won Irish hearts and he is now remembered as the national team’s most successful manager ever.
So it’s easy to forget the turbulence of those early days and how he needed a large slice of luck — Scotland winning in Bulgaria to ensure Ireland’s shock qualification for Euro ’88 — to turn him instantaneously from villain to hero.
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Stephen Kenny has yet to enjoy such good fortune and the surprise 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Luxembourg last weekend has increased the pressure on the 49-year-old, as well as making him arguably the most divisive Ireland manager since Charlton.
Yet the differences between the two are certainly greater than the similarities. Kenny wants his limited players to playing attractive football, whereas Charlton demanded his talented group conformed to an ugly style. While Kenny has won none of his first 11 games in charge, the legendary boss picked up four victories in that time period.
But there is one certainty when it comes to being Ireland manager, and that is the significant criticism you will be forced to endure.
In his first match, Charlton was famously greeted with a supporters’ banner, which read: ‘Go Home Union Jack.’ And even at his zenith, Italia ’90, you still had Eamon Dunphy in the RTÉ studio furiously reacting to a drab draw against Egypt and others too complaining about the style of football.
So when you consider Ireland’s most successful manager ever had it bad, think about how difficult it must have been for the ones who didn’t earn such positive results.
Eoin Hand managed Ireland between 1980 and 1985. He came heartbreakingly close to qualifying the team for the 1982 World Cup but was denied thanks to a 1-0 defeat in Belgium and the highly controversial performance of Portuguese referee Raul Nazare.
Hand’s side’s form never fully recovered thereafter, amid increasingly disappointing results and failed attempts to qualify for the 1984 European Championships and 1986 World Cup.
Most Ireland managers in recent times have lived abroad — Mick McCarthy, Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni all benefited from this degree of distance.
Hand, by contrast, was not in any way sheltered from the atmosphere of negativity when his teams produced performances that were deemed unacceptable.
“When you’re living in the country that you’re managing, there is no getting away with the good and the bad,” he tells The42. “And people can be cruel. My family suffered big time. My son’s [bike]tyres were ripped. He was only 12 or something like that, he didn’t understand it. It was because of his father because we got a bad result.
“You couldn’t go out publicly, socially. I remember being out publicly in a place where I thought [we would be safe]. Fellas coming up and just blatantly calling you a b******s. You think: ‘Oh my God.’ Fellas had drink on them or whatever.
“So your whole social activities and life is affected by the fact that you’re living here.
“I remember saying to [Kenny]: ‘Stephen, you’ll find a big change now, from managing Dundalk, to managing Ireland. It’s important that you have your private life.’ But you can never get away from it because you have to go out to do things apart from football.
“There are no half measures. You’re either a hero or the biggest criminal going.”
In contrast with the current boss, Hand enjoyed a decent playing career, winning 20 caps and making over 200 appearances for Portsmouth. But similar to Kenny, he got the job largely on the back of his coaching achievements in the League of Ireland, guiding Limerick to the title in 1980.
By the end of his Ireland stint though, Hand had become so disillusioned that finishing up after a 4-1 home loss to Denmark felt like a relief.
“I did not want to put myself forward for any further [games]. I’d had enough because it was affecting things so much. I’ll never forget meeting a journalist. We went for lunch somewhere and this was after I’d gone from the job. He said something I remembered for the rest of my life. He said: ‘You must remember, you went in there and had some great results. You nearly qualified for the ’82 World Cup.’
“He said: ‘You’ve done a good job. You worked at it as hard as you could. Unfortunately, the majority is silent. You only hear the vociferous minority. Most genuine, ordinary, good people are the ones who are saying: ‘Everything’s fine, he’s done as well as he can.’ But the clowns and the ones who want to mouth out, they’re the ones you hear.’
“I’ll never forget that and I came away from that little chat with him feeling a damn sight better. I [initially]thought, the whole country is against me here, I might have to emigrate because we were beaten 4-1 at home to Denmark. So, you’ve got to put perspective on it, but it is very difficult when you live in the country, because you are under [scrutiny], even more so now with social media and all that.”
Hand called for Kenny to get the Irish job before the controversial succession plan was announced, and having been through similarly taxing times to what the present incumbent is now experiencing, he naturally sympathises with his predicament. Nonetheless, he also offers “constructive” criticism.
“He says our aim was to play exhilarating football. But the first aim should be to win matches — that’s the priority of anybody who is in charge of any international team.
“I’m like a record player saying you don’t have players to suit a system, you have a system to suit players, particularly at international level, where you’re only together for a very short time.
“If they’ve been doing totally different things with their clubs, and they’ve been brought up a different way, then you can’t expect them to go out and play, and what happens is a player loses confidence.
“And especially if results go bad, a lot of them cynically say: ‘Who the hell is he? He’s never played the game to any good degree, and he’s only managed in the League of Ireland.’ So he has that double hurdle to overcome.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Kenny is the lack of footballers playing at the very highest level in the current squad.
Unlike Hand and Charlton, who had individuals of the calibre of Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson and Liam Brady to choose from, there are currently no players in the squad at a comparable level to that legendary trio.
Hand is not the first person to express the view that a national academy for the country’s best footballers, with Premier League-quality facilities and conditions, is the way forward.
“It brings into question the whole thing about the national academy that should have happened in 2005. I was involved, and there were a lot of talks, and we had people over from England. But it never happened, and it was never going to happen under the previous regime.”
When it’s put to him that the Football Association of Ireland’s perilous financial state may prevent such a plan from being feasible anytime soon, Hand responds: “It’s not something where you say: ‘Oh, it’s just an extra.’ It’s really a necessity. So prioritise that, and then look for your results, because the results of the senior Irish team have bearings on all of the financial issues in the association. The money that comes in, between sponsors and also the ticket sales is massive, especially if the team is doing well.”
One individual who has been closer than most to Ireland’s talent production line over the past decade is Paul Doolin.
The 58-year-old Dubliner enjoyed a hugely successful playing career in the League of Ireland, as he was an instrumental part of the great mid-1980s Shamrock Rovers side, while he also won the treble with Derry among other accolades.
Doolin then managed UCD, Drogheda and Cork City, winning a league title with the Drogs, before taking on the role of Ireland U19s coach between 2010 and 2016. During that period, he oversaw the development of many members of the current squad, including Jeff Hendrick, Matt Doherty, Alan Browne and John Egan. His most notable success during that time was guiding an Irish team to the semi-finals of the U19 European Championships in 2011.
“I don’t care what you do in the Airtricity League,” he says. “19s, 21s, senior team, it’s a different ball game. You have to get used to international football because it’s totally different.
“Apart from not having players and everything else like that, the game itself is different.
“So you’ve got to know what you’re doing to get that team organised and performing to get results, that’s the bottom line, at that level of football. I used to be told that that’s what it was.
“And it isn’t easy. I looked at Luxembourg. They seem like lately they’ve come on, and their league has come on as well. One of their club sides [Dudelange] is higher than [every Irish team bar Dundalk]in the Uefa club coefficients.
“But you have to find a way to beat those teams, you just have to, if you’re looking to qualify. And that’s not me saying I think they’re bad or being disrespectful, but you must find a way to beat them at home, as you must find a way to beat Portugal and Serbia.”
On the U19s job, he continues: “Whether people play on the ground or whatever way they want to play, you’re dealing with the best players normally in each country. Physically as well, it’s totally different. And when I look at some of the players now, I’d love to get Jeff Hendrick and say it to him: ‘Jeff, you’re better than that.’ I don’t know why. I do think one of the reasons, knowing him, he got into the team of the tournament [in 2011]playing as a central midfield player, a 6 or an 8. He’s playing wide on the right. He’ll do a job for you, but he’s not a number 10. As I feel Alan Browne is not a number 10. At 6 or 8, he can still get into the box. Technical players are what you’re looking for in those areas.
“And there are really good players. I look at Ryan Manning. He was never capped until I capped him at U19s. This fella was a really top player as a number 10. This fella’s football brain is really good, believe me. And now he’s playing left-back.”
Doolin also plays down the common lament about Irish football’s insufficient talent pool.
“It’s too easy to say there are no players coming through… There are some good players coming through. Jason Knight looks a useful player from what I’ve seen of him. I also introduced Josh Cullen at 19s. But when I looked at Josh against Serbia, you say to yourself: ‘Are they going to run the game for you at that level? Are they able to?’ They want to, of course, they do, and he’s a great guy, but is he ready? Is Jayson Molumby ready to take those Serbian players on?
“I watch a lot of football around Europe, and the best players on the pitch are often over 30. I was watching Spain the other night, you had Sergio Busquets still playing in the middle.”
Doolin does accept, however, that the current situation at grassroots level is less than ideal.
“I always said this when I was in club football — you want the people involved to have money, but the league is not the number one sport in this country. And it’ll always be third to rugby and GAA, and that’s the unfortunate thing.
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“If you’re talking about running an academy, you have to be able to provide facilities for those players. It’s so difficult to do because it’s so hard to run a League of Ireland club. I just think looking at the structures in there, it’s very difficult.
“What we need is a proper full-time league, with all clubs that are full-time, and they can bring players in and out.”
Stephen Kenny experienced success almost everywhere he went in the League of Ireland. The one clear exception was Shamrock Rovers. Just prior to his arrival, Michael O’Neill had guided the club to remarkable highs, winning the title twice and helping them become the first-ever Irish club to reach the Europa League group stages. Many fans expected the Dubliner to pick up where his predecessor had left off, but it didn’t work out that way. Following a 1-0 loss at home to Bohemians, with the club in fourth, the under-fire boss was sacked less than a year after his appointment.
Nevertheless, Kenny then made a swift recovery, taking charge of Dundalk ahead of the 2013 season, and building a team that won four league titles, as well as matching the Hoops’ achievement of qualifying for the Europa League group stages.
Ciaran Kilduff, a 32-year-old striker who has just made the decision to retire in the past few weeks after leaving Shelbourne at the end of last season, is one of the few individuals who witnessed arguably both Kenny’s best and worst moments in football, as he was part of the respective squads at Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers.
“When he was sacked at Shamrock Rovers, I think everyone was shocked at the timing of it. We went on a decent enough run. Okay, we had a rocky enough start. A few things had happened, there were teething problems.
“I’ve no doubt had the time been allowed to him at Shamrock Rovers, he’d have done something similar [to Dundalk]. It took Shamrock Rovers the guts of a decade to get back to where they thought they belonged, which is where they are now.
“So does everyone need to be afforded time? It looks a bit like that, yes. And obviously, the problem with Stephen’s situation is I don’t know if Irish football has ever been as much on its knees. And I’m not just talking about the senior team, I’m talking about it collectively as a whole.
“Far be it for League of Ireland players to be criticising internationals, but it doesn’t seem like we’re producing the quality of player in the national team that we have been for the last 20-30 years.”
When asked about Kenny’s biggest strengths, Kilduff points to his “humane side”.
“He cares. And they’re the strengths that certain players — I would call myself one of them — would tap into. A good man at the bottom of it all and that rang true in our Dundalk squad anyway.
“There was a warmness to him. You’d see him coming off the pitch with arms around the shoulders. It wasn’t always the way, even when I was coming into football, all managers weren’t like Stephen Kenny. Nowadays, you see the top managers, the Guardiolas and the Klopps are hugging their players and there’s a real bond.
“You’d be gutted for him [after a loss]. That doesn’t mean you’d feel sorry for him. But you’d feel you disappointed the manager because of how much he cares.
“With international football, Stephen doesn’t get a whole lot of time with these lads to build those bonds. Whereas when we were training every day at Dundalk and we had him constantly, you can get to know each other.
“Younger players like the 21s might buy into that more quickly because they’re less exposed to the different styles of management. Whereas maybe sometimes when you’re coming into a senior dressing room, the older lads in the squad might be working under their own managers week in week out at top clubs, they don’t get a whole lot of time to get to understand Stephen and vice versa. The only thing I can say is the proof is in the pudding in terms of Stephen’s League of Ireland career. When he’s given time and allowed to do his thing with a group of players, he tends to get results.”
In the wake of the 11-match winless run and in particular, the Luxembourg loss, there have been calls in some quarters for Kenny to change his approach. And while there have been tweaks in terms of formation and personnel, Kilduff says his former manager will stay true to his core playing principles.
“That’s why he was as successful as he was. That’s why he was considered and ultimately got the job. That’s why he was U21 manager and had so much success there too. It’s very easy to dwell on the negative, but this was always the plan for Stephen Kenny. Nobody in the FAI thought Stephen Kenny was going to come in, say all he said, and then do something different. He came in to try to change the way Irish teams have played football. It might not have worked so far, but it’s what he said he was going to try to do.
“There’s a lot of admiration in that, to try to change what’s been instilled in Irish football for 30-40 years.
“I’m someone who worked under him at a micro-level. He was always that way. It didn’t matter if we were chasing the game.
“The player I was, a 6’3 target man striker, it probably would have suited me a bit more if he went from back to front, but it was never his principle.
“I’ve been in enough dressing rooms with him, for a long enough time to know that was never his style.
“It’s funny, I was recently finishing my Uefa B licence and I had to analyse two games for the assignment. And the two games I had to do were Irish 21s games managed by Stephen Kenny — one was the Sweden game, and one was the Armenia game. If I didn’t know [the context], I would have known it was a Stephen Kenny team. It was like I was cheating in the assignment.
“But when you’ve played under Stephen Kenny, you understand the system, you understand the role. There’s me analysing from my own studies, a Stephen Kenny team, and you can see everything. He’s one of the few managers I’ve played under that has a stamp – that looks like a Stephen Kenny team because of x, y and z. His formation, his full-backs’ positions, the role of the 9, there’s a lot in it and that’s his biggest asset in the fact that he has a style of play and he will stick to it.”
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