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Highlights on Off The Ball

John Duggan: Now is the time to hand Stephen Kenny a new contract

John Duggan writes that there will be bumps along the road, but Republic of Ireland manager Steph...

John Duggan: Now is the time t...

John Duggan: Now is the time to hand Stephen Kenny a new contract

John Duggan writes that there will be bumps along the road, but Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny deserves a crack at the Euros...

Are you ready hey are you ready for this?
Are you hanging on the edge of your seat?
Out of the doorway, the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat yeah

Queen, Another One Bites The Dust 

Jason McAteer scored for the Republic of Ireland against the Netherlands on September 1st, 2001, one of the greatest days in our football history. It was a win that effectively qualified us for the World Cup in Korea and Japan. At a heaving Lansdowne Road, full of thundering passion and patriotism, McAteer placed his arms out in a Jesus-like pose once he'd scored, before darting away in pure exhilaration. Everyone in the country was intoxicated by joy at that moment.

Ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Portugal, exactly 20 years to the day, I certainly felt those images and those memories were of the past. That we'd never have players such as Roy Keane, Robbie Keane, or Damien Duff again. And right now, we don't, which is why the performance against Portugal was so exhilarating.

I couldn't care less about the result. In the cold light of day, our World Cup campaign was over with successive defeats to Serbia and Luxembourg. But for the first time since Euro 2016, I was hanging on the edge of my seat, counting the second-half clock, sending out silly GIFs on Twitter. John Egan's goal had Stephen Kenny's men on the road to a remarkable victory against the 8th ranked team in the world before Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo produced two very late headers to win it for Portugal.

It was disappointing, but I had a smile on my face. We were playing against world-class opposition. Ronaldo. Ruben Dias. Bruno Fernandes.

I am thinking differently about the national team under Kenny. I have copped on that the approach of Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill and Mick McCarthy (second time around) to qualify us for tournaments at all costs, at the expense of an attractive footballing style, was short-sighted. Those managers served our country with honour and we had some wonderful moments, but they were fleeting moments.

Against Portugal, Kenny's team punched above their weight. It's dawned on me that defeats to Luxembourg will be bumps on the road in the bigger picture. Gavin Bazunu is 19 years of age. Andrew Omobamidele, who came into the trenches cold, is also 19. Adam Idah, who led the line in a manner Jack Charlton would be proud of, is 20. Aaron Connolly is 21 and still has time to improve his final product. The composed Dara O'Shea is 22. Midfielders Jamie McGrath and Josh Cullen are 24 and 25 respectively - and they held their own.

Stephen Kenny has worked with these players. He knows them. He is knitting a shape and a belief that can hopefully turn improving performances into wins. Remember, he had a Covid crisis and wasn't able to get to games in the UK. The summer camp in Spain was of obvious benefit. It's important that the Boys in Green beat Azerbaijan in front of fans on Saturday, but if we don't, it's not the end of the world.

Kenny's contract expires next July. He needs time. Otherwise, what's the point of him being there? What's the value in appointing a Sam Allardyce type as a short-term measure? Michael O'Neill had one win in 18 games before turning out to be Northern Ireland's best manager since Billy Bingham. International football is not the club game. It's about a clear purpose and unity. Greece won a European Championship; Croatia reached a World Cup final; Turkey and South Korea made the semi-finals of a World Cup. When I think of England, I don't believe the conservative Gareth Southgate is getting the best out of an unbelievably talented group of players. That will cost them the World Cup in Qatar.

With Kenny, I see a brave manager with a proven track record at club level who has been dealt a difficult hand. He is steadfast in his belief that football should be easy on the eye and I commend the courage of his convictions. People may feel he is naive in his philosophy with technically inferior players to other countries, but we have to start somewhere. Until there is a robust football industry in Ireland to backbone the national team, it's always going to be a challenging environment. Against that backdrop, progression is all we can ask for, and all we can hope for is a sane FAI and state investment in the game and in a national Academy.

So let's hope the FAI acknowledges this and supports Stephen Kenny with a new deal so he can spend time on the more achievable goal of qualifying the Republic of Ireland for the 24-team European Championship in Germany in 2024.

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