Before a ball was even kicked in the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, the pressure on boss Stephen Kenny had intensified.
Having failed to secure his first win in eight attempts after succeeding Mick McCarthy in April 2020, it was hoped the opening qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg would launch Kenny’s reign in earnest.
But after defeat in Belgrade, the Republic were stunned by the minnows in Dublin in a defeat – branded “embarrassing” by captain Seamus Coleman – that ranked among the worst in the team’s history.
Their hopes of reaching a first World Cup since 2002 in tatters after two games, Kenny has since overseen a marked improvement with one defeat in 10 games, a sequence that has strengthened his case for a contract extension.
But what can Republic fans take away from the World Cup qualifying campaign, and what does the future hold for Kenny? BBC Sport NI takes a look.
The Republic’s confidence was brittle as they geared up for March’s opening qualifier in Belgrade after scoring just one goal in Kenny’s first eight games at the helm.
And while Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic’s second-half double spelled a 3-2 defeat, there were clear signs of improvement from the performances the Boys in Green produced during the three international windows in the latter months of 2020, as evidenced by Alan Browne’s headed goal that arrived at the end of a well-worked move.
But any goodwill banked in Belgrade quickly evaporated three days later, replaced with the ignominy of losing at home to Luxembourg, a team ranked 56 places lower than them.
Unquestionably the crushing nadir of the Kenny era, that result shattered any lingering confidence in the current side, who registered just three shots on target against a Luxembourg team that proceeded to ship 13 goals in their four meetings with Portugal and Serbia.
And as Luxembourg toasted their first qualifying win away from home since 2008, a shell-shocked Republic camp entered a period of intense soul-searching as they reckoned with the increasing probability of missing out on a spot in next year’s finals in Qatar.
Faith in youth
The solitary positive from that miserable night in Dublin was undoubtedly goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu’s introduction into the senior international set-up.
Kenny had praised the 19-year-old’s distribution skills prior to his debut and the young stopper has since ably demonstrated his credentials, displaying an impressive passing range, belting out instructions to his defenders and earning acclaim for saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty.
Having now established himself as the first choice between the sticks, Bazunu is the leading light in a crop of exciting youngsters tipped for big international futures as Kenny looks to further shape this side in his image.
Indeed, Will Keane became the 12th player to earn a senior debut under Kenny when he came on for a late cameo against Portugal on Thursday.
And while the Wigan striker is Kenny’s oldest debutant at 28, Bazunu, Adam Idah, Jason Knight and Andrew Omobamidele all made their bows as teenagers with Nathan Collins, Jayson Molumby and Dara O’Shea – all 21 on debut – among those to have injected further fresh blood into the squad.
There is plenty of optimism surrounding the young guns, too.
Omobamidele and O’Shea both look capable to become long-term fixtures in the Irish rear-guard, while higher up the pitch, 25-year-old Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen – who impressed for Kenny with the under-21s – has formed a stable partnership with Jeff Hendrick, who has looked rejuvenated during the latter stages of the campaign.
The likes of Idah, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson, who has scored six in his last four games, also offer Kenny dynamic options in an attack that has hit 10 goals in the last four games.
Kenny has spoken passionately about his belief in the Republic’s emerging talent, and while further development is required before they can help secure qualification to a major tournament, one of the 50-year-old’s clearest successes has been ushering in the next generation.
|Player||Date||Opponent||Age on debut|
|Adam Idah||3 September 2020||Bulgaria||19|
|Jayson Molumby||6 September 2020||Finland||21|
|Dara O’Shea||14 October 2020||Finland||21|
|Jason Knight||14 October 2020||Finland||19|
|Ryan Manning||18 November 2020||Bulgaria||24|
|Gavin Bazunu||27 March 2021||Luxembourg||19|
|Jamie McGrath||3 June 2021||Andorra||24|
|Caoimhin Kelleher||8 June 2021||Hungary||22|
|Chiedozie Ogbene||8 June 2021||Hungary||24|
|Andrew Omobamidele||1 September 2021||Portugal||19|
|Nathan Collins||12 October 2021||Qatar||20|
|Will Keane||11 November 2021||Portugal||28|
Turning the corner
With their qualification hopes hanging by a thread, the Republic’s mission when the campaign resumed in September was to ensure the mood did not worsen after Luxembourg.
And having sealed Kenny’s first win with a 4-1 friendly success over Andorra, they did just that.
Denied a famous win in Portugal by the late Ronaldo show in Faro, the Republic were in danger of slumping to another damaging reverse at home to Azerbaijan only for Shane Duffy’s late leveller to spare Kenny’s blushes.
A point at home to Serbia followed before a morale-boosting October that yielded seven goals – five of them scored by Robinson – in wins over Azerbaijan and Qatar.
And while the goals dried up when Portugal visited Dublin on Thursday, Kenny’s side closed out the campaign on a high with a 3-0 revenge victory over Luxembourg, bringing their 2021 goals tally to 20 in 12 games, two more than they managed in 27 matches across 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Kenny’s side have improved at the other end, too, with four consecutive clean sheets marking their best run under a single manager for the first time since October 2011, a run of eight under Giovanni Trapattoni.
A new deal on the horizon?
With Kenny’s first full qualifying series in the books, the question on every Republic fan’s minds is a simple one: will the Football Association of Ireland stick with the Dubliner?
Back in March, his hopes of remaining in the role beyond next summer – when his contract is due to expire – appeared slim at best.
The Luxembourg defeat seemingly left the 50-year-old on the brink, but he deserves credit for the manner in which he has restored pride after such a disastrous start to the campaign.
And after coming through a first year in the job which was heavily disrupted by injuries and Covid-related withdrawals from his squads, there is a growing sense that he has settled on his best starting line-up, a critical aspect for any manager in the quest for consistency.
He certainly seems to have the players’ backing. When asked about Kenny’s future last week, Cullen said the FAI’s decision should be “pretty straightforward” while Duffy described the manager as “brilliant”.
Ringing endorsements, for sure, but does the FAI feel the same way? Only time will tell.