Following loss after loss, the question on most of our lips is: What will it take for Ireland to qualify for major tournaments again?
The European Championships are in full swing with France, the 9/2 favourites (at the time this article was written) in the Euro 2020 Winner Odds doing little to dissuade us of their ability to make it a World Cup and European Championship clean sweep.
As an Irish football fan, it was impossible not to watch the last round of group games without casting your mind back to Robbie Brady’s late winner against Italy in Euro 2016.
Likewise, it was also impossible not to watch Slovakia – the side that vanquished Ireland in the Nations League Play-Offs – putting in one of the worst performances in European Championship history against Spain. We all wondered wondered, “Sheesh, how badly would we have done?”
After that penalty defeat to Slovakia in 2020, the focus for Stephen Kenny’s side turned to World Cup 2022 qualification. But barring an absolute miracle, that looks unlikely. So what will it take for Ireland to qualify for major tournaments again? Read on to find out.
Back Kenny or sack Kenny – no middle ground
There really is no middle ground when it comes to the Ireland manager. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have to both give their man a vote of confidence and trust in him.
Alternatively, get him out of the door and return to the approach of appointing pragmatic, defensive managers.
Everyone knew when Stephen Kenny replaced Mick McCarthy that there would be bumps along the way.
Whilst McCarthy undoubtedly had success throughout his managerial career, he achieved it playing a certain style that the FAI and the average Ireland fan had grown tired of.
On the other hand, Kenny prefers his teams to play a possession orientated game with an emphasis on attacking football. It will take time for a country well-versed in pragmatic football to adapt to Kenny’s style of play.
If the FAI believe that the team will eventually adapt and blossom into a successful team that plays exciting football, they have to stick with Kenny regardless of how bad things get in the short term.
So when it comes to asking, “What will it take for Ireland to qualify for major tournaments again?” You have to look to Kenny. If the FAI have any doubts about Kenny’s ability to manage that change, now is the time to act.
Focus on youth – look to the younger generations
One reason Stephen Kenny was given the reins with the Ireland national team was his record of working with young players. Which, for the FAI, seems like an uncharacteristically clever decision.
There is no escaping the lack of quality available to the Ireland manager at present. The 11 that so shambolically lost to Luxembourg earlier this year had a distinct Championship vibe to it.
With players struggling for playing time at clubs like Cardiff City and Derby County, Ireland is never going to excel. One of the most common refrains from Ireland fans in recent years has been, “Why can’t we be more like Wales or Scotland?”
The simple answer to that is that we do not have the same level of players as those two nations. There is no Gareth Bale, no Billy Gilmour, no Aaron Ramsey, and no Andy Robertson for Stephen Kenny to select.
One of the most obvious answers to the question, “What will it take for Ireland to qualify for major tournaments again?” is this. If we want to improve as a nation, we will have to focus on producing players capable of reaching the levels of those Welsh and Scottish superstars.
Turn possession into penetration – focus on scoring
In March, when Ireland lost to Luxembourg, they had 63% possession and over 200 more passes than their opponents.
Yet, they finished the game with fewer shots on target than the Luxembourg side. And, in truth, they never looked in danger of scoring themselves.
Despite instructing his full-backs to push further up and encouraging his centre-backs to join in with attacks, Ireland was lacklustre in the final third of the pitch. This is something that has become emblematic of Kenny’s reign thus far.
The reason for that paucity in attacking areas was the complete and utter lack of movement from attacking players. Rather than taking advantage of the space created by their manager’s offensive approach, Ireland’s forward players got in one another’s way
In addition, they seemed more concerned with forming the pivot in a passing triangle than turning and running behind their markers. This is perhaps understandable as it takes time for players to adapt to new tactical styles, especially at the international level, where coaches have less time to influence players.
Perhaps though, it would be wise for Kenny to pick players who are more adept at possession football. In the defeat to Luxembourg, James Collins, Alan Browne, Jayson Molumby, and James McClean all played in advanced areas.
All of them play for Championship clubs that play a distinctly route one style of football that is anathema to Kenny’s philosophy.
Whilst we recognise that Kenny has a limited pool of players to choose from, he could still try a little harder to include more players to suit his tactical style.
Target the Nations League – looking to the future
When asking, “What will it take for Ireland to qualify for major tournaments again?”, we just have to accept that qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is not going to happen.
The problem facing Ireland in terms of World Cup qualification is that they are likely to be, at best, the third-best team in any group they are drawn in.
With the group winners qualifying automatically and the runners up going into a play-off, Ireland has an uphill struggle in World Cup groups.
Conversely, though, it is harder than ever to not qualify for the European Championships with teams given two routes of access to the tournament – traditional qualifying and the Nations League play-offs.
In Ireland’s last Nations League group, they failed to record a win in six games against Wales, Finland, and an incredibly poor Bulgaria side.
They can’t do that next time as they know topping their group provides them a tangible route to qualification for Euro 2024. We believe that Ireland will rise again. And we certainly hope to see a much more confident team in years to come.