Despite playing France and the Netherlands twice throughout the year, tonight’s end-of-season meaningless friendly against New Zealand may prove to be the most significant.
The final game of the 2023 calendar year also looks set to be the last outing for Stephen Kenny as manager of the Ireland team.
Kenny’s contract will officially run out tonight following the culmination of the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign; it would have continued until March had Ireland managed to secure one of the available play-off places via the Nations League route, and again extended had Ireland qualified for next summer’s tournament in Germany.
In truth, Ireland’s involvement in the European Championships never looked realistic from the moment France and the Netherlands were drawn alongside Kenny’s side in Group B, while the failed Nations League campaign – finishing third behind Scotland and Ukraine – meant that the play-offs were always going to be aspirational.
And so it proved.
Now Ireland will have to wait until September before they are involved in meaningful competitive action with the resumption of the next edition of the Nations League.
In effect, it gives the FAI time to map out their preferred route for the future, however, they must make a call on the current manager over the next week or two.
Without assurances of future employment, there is no choice now but to plough on, prepare for the visit of New Zealand, and see what happens, however, there is a sense that Kenny feels that his time might be up, stating “if it is my last game, so be it” at today’s press conference, while stressing that he would wish any future manager well in the roll.
Kenny was confirmed as Ireland manager in bizarre circumstances, on the same day that Mick McCarthy was unveiled as the new manager of the national team, in one of the last major decisions of the John Delaney era of the FAI.
McCarthy would be in charge for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and Kenny would take over following the tournament, irrespective of whether Ireland qualified or not.
Starting out on such shaky ground, it was perhaps not surprising that things would get even more bizarre with the arrival of Covid, the postponement of the tournament, and as a result, the moving of the play-offs from March to October 2020.
McCarthy’s contract was due to run out in the summer of 2020, meaning that Kenny would be handed the reins ahead of the play-offs, offering the new man a great chance to make an immediate impact.
Kenny officially took over the role in April of 2020, however, he had to wait until September before he got a chance to introduce himself to the squad with a Nations League double header against Bulgaria away and at home to Finland.
That first night in charge showed glimpses of what the manager said he was going to bring to the role, an Ireland team playing football the right way, employing a front-foot, possession-based approach.
Players with “talent and pace” was how Kenny described his first XI, which included some long-since departed, like Darren Randolph and James McCarthy, while Adam Idah made his international debut in a youthful attack with Aaron Connolly also starting.
A remarkable 78% possession for Ireland in the first 20 minutes – they would end up with a creditable 63%, however, there were also some comical moments as the team trialled playing out from the back.
Then Bulgaria scored, putting the possession stats into perspective, while Ireland didn’t threaten too often and had to rely on an old-school Shane Duffy up in the box-type goal to salvage something.
If the manager avoided defeat in the first game, thanks to that injury-time equaliser, it took just three more days for that first real blot on the copybook as Ireland were beaten 1-0 at home to Finland at an empty Lansdowne Road.
It would become a theme for the opening ten games of the manager’s tenure as the team showed real moments of promise, but ultimately were unable to create nor convert chances.
Perhaps a victory in the play-off might have sent Kenny’s side on a different trajectory, however, that penalty shoot-out defeat in Bratislava was a sign of what was to come.
Seven defeats and three draws from that opening stretch, while Ireland did not score for seven consecutive games, which included a 3-0 hammering by England at Wembley Stadium.
That Covid cloud hung over the Ireland camp throughout, so there was a sense that by the time the World Cup campaign started, it was a chance for Kenny to kick-start his tenure and attempt to make it to the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Ireland took the lead in Serbia in the first game of that campaign, and while the eventual 3-2 defeat did not damage moral or the qualification chances too much, another major body blow would take the wind out of the team’s sails just three days later as Luxembourg came to Dublin and won 1-0.
If the two defeats to Greece prove to be the final nail in Kenny’s time in charge, that shocking defeat at the Aviva to a very average Luxembourg side was the moment when the manager’s critics – some having been vocal before he even started in the role – had the ammunition to start taking shots.
With a double-header against Portugal and a home tie against Serbia still to come, the World Cup looked a long way away.
But this was Kenny’s short-lived golden period in the role as his side led 1-0 away to Portugal, before cruelly losing to two late, late Cristiano Ronaldo goals, and the team backed up that performance with impressive draws at home to Serbia and Portugal once more.
Ireland then drew with Belgium 2-2 in a home friendly, while they also looked comfortable winning on the road against teams that they should beat, like Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.
Nine positive months – the home draw against Azerbaijan the only real exception – and while World Cup qualification proved a long way off, there was a sense that Kenny’s team would hit their peak over the next path to tournament football.
Kenny would then call on his side to top their Nations League group, which would guarantee a Euro play-off and promotion to high-profile fixtures, but the inconsistencies reared their heads as Ireland lost their opening two games against Armenia and Ukraine.
That positive 3-0 victory over Scotland restored some pride and offered hope, however, the team could not back it up by failing to get the required wins away from home against the Scots and Ukraine resulting in the lowly finish.
Kenny had, by this stage, secured a new contract to take him into the Euro 2024, but it would appear that here is where the story ends.
James McClean’s final game in green takes the spotlight off the manager ahead of the game, however, Kenny was still staying in manager mode until the decision is definitive.
Kenny looks set to reward some of his loyal players with gametime tonight, and while the result is immaterial, he is still keen to end the year and perhaps his tenure with a strong performance.
Nathan Collins is ruled out; however, Evan Ferguson appears fits enough to be available for selection having come off early in the second half on Saturday night.
“In international football when you have friendly games you have to utilise the squad,” said Kenny.
“People give their commitment, travelling around Europe for five camps a year, they give their commitment, every day in training and sometimes you have to reward that as well.
“There will be some changes, but we want a strong performance against New Zealand, we have to try and finish the season on a high.”
One of the real positives of the Kenny era has been the bump in crowds as the new generation of Irish football are embracing live action for both club and country.
It will be close to a full house at Lansdowne Road tonight, and while the Kenny era has not delivered on its quest for tournament football, there is an appreciation for the ambition and tireless grafting of a manager who earned the support of the players and the fans, but it aappears that he was never really able to garner the full backing of those who ultimately will make the decisions on his future and the future of Irish football.