Sean Connor: Stephen Kenny and a tale of two teams

​”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’’

​This well repeated excerpt is from Dickens historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

One of the morals that can be drawn from the novel, is that things are not always as they seem. From the outset in his novel Dickens begins developing the core theme of duality.

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The pairings of such contrasting concepts as the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of times, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ reflect the mirror images of good and evil that will appear in characters and situations throughout the novel. These dualities of feelings such as’ hope’ and ‘despair’, ‘joy’ and ‘despondency’ are a well-worn badge of honour for football fans the world over.

This weekend past saw the latest round of group qualification games in the European Championships. Ireland lost away to Greece in a dismal and lacklustre performance. Scotland won with two goals in a two-minute spell, away to Norway. I am aware that Northern Ireland had a valiant defeat away to Denmark. But I want to talk this week about the head coaches of Scotland and Ireland, Stephen Kenny and Steve Clarke, respectively.

After only three games Scotland sit top of their group on nine points and three wins, including one over Spain. This gives them a real chance of qualifying for back-to-Back European Championships. Hope abounds.

On the other hand Ireland are sitting second bottom in their group of five with little, if any hope of qualification. Already the rest of this campaign looks to be a case of saving face, and continuing to spin the story of a journey and process, the duality of ‘hope’ but the reality is ‘agony’.

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Now back to the morals from A Tale of Two Cities, and the theme of duality and comparisons can made between the managerial tenures of Stephen Kenny, with nine wins out of 34 games with Ireland, and Steve Clarke with 22 wins from 44 games with Scotland. Both men were appointed about a year apart, Clarke in May 2019 and Kenny awkwardly shunted into his role in April 2020. Both national sides were adrift and bereft of hope and leadership, now over three years later, both men have delivered polar opposite results.

Clarke qualified for European Championships in 2020, and missed out on World Cup qualification in a play-off in an emotional filled contest against Ukraine. The Scottish fans had their share of exuberant joy and disappointment along the way, and the fun continues.

Stephen Kenny, on the other hand has delivered an abundance of enthusiastic hope, only to be followed by lack-lustre disappointment. He was pronounced by all and sundry in the Dublin based media as the panacea to Ireland’s football malaise. He was going to develop a new progressive technical and possession-based style of play; Ireland was going to dominate the ball. In the early days he talked about the process and the journey of development his team was on. He talked about the introduction and development of young players, and how this would take time.

Clarke, to the best of my knowledge has never talked about a change of style, needing time or bringing through younger players. Squad development as an international football coach is one of the main areas to focus on, building and adding to your squad throughout your tenure. I have heard Clarke talk about building his squad mentality and making all the players understand their importance to the group, and individually to the overall plan. Scotland look to have a very clear identity in their play, they know their strengths, they are getting results along the way. As a group of players they look as if they enjoy being with each other, working for each other and delivering for the supporters.

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Ireland on the other hand, seem to be stagnating, in fact they maybe regressing, as the lack of results and performance levels erode the confidence of the players. The game on Friday evening, all be it in a balmy Athens, was lifeless. Greece was better in possession, and with their tactical applications. Ireland on the other hand looked like a side with no real style of play, and more importantly no ideas on how to adapt their game as the match progressed.

This is a worrying trend that has been evident for a long time, Stephen’s teams always seem to lack the ability to change and adjust mid-game. Every team has a plan, a vision of what they want to do, but the best also have the ability to change mid-game, to react to the proceedings as they happen.

On Friday against Greece, Ireland looked like an old vinyl LP stuck on the turn table, unable to change tempo or get things moving. I am not sure if this is down to the manager’s own indecision, or a lack of ability from the players. I have always found that the better the player the better his decision making and ability to read a game as it unfolds.

A Tale of two Cities ends with the main character finding both resurrection and redemption through his death. ‘And where France will be restored to peace and order’’, the novel ends with a sense of optimism, as opposed to a soul-destroying defeat. Unfortunately, I cannot see any redemption for Kenny or this beleaguered Ireland squad. It was 29 years ago to the day that a Ray Houghton inspired Ireland defeated Italy in the World Cup. “It was the best of times’’. For Ireland and Stephen Kenny, this campaign looks like the ‘worst of times”. Steve Clarke on the other hand looks like his team are in the ‘spring of hope’.