The end of 2021 was a good one for the Ireland team and also for manager Stephen Kenny, after the September games Kenny’s job was on the line, performances had improved but alas results hadn’t. Going into the Azerbaijan game away, it was win or bust. As it happened it was an emphatic 3-0 away victory, followed by a 4-0 win at home to Qatar, the 0-0 draw with Portugal and the final morale boasting 3-0 away victory over Luxembourg.
You could feel the giant sigh of relief from Kenny, his coaching team and the players, it was a tough year. Those four results have now energised everyone from sceptical fans and pundits, to critical ex-players and most importantly to the FAI, who look likely to extend Kenny’s contract. Kenny can sit up and relax in a much-needed Christmas break (it must have been a very stressful year) and plan ahead for the upcoming friendlies in March and also the Nations League games which begin in June.
Here are five key areas the Ireland manager will need to address in 2022
Plan for the Nations League games
On December 16th the draw will be made with Ireland in League B, which contains a lot of decent sides. With an eye on Euro 2024 qualification, navigating these games well could be the ticket to getting to the Euros. We could get two excellent sides in the Euro 2024 qualifiers and do well but finish third and not get into the Euros. Which makes the NL games so important, with games been played in June at the end of the club season it’s not a great time for international matches. You can’t plan for these type of games like you are playing at UK platform PartyCasino. Kenny will need to prep well and aim to top the group, the NL play offs could be the winning lottery ticket to the Euro 2024 pot. The pot the heavily indebted FAI so badly need.
Get Caoimhin Kelleher some games
Keeper Kelleher looks like an outstanding prospect, in his few games for Liverpool he has been exceptionally assured, his passing skills are better than Allison Bekker and look as good as Man City’s Ederson. He has a great presence in the box and he can pull of solid saves. But for all that we we haven’t seen enough games to really know how much is just potential and the only way to truly know is through playing games. At Liverpool he will get another handful at most this season. For Ireland, Gavin Bazunu has been the best break-through player by some distance, and he is rightly number 1. But Kelleher needs some games and in the march friendlies Kenny should start him in both games and if possible get him some game time in the NL games as well.
Pray for his strikers
This really is an issue which Kenny has no control over. Not one of Ireland’s best strikers are first team starters. Callum Robinson, after a great start for West Brom is a sub. Adam Idah has gotten less than 90 minutes so far in the Premier League. Aaron Connolly is barely getting a look at Brighton. Troy Parrot was scoring and starting but was demoted to the bench and got sent off in his last game and has a three match ban. Michael Obafemi is very injury prone. Will Keane is the only one scoring and playing but he is far down the pecking order. Get your rosary beads out Kenny and get praying.
Get game time for midfield replacements for Hendrik and Hourihane
The Ireland keeper and defensive options look very strong, our midfield is in better shape that when Kenny first started but it is still an area which can be improved upon. Jeff Hendrick has been a revelation by his previous average standards, which has been great to see. But he is getting no games at Newcastle, and is more likely to regress than improve. Conor Hourihane is too good for Ireland, The Championship and former club Aston Villa, he needs to be playing alongside a world class midfield so his talents can shine. Unfortunately for him he’s not going to find that with Ireland or Sheffield United, so he’s a luxury we can’t afford. Kenny will need to push on and blood two more players to fill these midfield spots. Gavin Kilkenny has been earning many plaudits for his performances at Bournemouth and should be called up to the senior squad in March. Jason Knight back from injury has looked class for Derby and his cameo performance against Luxembourg in Ireland’s last game should see him become a first pick for Kenny in 2022. These two players will definitely bring Ireland’s midfield to the next level.
Make up his mind on the left back position
With the switch to wing backs in 2021 the one position that hasn’t been resolved was left wing back. Matt Doherty played on the left and Seamus Coleman on the right way to Portugal and it worked very well. Coleman was injured and Doherty impressed as right wing back. James McLean and Enda Stevens have both played and done ok, but neither have really impressed enough to be get the vote to be the main starter. There are one or two younger untried options that could be played in the March friendlies. It’s a tough call for Kenny to finalise, it’s these fine margins that games are won or lost.