Let’s put our foot on the ball here.
It’s October 7, 2006, and Steve Staunton’s head is bowed, almost like he is trying to avoid the flashing cameras and high-pitched vitriol. He is trying to avoid the flashing cameras and high-pitched vitriol. He wishes the Nicosia turf would suck him up and bury him where he will never be seen again.
The scoreboard reads: Cyprus 5 Ireland 2.
The Ireland team sheet reads: Paddy Kenny, Steve Finnan, John O’Shea, Andy O’Brien, Richard Dunne; Kevin Kilbane, Aidan McGeady, Stephen Ireland, Clinton Morrision; Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.
For those of a younger era, or those whose memories have been somewhat eroded by the pandemic blues or merely just over time, that’s NINE Premier League players with Aiden McGeady performing consistently with Celtic in the Scottish Premier League while Clinton Morrisson was the sole player not plying his trade in the ‘top tier’. He was playing with Crystal Palace in the Championship.
Steve Finnan had just won the Champions League with Liverpool, John O’Shea would win the Premier League title with Manchester United that season and would pick up five in all at Old Trafford with the Champions League arriving in 2008. Damien Duff was in the form of his life after back-to-back Premier League titles with Chelsea, Robbie Keane was banging them in with Tottenham and would make a big-money move to Liverpool two years later.
This was a damn good Ireland side.
Staunton was vilified in the media. Someone turned up dressed as the Muppets at the training ground. Let’s be frank here, let’s hope we never experience that type of shitebaggery every again.
Staunton did, however, deserve stern and pointed criticism. He was a well-paid international manager with, certainly in the context of Irish teams, a bloody good side who should have torn the Cypriots apart. The criticism may have gone too far, but all reasoned barbs fired his way were justified.
And the reason, as always with an international manager who can’t simply go out and snap up a few superstars with the swirl of a pen, is the team did not perform anywhere near as well as the sum of its parts.
We are starting to hear voices in the media and on social media about how Stephen Kenny has not been up to the job. As is so often the case, the context gets lost in the noise.
Stephen Kenny can only dream of that side Staunton had in 2006.
But right now, he will be dreaming of just having his first 11 fit and ready to play the game the way he wants it to be played. Implementing a new system is hard enough without having every position decimated.
In Stephen Kenny’s last match in charge of Ireland, 16 players were not available. SIXTEEN. In his eight games so far, the strongest 11 he has had on the pitch was against Slovakia when we performed admirably. We should have won and should have been in a play-of final. It didn’t happen due to poor finishing and poorer penalties.
Instead of a play-off final, Kenny and Ireland entered a period of numerous injuries and Covid absentees. There were some promising signs in terms of the system and how we can keep the ball. We arguably played to the sum of our parts at times, but for every game the squads dwindled.
YBIG has never been shy to dish out the criticism and we will do so, fairly, if Stephen Kenny fails to deliver. If his team consistently fails to play to the sum of its parts. That’s all anyone can ask.
Anyone who can put their hand on heart and say they can stand over fervent criticism is, quite frankly, talking shite. We will judge Stephen Kenny when he has a consistent Ireland squad.
Before then, put the pitch forks down.
PRE-MATCH PARTY ON YBIG
It’s the dawn of a new campaign. The World Cup. Magical. Nerve-racking. Butterflies. Thirst for pints. Oh how wish things were normal and we were clinking glasses in a Belgrade bar.
But we are trying something new on Wednesday. Catalpa – yes, the brilliant ballad band who are mad Irish fans – have recorded a special hour-long music session which we will stream live on our social media platforms. Dress up in your gear and post a pic of yourself supporting the lads and you are in the competition for one of our brand new adidas 12th man jerseys. The action kicks off at 6pm on our Twitter and Facebook pages.
SERBIA V IRELAND – ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
Wednesday, March 24 in the Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade.
7.45pm (Irish time)
Live coverage on RTÉ 2 and RTÉ Player from 7pm
YBIG’S STARTING 11
Yes, we are going with Matt Doherty at centre back. He was exceptional in that position when moved there against Wales in the Nations League.
Mark Travers; Seamus Coleman, Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, Enda Stevens; Callum Robinson, Jeff Hendrick, Jayson Molumby, Jeff Hendrick, Josh Cullen, James McClean; Aaron Connolly
WHAT THEY SAID
“This is an absolute honour, to manage your country into the World Cup qualifiers is a privilege.
“I want to get positive results and put in a really strong performance in Serbia.
“Serbia are an extremely talented team. We’ve seen that in some of their games. Obviously, they beat Russia 5-0 and they played well. It’s our ambition to win the game, like any other game, we’re not setting the team up in defensive mode.
“Look, overall, the team lacks experience in key positions but there is a lot of talent within the group and I’m hoping that we can create a performance to get the result that we need.”
“I can’t explain how much I’ve missed it. It’s been something that’s been on my mind. I love playing for my country and I can’t even remember when the last one was – it might have been my sending off, which is a very long time.
“Then I came in and I was injured for most of the other selections, unfortunately. I was doing quite well at club level and just picked up a niggle before we met up with something, which has been disappointing.
“To get here, to be with the lads, to be with the staff is an amazing feeling, but then ultimately getting out there and putting on the green shirt is what we always want, and that’s what I want tomorrow, so we’ll see what happens.
“But I’m delighted to be here and I cannot wait to get started again.”
Goalkeepers: Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth), Gavin Bazunu (Rochdale, on loan from Manchester City), Kieran O’Hara (Burton Albion).
Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Shane Duffy (Celtic, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Dara O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), Cyrus Christie (Nottingham Forest), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers).
Midfielders: Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (Preston North End, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Jason Knight (Derby County), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Conor Coventry (West Ham United).
Wingers: Robbie Brady (Burnley), James McClean (Stoke City), Daryl Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers), Ronan Curtis (Portsmouth).
Strikers: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Aaron Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion), Shane Long (AFC Bournemouth, on loan from Southampton), James Collins (Luton Town), Troy Parrott (Ipswich Town, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur).