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World Cup qualifying: ‘Stephen Kenny deserves credit for turning the corner as Republic future comes into focus’

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Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele and Chiedozie Ogbene
Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele and Chiedozie Ogbene have all impressed since being handed their international debuts by Kenny

Before a ball was even kicked in the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign, the pressure on boss Stephen Kenny had intensified.

Having failed to secure his first win in eight attempts after succeeding Mick McCarthy in April 2020, it was hoped the opening qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg would launch Kenny’s reign in earnest.

But after defeat in Belgrade, the Republic were stunned by the minnows in Dublin in a defeat – branded “embarrassing” by captain Seamus Coleman – that ranked among the worst in the team’s history.

Their hopes of reaching a first World Cup since 2002 in tatters after two games, Kenny has since overseen a marked improvement with one defeat in 10 games, a sequence that has strengthened his case for a contract extension.

But what can Republic fans take away from the World Cup qualifying campaign, and what does the future hold for Kenny? BBC Sport NI takes a look.

Shaky start

The Republic’s confidence was brittle as they geared up for March’s opening qualifier in Belgrade after scoring just one goal in Kenny’s first eight games at the helm.

And while Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic’s second-half double spelled a 3-2 defeat, there were clear signs of improvement from the performances the Boys in Green produced during the three international windows in the latter months of 2020, as evidenced by Alan Browne’s headed goal that arrived at the end of a well-worked move.

But any goodwill banked in Belgrade quickly evaporated three days later, replaced with the ignominy of losing at home to Luxembourg, a team ranked 56 places lower than them.

Unquestionably the crushing nadir of the Kenny era, that result shattered any lingering confidence in the current side, who registered just three shots on target against a Luxembourg team that proceeded to ship 13 goals in their four meetings with Portugal and Serbia.

And as Luxembourg toasted their first qualifying win away from home since 2008, a shell-shocked Republic camp entered a period of intense soul-searching as they reckoned with the increasing probability of missing out on a spot in next year’s finals in Qatar.

Stephen Kenny dejected during the Republic of Ireland's defeat by Luxembourg
The home defeat by Luxembourg piled the pressure on Kenny, who at that point had failed to secure his first win as Republic boss in 10 attempts

Faith in youth

The solitary positive from that miserable night in Dublin was undoubtedly goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu’s introduction into the senior international set-up.

Kenny had praised the 19-year-old’s distribution skills prior to his debut and the young stopper has since ably demonstrated his credentials, displaying an impressive passing range, belting out instructions to his defenders and earning acclaim for saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty.

Having now established himself as the first choice between the sticks, Bazunu is the leading light in a crop of exciting youngsters tipped for big international futures as Kenny looks to further shape this side in his image.

Indeed, Will Keane became the 12th player to earn a senior debut under Kenny when he came on for a late cameo against Portugal on Thursday.

And while the Wigan striker is Kenny’s oldest debutant at 28, Bazunu, Adam Idah, Jason Knight and Andrew Omobamidele all made their bows as teenagers with Nathan Collins, Jayson Molumby and Dara O’Shea – all 21 on debut – among those to have injected further fresh blood into the squad.

There is plenty of optimism surrounding the young guns, too.

Omobamidele and O’Shea both look capable to become long-term fixtures in the Irish rear-guard, while higher up the pitch, 25-year-old Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen – who impressed for Kenny with the under-21s – has formed a stable partnership with Jeff Hendrick, who has looked rejuvenated during the latter stages of the campaign.

The likes of Idah, Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson, who has scored six in his last four games, also offer Kenny dynamic options in an attack that has hit 10 goals in the last four games.

Kenny has spoken passionately about his belief in the Republic’s emerging talent, and while further development is required before they can help secure qualification to a major tournament, one of the 50-year-old’s clearest successes has been ushering in the next generation.

Player Date Opponent Age on debut
Adam Idah 3 September 2020 Bulgaria 19
Jayson Molumby 6 September 2020 Finland 21
Dara O’Shea 14 October 2020 Finland 21
Jason Knight 14 October 2020 Finland 19
Ryan Manning 18 November 2020 Bulgaria 24
Gavin Bazunu 27 March 2021 Luxembourg 19
Jamie McGrath 3 June 2021 Andorra 24
Caoimhin Kelleher 8 June 2021 Hungary 22
Chiedozie Ogbene 8 June 2021 Hungary 24
Andrew Omobamidele 1 September 2021 Portugal 19
Nathan Collins 12 October 2021 Qatar 20
Will Keane 11 November 2021 Portugal 28

Turning the corner

With their qualification hopes hanging by a thread, the Republic’s mission when the campaign resumed in September was to ensure the mood did not worsen after Luxembourg.

And having sealed Kenny’s first win with a 4-1 friendly success over Andorra, they did just that.

Denied a famous win in Portugal by the late Ronaldo show in Faro, the Republic were in danger of slumping to another damaging reverse at home to Azerbaijan only for Shane Duffy’s late leveller to spare Kenny’s blushes.

A point at home to Serbia followed before a morale-boosting October that yielded seven goals – five of them scored by Robinson – in wins over Azerbaijan and Qatar.

And while the goals dried up when Portugal visited Dublin on Thursday, Kenny’s side closed out the campaign on a high with a 3-0 revenge victory over Luxembourg, bringing their 2021 goals tally to 20 in 12 games, two more than they managed in 27 matches across 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Kenny’s side have improved at the other end, too, with four consecutive clean sheets marking their best run under a single manager for the first time since October 2011, a run of eight under Giovanni Trapattoni.

A new deal on the horizon?

Stephen Kenny and Josh Cullen after the win over Luxembourg
Josh Cullen is one of several Republic players to have voiced their support of Kenny in recent weeks

With Kenny’s first full qualifying series in the books, the question on every Republic fan’s minds is a simple one: will the Football Association of Ireland stick with the Dubliner?

Back in March, his hopes of remaining in the role beyond next summer – when his contract is due to expire – appeared slim at best.

The Luxembourg defeat seemingly left the 50-year-old on the brink, but he deserves credit for the manner in which he has restored pride after such a disastrous start to the campaign.

And after coming through a first year in the job which was heavily disrupted by injuries and Covid-related withdrawals from his squads, there is a growing sense that he has settled on his best starting line-up, a critical aspect for any manager in the quest for consistency.

He certainly seems to have the players’ backing. When asked about Kenny’s future last week, Cullen said the FAI’s decision should be “pretty straightforward” while Duffy described the manager as “brilliant”.

Ringing endorsements, for sure, but does the FAI feel the same way? Only time will tell.

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