During a recent podcast off air discussion on Irish Football Fans show, the discussion of high and low points came up. I know Joe and Phil have ideas on this podcast episode before year end but I wanted to share my highs and lows in the context of the calendar year for the Republic of Ireland international setups.
World Cup Bound
Look no further than the senior women’s side securing qualification for the FIFA 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The journey that this side has gone though to get to this point is truly inspirational. The fight for basic training kit and facilities to then heartbreak on the pitch in the European Championship qualifiers (remember that Ukraine away loss) would have destroyed other sides.
The side under Vera Pauw regrouped and progressively improved their performances against Sweden, Finland and Slovakia. 2023 saw marquee results against Sweden (1-1) at Gothenburg, a victory over Finland at home (1-0) and then took care of business against Georgia where the goals difference was increased significantly.
The defensive shape of the side has stood out in this calendar. Four clean sheets in five qualification or playoff fixtures is testament to this attribute. Leaders in abundance throughout the side and that leadership was required when the side faced Scotland in Hampden Park last October. Amber Barrett’s stunning goal enough to secure qualification, the setup on the goal impressive with a superb pass from Denise O’Sullivan.
Excitement should build for this side leading into the World Cup friendlies. The hope is that the country will fully support Vera Pauw and the team for this tournament. Australia in the opening ceremonial fixture is huge but as long as the team perform to the best of their ability, there is no reason why we cannot have another memorable World Cup campaign with this team. Kudos to all the team!
The leadership in this senior women’s side is quite impressive. You look through each unit and you see leadership in abundance. You know that these players know when to defend deep and absorb pressure or when to attack with pace and precision. The defensive unit performances again to the fore. Brosnan, Mustaki, Fahey, Caldwell, Quinn, Finn, McCabe, O’Sullivan, Agg, Payne, Barrett, Ziu, Connolly, Littlejohn. The squad are well positioned to prepare with confidence heading into this FIFA World Cup tournament and is something that the men’s senior team should duly take note of.
Irish young players moving to continental Europe
This was a year where we saw several young Irish prospects make the move to Europe and not UK to continue their playing development. It is a superb trend to see and the national team long-term should see the benefits in time. Abankwah, Heffernan, Ebosele, Kerrigan to name but a few have made the switch. A change in culture, footballing mindset can only help these players develop. I am excited to see this player trend continue with positive results.
Republic of Ireland U21
Some may see this as a disappointment given their playoff exit to Israel but this was a significant upturn in fortunes for the side. This is an age grade where the side have struggled so the fact that Jim Crawford and players got to this playoff after a sticky start to the campaign must be acknowledged. All parties will have learned big lessons in the early campaign fixtures (Montenegro away) and also the tentative opening half in the Israel playoff at home.
Players in Coventry, Smallbone, Ferguson are poised to get more significant game time with the seniors and that is what you want to see in terms of a path for underage internationals getting an opportunity to the international senior squad. The same applies for the other underage sides as results have been impressive this year, underage talent potential in abundance.
Scotland home game
I am saving my best moment for last. The leadup to this Nations League fixture was shrouded in doom and gloom. An underwhelming Nations League start, two losses to Armenia and Ukraine. Media vultures circling but the side responded with a fine 3-0 win over Scotland.
The partnership of Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott impressive, both with goals and their linkup play was excellent. Obafemi only scores bangers from long range. Scotland rattled and the side secured a long overdue clean sheet. Aviva atmosphere was incredible before and during the contest.
The Kenny era has given opportunities to prospects. Nathan Collins is becoming a polished defender for club and country. Jason Knight needs to move from Derby County to get game time in central midfield. The striking options are young and eager to learn. Bazunu, Kelleher and Travers form an excellent keeper core. We need these players now to evolve into leaders as we enter the Euros qualification campaign starting with France in March.
Senior Men’s Backroom Staff Instability
It is part and parcel of football. Backroom staff will come and go but this year has seen two backroom coaches depart the senior men’s setup in double quick time. Anthony Barry ditched the Republic of Ireland to Belgium a few weeks before our friendly with Belgium (awkward timing) and then John Eustace was only given a FAI training top before he accepted the Birmingham City job. No replacement touted let alone appointed. It has exposed the backroom management given the performances on the pitch. Any prospective candidate holding off until early next year to see if the current manager will be still in charge!
The 2-1 loss to Scotland at Hampden Park really exposed the men’s senior side’s inability to change tactics when required. Scotland under Steve Clark identified shortcomings in their approach and made changes to their style of play (less direct, passing through the lines).
The change in tactic at half-time not picked upon by the management and an early equaliser ensued. Hendry with a free header, no-one tracking the runner for another soft concession and all that good work from the opening half destroyed early.
You can argue about the Parrott chance when 1-1 but the tactical inflexibility was stark from Kenny and management team during this contest. The late penalty added insult to injury. Scotland secured a win based on empirical knowledge and applying those learnings. Republic of Ireland remained steadfast in their approach until the final whistle. Yet another disappointing loss.
While the women’s senior side have Sky Ireland as their standout sponsor, the men’s senior side is in limbo. FAI talking good game on sponsorship deals which fell through but it is a concern that the national men’s side do not have a sponsor. FAI image of prudent governance is a work in progress so sponsors do not feel confident yet to take the plunge. The results of the side have been poor. A sponsor do not be associated with a side who are struggling for results on and off the field. It is a worry and given this 2028 Euro bid involvement, will the FAI drop the ball further on domestic competition and grassroots development governance?
Clean Sheets in short supply
I talked about the senior women’s side securing four clean sheets in qualification play this year. Two clean sheets all year which was the 3-0 win to Scotland at home and then a 0-1 away win to lowly Malta. In between, it has been a case of conceding defensively poor goals. Opposition peppering shots from outside the box and exposing fragile and brittle defensive setup on set-pieces.
The defensive lapse trend unfortunately is a trait of this Stephen Kenny era. It is not just the manager and backroom staff that should take the flak but the playing group on the pitch need to provide leadership at key stages.
The Armenia home implosion was a stark reminder of our defensive vulnerabilities. The leadership within the core playing unit is uncertain right now. We are looking for Bazunu, Collins, Cullen, to take charge here and before the French game preferably!
A meaningless friendly. The fact that Stephen Kenny and management could not give game time to prospects was disappointing. Will Smallbone and Conor Coventry should have seen game time. I hope Smallbone does not go the way of CJ Hamilton in disappearing from the setup completely.
I mentioned about players going abroad and making a positive impact, the same cannot be said of Aaron Connolly who is entering a critical time in his footballing career. Where does Connolly go in January is a major question? His move to Italy was a nightmare.
Venezia stuck in a relegation battle is not an environment where a loan player wants to be. The adaptation to a new footballing culture and the club situation proved insurmountable as Connolly has returned back to Brighton & Hove Albion.
What the South Coast England club will do with the player will be an interesting watch? Connolly could be permanently moved on but to where? A difficult period for the Galway native player whose ability is undoubted but there is something missing here.