Ireland’s qualifying campaign sinking, coach under pressure

Ireland’s only taste of Qatar might well be in Tuesday’s friendly with the World Cup host.

A midweek 3-2 loss at Serbia stung, but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at home against Luxembourg shocked. Captain Seamus Coleman described the latter as “embarrassing.”

Ireland is not only at the bottom of Group A, it’s also winless in 10 games since Stephen Kenny became coach last year. Despite a qualifying campaign already in tatters, the chairman of the Football Association of Ireland voiced his support for Kenny as the team left Sunday for the friendly against Qatar in Hungary.

It won’t count in the standings, but a victory over Qatar could at least stem the bleeding, especially if it showcases the fluid, possession-based soccer that made Kenny an appealing hire. Anything else increases the already considerable pressure on the coach.

A long summer awaits in any case. Ireland failed to qualify for the European Championship and will face Portugal when the qualifying campaign continues on Sept. 1. Portugal and Serbia both have four points after two games.

“I’m very determined that we will improve and get it right,” Kenny said Monday in a news conference. “We’ve just had a real kick in the teeth losing to Luxembourg.”

The coach praised the young crop of players coming through, but said it’s not just a long-term project.

“We can be good in this campaign. We were very good against Serbia. We just let ourselves down by not capitalizing on the situations that we had the other night against Luxembourg.”

Kenny, who has had success coaching Dundalk and Ireland Under-21s, has dealt with injuries and coronavirus outbreaks in his short tenure.

Still, the results haven’t been there. Ireland drew with Bulgaria 1-1 in Kenny’s debut last September but then went seven games without a goal until Alan Browne headed in a cross from Callum Robinson against Serbia.

“We needed to back that up (Saturday) and had we done that it would have put us in a reasonable place,” Kenny said in his post-match news conference. “We were desperate to win. We needed to get that first goal. We were a little too predictable. We didn’t stretch their back four. We didn’t create enough.”

Gerson Rodrigues scored late for Luxembourg, an improving team but 98th in the FIFA rankings — 56 spots lower than Ireland.

Kenny’s backers say he needs time to develop his system and they point to Michael O’Neill’s slow start with Northern Ireland before he eventually succeeded there.

They also cite underlying problems with the FAI, which built up massive debts under the leadership of former chief executive John Delaney. The FAI needed a $35 million government-led rescue package in January 2020 to stay afloat.

Even if the FAI can’t afford to cut Kenny loose and hire a new coach, some are still calling for change.

Ireland great Paul McGrath, in his Sunday column for the Independent newspaper, wrote “I’m sorry, Stephen Kenny — it is time to go.” He suggested former Celtic manager Neil Lennon as a replacement.

Kenny says he doesn’t worry about losing his job.

“No, I don’t. I don’t, at all,” he said after the Luxembourg loss in Dublin.

FAI chairman Roy Barrett told Irish reporters on Sunday that he fully supports Kenny. He called the loss “a setback on what is a difficult journey.”

“That’s what it is, but that’s all it is,” Barrett said. “I have healthy respect for what they are trying to achieve and how they are going about it. My position hasn’t changed on that just because of one result last night.”

Ireland hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002 but can punch above its weight on occasion. It reached the Euro 2016 knockout stage, losing to eventual finalist France.

Kenny has shown confidence in young players, such as 21-year-old Brighton forward Aaron Connolly. Teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, on loan in England’s third division from Manchester City, performed well Saturday in his senior team debut. Kenny also started 20-year-old midfielder Jason Knight, who has earned praise from manager Wayne Rooney at Derby.

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