The Republic of Ireland invites optimism a year after humiliation | Republic of Ireland
Ahe moment the strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) echoing across the Irish Sea from Cardiff stoked the envy of Republic of Ireland fans who had relatively little reason to get excited in recent years, the pinprick sign of what looks suspiciously like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel has been spotted.
Last Saturday, Ireland came from behind twice to hold Belgium to a draw in a packed Aviva Stadium and for the first time since pre-Covid-era fans left South Dublin soil in riding a wave of what looked like cautious optimism. Of course, there are caveats; while much has been made of Ireland’s draw against the highest ranked side in the world, it behooves us to stress that it was only a friendly game and the visitors fielded an experimental side without most of their names at the box office.
But as the old saw goes, you can only play the team in front of you, and after an inauspicious 11-game losing streak that followed Stephen Kenny’s appointment as manager during lockdown in 2020, the Ireland are unbeaten in seven and have clearly come a long way since the embarrassment of losing a home World Cup qualifier to Luxembourg almost a year ago to the day.
On Tuesday night, Ireland host Lithuania in another friendly and all eyes will be on Chiedozie Ogbene, a most unlikely savior who plays for League One side Rotherham United. Used as a wing-back for the leaders of the third tier, the 24-year-old plays further forward for Ireland, made his debut against Hungary last summer and headed the first of three goals he scored in six appearances for his country against Azerbaijan. last October.
Against Belgium, Ogbene announced himself forcefully to the Irish public, preparing for an audacious header to score the team’s first in a busy penalty area before showing commendable tenacity to keep the ball in play and provide the cross from which Alan Browne nodded past Simon. Mignolet to score the late equaliser.
From Cork, via Lagos, the Nigerian town his family moved from when he was eight, Ogbene grew up playing Gaelic football for Nemo Rangers and “soccer” for various Munster Senior League clubs before signing for Cork City. Now established in Rotherham after spells at Limerick, Brentford and Exeter City, the first African-born player to represent the Republic of Ireland football team is a favorite among fans who are slowly but surely falling in love with a team again. who, for all their remaining shortcomings and the poverty of the elite staff, finally seem to be on the right track. In Kenny, Irish fans are beginning to trust.
Originally seen as the cheap option after outgoing Football Association of Ireland chief executive John Delaney left behind a financial mess, Kenny’s appointment to replace Mick McCarthy could hardly have been more disappointing. There was a succession plan for him to succeed McCarthy but Covid cancellations meant he was parachuted in earlier than expected after a successful stint in charge of Ireland’s Under-21s.
With a managerial background in the League of Ireland, save for a season at Dunfermline, Kenny lacked the cachet of stardom and credentials of overseas alternatives that the FAI could not afford. Although he was talking about good play – promoting youth, energetic pressing, playing from the back and battling opponents – it was a process that was always going to take time to implement. He was not helped by a shocking, often unlucky start, which had many detractors calling for his head even before the humiliation against Luxembourg. After the draw with Belgium, Kenny called for the prospect when an interviewer recalled those dark days.
“When I took over, we played a [Euro 2020] play-off against Slovakia and we were outstanding there, dominating possession before losing on penalties,” he told Sky Sports. “For the next two camps, we were minus 10 players each time for Covid-related reasons, so it’s hard to bear. Now we’ve put 15 players in the squad over the last year who have come through our own system in Ireland, who we’ve nurtured, and all of a sudden we have a squad and competition for places. We have to improve again, but we showed against Portugal and Serbia, as well as in this game against Belgium, that we have quality and unity.
Kenny has lost just one of his last 11 games, a heartbreaking late defeat ripped from the jaws of victory against Portugal in a World Cup qualifier, and this month signed an extension contract to include the upcoming UEFA Nations League and Euro 2024 qualifying campaigns. The first of those competitive fixtures is scheduled for early June.
While it is premature to say that the future of Republic of Ireland football is bright, the assimilation into the squad of players such as Ogbene, one of many youngsters vying to rub shoulders with regulars more established, means it’s by no means as bleak as it seemed this time last year.