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International Break Your Heart

“Are Ireland fans only the best fans in the world when there’s a major tournament and it’s popular to get behind the team, or is Twitter just purposefully showing me the moany negative tweets on purpose?”

When I posted that tweet, I failed to see the irony in the fact that by tweeting that I was just adding to the cesspit of negative shit that was surrounding the Irish national team that night. With the aim of trying not to be hypocritical this time, I decided to put pen to paper to discuss what was a disappointing international break and our new man in charge. It’s not the doom and gloom that so many have suggested, or at least we shouldn’t be calling for Stephen Kenny’s head after five games in charge.

To quote a draft I never hit send on: - “International Break Your Heart”. That was my thoughts as soon as the hectic weekend of Premier League football came to a close. It wasn’t even midnight on the Sunday and that was all I was thinking about. Other than being a good play on words, it summed up exactly how I was feeling about the whole thing. “The thoughts of this now”.

It’s a weird one isn’t it, the way we all react to an international break. You’d think the thoughts of your nation playing a football game would be something for your average football fan to get excited for, but the majority of the time it’s viewed as an unwelcome break from what’s been sold to us as the best league in the world. Maybe that’s it? Maybe we’ve been so subconsciously brainwashed by Sky Sports that anything that isn’t the Barclays Premier League is absolute horse shit. Saying that though, with so many Irish “soccer fans” following either Manchester United or Liverpool, you’d think this international break would have been a welcome distraction, especially after their not too distant 6-1 and 7-2 defeats. But even before a ball was kicked - it felt like that negativity surrounding the national team was there, myself included.

I’ve given it a good bit of thought over the last few days – where does this negativity come from? One of my theories is that the majority of us are just so spoilt from following the top teams in England, that when the international break comes around what’s dished out to us just isn’t up to the level were used too. Saying that I think that theory is a bit simplistic and probably insults our intelligence as football fans suggesting that we don’t adjust our level of expectancy when we go from club football to international football.

Maybe it’s not our levels of expectancy that’s the issue - but the drop off in the level of competition and intensity that historically came with the international break. Up until the introduction of the Nations League, international breaks usually consisted of a World Cup/Euros qualifier and a friendly and in fairness - it’s understandable that a lack of enthusiasm would follow. Even UEFA’s attempt at adding more competitiveness to the friendlies - the Nations League - feels like a failed effort. Does anyone even understand it? I know I certainly don’t. I think Arsene Wenger summed it up perfectly: “We need to get rid of the Nations League and find clearer events that everyone understands. If you ask people in the street what the Nations League is, you won’t find many able to explain it”.

Either way, whatever it is that causes the negativity around the international break it feels we’re destined to fail before a ball is even kicked. Maybe rather than calling for a change in manager afterwards, we all need a collective change in attitude beforehand. Just a thought.

I’m not saying that we as fans are 100% the problem, and of course the buck will always stop with the manager. I just feel Kenny deserves more time. When Mick McCarthy got the job a second time, I was underwhelmed to say the least. I wasn’t too gone on the idea of a pre-determined succession plan either, before eventually coming around to the idea. Initial thoughts were: ‘A succession plan? Why not just give him the job now?’ But, for the first time in a long time, at least it felt like we had some kind of plan.

Kenny was supposed to have a couple of years with the U21’s, in a pressure free situation to implement his playing style and ideas into the minds of the players that would eventually join him in the senior set up. Unfortunately, with the shit show that’s been 2020, Kenny was in the firing line earlier than expected. Of course, whether or not it was intended for him to be in charge or not at this time is probably a way of trying to make excuses for him. The fact is, he was in charge, and we have to judge him on the results. But is it not a bit harsh to call for a man’s head after Nations League games that we hardly understand? Or to expect a new manager to come in and pull a rabbit out of a hat in a play-off game when he hasn’t worked with these players for the entirety of the campaign?

Kenny inherited a fixture with the weight of the nation on his shoulders. A daunting task from the start. Add to the mix the fact it became a one-off game instead of a two-legged affair. which we only lost on the lottery that is penalties. It’s also worth noting that if it was a two-legged affair how many of us would have took encouragement from the actual performance. I’d say the general feeling would have been: “We were good tonight. Unlucky not to nick it, we’ll take them when we get them in Dublin.” Then on the day of the Wales game we were struck with the COVID situation and a major squad reshuffle. Bearing in mind he only had ten days to work with the players anyway before the disruption.

I guess what I’m trying to say is over the years and under various managers there have been times when it was grim to say the least. Of course, we’ve had great moments. Brady’s goal vs Italy, McClean’s goal in Cardiff and the one that tops the lot, Long vs Germany. But those are all just snapshots, the reality is - the football we were playing then meant those results weren’t sustainable. I feel under Kenny, we’re at least trying to do the right things. With no goals scored the snapshot we have isn’t great, no matter what way I try dress it up - it’s been pretty horrible. But it’s just a snapshot - and personally I’ve had enough one-off good results with terrible football that I’m willing to except a few bad results with at least the intention of trying to play good football.

Michael O’Neill was also a former League of Ireland manager, only won one in his first ten – but continued to bring Northern Ireland to their first major tournament in 38 years in 2016. Even from the glory days of my lifetime - South Korea and Japan with McCarthy. Mick lost his first seven games in charge. I don’t know if Kenny is a good manager and I’m not even saying I was fully behind the appointment, but even at club level we’re willing to give managers time and a “transfer window”. Kenny has to work with what he has and even still only gets to work with them for ten days every two months. I think some of our patience at club level could do with being shared with the national team.

At the end of the day, in football like in life, change takes time. We got the change we want, now we need to give the man the time.

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