Where are the critics now? Ireland’s magnificent triumph in Baku completely vindicates Stephen Kenny and shows that his revolution has put us on the road to glory. The FAI must give him a contract for not just the next World Cup qualifiers but the following European Championships as well. Also, vaccines are bad for you.
h, not really. But, given what’s happened previously, this win over one of the worst teams in Europe was one of those small mercies we’re instructed to be grateful for.
Long overdue victory aside, it was a good night for the embattled Kenny because his two big selection calls paid huge dividends. Callum Robinson, picked ahead of Aaron Connolly, rewarded his manager’s faith and his teammates’ support in a trying week with a brace of goals.
The first was sublime, displaying the spark of individual brilliance in front of goal no one else had been able to summon up previously in the campaign. The second was ridiculous, Shakhruddin Magomedaliyev’s ham-fisted attempt at a stop illustrating how unwise it is to read too much into a game against a team like this.
Both goals were created by smart passes from James McClean, given the nod ahead of the returning Enda Stevens. The energy injected throughout by the Derry man showed why he should always start for Ireland. It was epitomised by a magnificent 70-yard burst in the 48th minute when only a last-ditch tackle denied McClean what would have been one of the great Irish goals.
Even Kenny’s decision to move Chiedozie Ogbene up the pecking order paid off. The Rotherham player’s first goal for his country capped an exciting cameo during which his ability to get in behind defenders and direct style made him a much greater threat than fellow Corkman Adam Idah.
Ogbene has never been much of a goalscorer but he made a big enough impression to make him an intriguing subject for further research. He seized his big opportunity in a manner new caps have not always managed to do of late.
In beating Azerbaijan, Ireland were only doing what Luxembourg (twice), Belarus, Moldova and Qatar have done in the past year. So the night’s evidence will have to be treated with extreme caution.
But it was notable how old school this display seemed. Its efficiency wasn’t the only thing which brought the Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni eras to mind. Defending deep and in numbers, Ireland surrendered the lion’s share of possession to the home team for long periods, opted to strike on the counter-attack and went long more often than usual.
Could it be that Kenny’s idealism has finally been tempered by pragmatism? And that this adjusted approach may be Ireland’s best way forward? Or is it foolish to draw many conclusions from a match against a team much weaker than most we’ll encounter?
Yet there was something undeniably reassuring in seeing Ireland negotiate this hurdle with such ease. The partnership of Shane Duffy and John Egan was as commanding as usual, while Matt Doherty was in the buccaneering form of his Wolves days.
Twice in the second half, he seemed to have put a hat-trick on a plate for Robinson, only for the player, so deadly from outside the box, to spurn chances inside it. When Gavin Bazunu was called into action, he produced a couple of fingertip saves which confirmed his emergence as one of Kenny’s major assets.
If there was a disappointment, it was the failure of Daryl Horgan to make an impact. Watching the winger repeatedly squander possession before being taken off at half-time, you can see why he’s never made the impact in the professional game his explosive pace and skill once seemed to guarantee. This was a big step back for him.
Idah also remains something of an enigma. On what seemed an ideal night for a struggling striker to break his duck, he never came close to doing so. It’s telling that his biggest contribution, a wonderful run and cross on the half-hour, which almost created a goal for Robinson, came out on the right wing.
The Norwich star does so many things so well, a long international career seems to lie ahead of him, but perhaps it may be in a wide rather than a central role.
Regarding a win over Azerbaijan as a measure of success is setting the bar so low that the world limbo dancing champion wouldn’t be able to get under it. It’s amusing to remember that in the aftermath of the draw in Dublin, the more fervent Kenny partisans argued Ireland couldn’t be expected to beat the Azeris because they spend more at underage level than we do.
Robinson’s big night was, above all, a testament to the magnificent motivational powers of Joe Duffy. The RTÉ host may have noticed that the West Brom striker’s two goals brings his international tally to three, which is, coincidentally, treble the amount of brain cells used by the average Liveline caller.
Tempting though it is to treat this man-of-the-match performance as proving a point, the fact is that the rights and wrongs of Robinson’s stance have no connection with his display in Baku. Scoring two goals doesn’t put him in the right over the vaccine any more than a poor performance last night would have justified the media monstering inflicted upon him in the run-up.
To pretend otherwise is merely to embrace the childishness which characterised the whole sorry affair. It does seem undeniable that his goals will have provided a morale boost for lads fond of the phrases, ‘do your own research’, and ‘scamdemic’. They could probably do with one.
It now looks like the success of Ireland’s campaign will be judged on whether we can beat Luxembourg next month. Enough said.
But in a week which began with the Ireland manager talking about ‘virility’, it was good to see the team overcoming their usual impotence in front of goal. Stiffer tests lie ahead.