THE plan for the next two years for Ireland was laid out when Stephen Kenny when signed a contract extension with the national team.
The new deal will keep the Dubliner with the senior men until Euro 2024 and he now hopes to lead the country for its first major tournament since 2016. His appointment was met with universal praise from the Irish soccer community, with thousands of fans voicing their support for the former Dundalk, Bohemians, and Derry City boss on social media.
The new deal coincides with a boom for the League of Ireland, with sold-out grounds now a regular occurrence across the country. Over the last month, the terraces have been packed for games featuring Shamrock Rovers, Derry, Bohemians, and St Patrick's Athletic. Cork City have flown the flag in the First Division by bringing 4,984 in for a game against Galway United and 4,240 in for the Cork derby.
What’s evident is a marriage between all levels of Irish football, a relationship not seen for decades.
This is a world away from the previous often uneasy truce; which could be best summed up by former Irish national team manager Giovanni Trapattoni claiming there is “no league in Ireland” back in 2013. This situation worsened in 2014 when former FAI chief executive John Delaney labelled the League of Ireland as a "difficult child" in an interview.
The journey from unlikely allies to happy families began with the explosion of Séamus Coleman, James McClean, and Shane Long onto the national stage. That trio; who played for Sligo Rovers, Derry City, and Cork City, were the spine of the Irish team which qualified for Euro 2016 in France. Long, who made just two appearances for the Rebel Army, wrote his name into the history books when he scored the goal to beat world champions Germany in 2015.
The FAI tapped into this back at Euro 2016 when they got graduates of the league to line up in their club’s kits. This was just the start as the majority of Irish players now are alumni of the League of Ireland.
There was an immediate impact domestically after the performances of the national team at Euro 2016. Midway through the 2017 season, attendances rose by a notable 48.8%. In 2018, 441,466 spectators turned up across 315 games, an increase of 10,762 from 2017. While there were five more games played that season, it was a 97,221 increase on 2016.
The names coming out of the League of Ireland continued after the 2016 Euros. In the most recent squad for World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Luxembourg, 10 previously played domestically in Ireland. This group included a number of young stars, with memories still fresh of them playing in the league. Goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu; who saved a penalty from Ronaldo last September in Portugal, played with Shamrock Rovers just four years ago.
Jamie McGrath was with Dundalk up until 2019. Chiedozie Ogbene won an FAI Cup with Cork City in 2016 and he is now a fan favourite in Stephen Kenny’s squad. Other players to ply their trade domestically once upon a time are Ryan Manning, who was once with Mervue United and Galway United, and Daryl Horgan who played for Cork City and Dundalk.
Players in the League of Ireland are now regularly called up to the national team. Graham Burke started this trend in 2018 when he featured against the USA while playing for Shamrock Rovers. In November 2020 against Wales in Cardiff, Shamrock Rovers star Jack Byrne became the first home-based Irish international to play in a competitive game since 1985.
The unification can also be seen at management level with the spine now of the national team all former players in the League of Ireland. Alongside Stephen Kenny is Stephen Rice, who previously played for Shamrock Rovers and Longford Town. Jim Crawford, a four-time league champion, looks after the U21s. Ireland U19s manager Tom Mohan was once with Longford Town, Derry City, and Finn Harps.
Cork duo Colin O’Brien and David Meyler look after the U17s. They both played for Cork City, with O’Brien also having spells with Cobh Ramblers and Waterford United. These coaches regularly meet with Stephen Kenny to discuss tactics and player development.
“We share our ideas with all of the teams from the U15s up. That has been consistent,” Kenny said in 2021, “That has helped us with the progression with a lot of the players over the last year.”
The shared history between the coaches has created ideal conditions to enhance player development while building an effective pathway through underage teams.
Adam Idah is a perfect example of this. The striker, who once played for College Corinthians, progressed through Irish underage squads with Colin O’Brien, Tom Mohan, and Stephen Kenny.
Other players to follow this route are Jayson Molumby and Dara O’Shea.
Last September, Ireland fans held up the ‘ In Kenny We Trust’ banner before a qualifier against Serbia in Dublin. Six months later the manager’s immediate future is secure and fans have responded to this Irish team in masses. This happened just weeks after the FAI announced a new record of 17,000 season tickets had been sold. In the actual League of Ireland, where Kenny and his squad started out, sold-out games are now a regular feature.
It’s been decades since Irish football last felt like one cohesive unit with everyone moving in the same direction. With the two fresh campaigns now waiting for Stephen Kenny and his squad, the atmosphere and conditions have never been better.