SEVEN months on from Ireland’s last competitive game, Stephen Kenny and his squad are taking on Ukraine, Scotland and Armenia in the UEFA Nations League.
The spine of this team, which could secure a Euro 2024 play-off place this summer, is from Cork: Caoimhín Kelleher, John Egan, Conor Hourihane, Alan Browne, and Chiedozie Ogbene.
They will face Armenia away on June 4 and four days later they will meet Ukraine at the Aviva Stadium.
On June 11, Ireland have a home game against Scotland and on the 14th they will travel to the Polish city of Łódź to take on Ukraine.
Kenny’s squad will be going into this international window on the back of an eight-game undefeated run that has produced 15 goals.
This remarkable string of results can be attributed to a number of factors, with the new formation and the large Cork contingent the main two.
At the beginning of his Ireland tenure, Kenny struggled to find a winning system. He played 4-3-3 and this was tinkered to become 4-2-3-1 against Slovakia, England, Finland, and Wales.
The team was heavily rotated, with Sean Maguire, Adam Idah, and James Collins all starting up top during this period. No matter what system Kenny tried, he couldn’t get a win in the 2020 Nations League.
When Luxembourg came to Dublin for a World Cup qualifier in March 2021, the Ireland boss switched to 3-5-2 formation. Ireland had 63% possession, but only had three shots on target.
They lost 1-0, but Kenny, inspired by this performance, used that formation in their next qualifier, against Portugal in Faro.
Ireland had 28% possession that night and Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly thrived up top.
The country had a pass accuracy of 71% and they had six shots, two of which were on target. This was an extraordinarily effective use of the ball and they were rewarded when John Egan scored from a corner.
All of the good work was undone by two late Ronaldo goals. While the result was a defeat, the team left Portugal with their heads held high.
Ireland built on this newfound confidence in their next qualifier, a 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan in Dublin. This kickstarted their eight-game unbeaten run of four wins and four draws.
The tactical change by Kenny was strengthened by the chemistry between the large Cork contingent in the team.
The players have years of interwoven histories in Cork.
Browne and Kelleher are both graduates of the Ringmahon Rangers academy. Egan played in the Cork Schoolboy Leagues with Evergreen and Hourihane once lined out for Bandon AFC. Ogbene had spells with Tramore Athletic, Everton, and College Corinthians. Even Adam Idah, who will miss this summer’s internationals over a knee injury, played for College Corinthians.
The players have admitted that the Cork core has boosted the team’s morale.
“It’s great for chemistry to have the Cork lads,” John Egan said in 2021.
“Like everyone gets on, but it’s great to have the banter with the Cork lads.
Coming in can be a little daunting. I remember coming into my first squad and I was 24. Even though I knew a few of the lads, it was still quite daunting to meet all the new faces.
”All of the lads in the squad are great at helping the new players integrate. There’s so many young players in the squad, they all kind of know each other now anyways.”
The Cork chemistry was on show during a 2-2 draw with Belgium at the Aviva Stadium in March 2022.
Ireland found themselves 1-0 down inside 12 minutes following a stunning strike from Michy Batshuayi. Ogbene took it on himself to level things up, and he did so with a bicycle kick. When Belgium retook the lead, the winger sprinted forward and crossed to Browne, who headed in.
The settled core got their first win of 2022 against Lithuania at the end of the March international window. Five players from Cork started that game, which was decided by a furious strike from Troy Parrot in the seventh minute of injury time. This group will now be tasked with kickstarting Ireland’s bid to qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany.