It’s another loss for the Republic of Ireland and Stephen Kenny but one that leaves plenty of positives to build on for the future.
This is no short term project for Stephen Kenny. Unlike previous all-or-nothing appointments like Giovanni Trapatonni, Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy, the new manager is here with a view towards the future and last night showed that.
It became clear last night that Kenny will be brave in putting a fresh stamp on his teamsheet for the World Cup qualifying campaign. Experienced campaigners like Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean were afforded an audition period in the Nations League but Kenny was unafraid to leave them out against Serbia in favour of young, in-form footballers that best suit his attacking style of play.
Destroying the idea instilled in Irish football that we are somehow technically inferior to other nations is a mammoth task in itself so in many ways the strides Kenny has already made in that department are hugely impressive. Ireland enjoyed 44% of possession away in Belgrade with an inexperienced midfield of Cullen, Browne and Molumby central to the effort.
The boys in green were decimated by injuries in 2020 and still managed to dominate most of their fixtures without ever scoring. With a stronger side available this time around, Ireland managed to score twice and were denied a stonewall penalty for a foul on Aaron Connolly in the second half.
Dara O’Shea was the only survivor from November’s 0-0 draw with Bulgaria and you can’t help but feel if Darren Randolph, John Egan and Conor Hourihane were added to the mix the result may have been a whole lot different.
The players that took to the pitch played with confidence and conviction, constantly looking to move the ball forward constructively. The team defended as a unit and for at least an hour of the game, put in one of the finest Irish away performances I can remember.
The only issue now for Stephen and his coaching staff is of course that results are ultimately key. With a string of refreshing performances comes optimism but that progress must continue throughout the campaign. Positive displays against Serbia and Portugal may suffice but it is crucial that Kenny’s Ireland defeat the lower seeds – starting with Luxembourg this Saturday.
It has to be remembered that this is far from a vintage Ireland side and perhaps qualification for Qatar is unrealistic. Portugal and Serbia bring a different level of quality in most positions and what is more important for Ireland than throwing everything at qualifying is having as productive a transition period as possible.
If Ireland can come out the other side of this year in noticeably healthier shape, then perhaps that would be an acceptable outcome for the fans, and most importantly for the FAI.