OPINION: More headaches for luckless Kenny as John Egan set to miss March internationals

Ireland will be without centre back John Egan for March 24th’s World Cup qualifier away to Serbia after the 28 year-old was stretchered off for his club Sheffield United against West Ham on Monday evening.

The Cork born defender has 12 caps for his country and played a starring role in Ireland’s Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia in October. Egan excelled in his first season as a Premier League player last season, helping his side to a 9th place finish. The 2020/2021 campaign has been a more difficult one for Chris Wilder’s Blades, but Egan has still retained his high standards and was set to play a key role for Stephen Kenny in the coming months.

The news comes as a significant blow and is worsened by the fact that Stoke City 19 year-old Nathan Collins also looks set to miss the qualifiers with a foot fracture. Partnering Egan in Bratislava back in October was Celtic centre half Shane Duffy but Duffy has since endured a horrendous run of form at Parkhead. The result is that Stephen Kenny once again has a difficult task on his hands to try and assemble a starting team capable of getting results on the international stage.

Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Perspective

Stephen Kenny is without a win in his first eight matches as Ireland manager but that doesn’t tell half of the story.

Ireland have had ten players affected by Covid-19 under Kenny so far, captain Seamus Coleman is yet to feature under the new boss because of injury and David McGoldrick’s international retirement following the Slovakia defeat wasn’t ideal either. The former Dundalk manager will ultimately be judged on his results but performances amongst the chaos have not been terrible. This is a project that was always going to take time and maybe the challenges Ireland were faced with last Winter could even act as a catalyst to that progression.

Make no mistake, the atmosphere around the Irish national team is gloomy at the minute and that won’t change until the team are back to winning ways. In advance of March’s World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg it is however important to hold a clear perspective of where this team stand on their journey under Stephen Kenny. So bizarre and unfortunate have the circumstances been for the 49 year-old up until now that Serbia away should maybe be anticipated as an exciting start rather than a last chance saloon.

In Ireland’s last match on the 18th of November, the boys in green were without Seamus Coleman, Matt Doherty, John Egan, Enda Stevens, Derrick Williams, Jeff Hendrick, Jayson Molumby, James McClean, Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick for various reasons. This is not a vintage squad of Ireland players to begin with, let alone when in the absence of eight Premier League players. Despite being so significantly weakened that evening, Ireland still drew 0-0 with Bulgaria at the Aviva. It was a commendable result considering for example that the front three was comprised of Wycombe Wanderers, Luton Town and Portsmouth players who had never started together before. Coming after a winless run of seven matches however, the mood was more subdued after that game than after most defeats.

Kenny has been unlucky to date but knows things will need to improve very soon to keep his critics and sceptics at a murmur.

Slovakian Signs

There has been a stylistic shift to possession football from Kenny and although the first two matches of his tenure against Bulgaria and Finland brought teething problems, almost everything clicked on the third time of trying against Slovakia. In that crunch play-off tie Ireland enjoyed a pass completion percentage of 80% and created ten chances.

Up against Pavel Harpal’s men, Jeff Hendrick, David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson put in eye-catching attacking performances while Shane Duffy and John Egan defended heroically whenever called upon at the back. The match was a window into the potential of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland team once there is a strong team available and a little bit more to play for than is the case in the semi-competitive Nations League. Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne scuppered excellent opportunities to win the tie and unfortunately a lack of a prolific striker – a feature of Ireland’s play since the retirements of Robbie Keane and Jon Walters – again proved detrimental. Ireland did more than enough to win that match but lacked the killer touch and sadly it’s been that same old story on repeat ever since. Green shoots but no green boots shooting.

‘Videogate’ of course added to the issues in Ireland camp in December and the outcome sees Stephen Kenny continue without Damien Duff or goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly by his side in the dug-out. Distraction and disturbance is as synonymous with Irish football as the green jersey at this point but the show must go on.

Defensive Dilemma

The latest set-back comes this week with the John Egan news. Egan is arguably Ireland’s best player these days and filling his shoes at centre-half will be not be an easy ask. Serbia will bring an imposing strike force of Frankfurt’s Real Madrid loanee Luka Jovic and Fulham target-man Aleksandar Mitrovic, meaning whoever steps in for Ireland will need to be sharp.

West Brom’s Dara O’Shea has played for Ireland four times under Stephen Kenny and is likely to start again in Belgrade. O’Shea plays with a sense of calm and composure on the ball beyond his years that Stephen Kenny has been a fan of since working with the Dubliner for Ireland’s U21 side. The concern however is that the 21 year-old has lost his place in Sam Allardyce’s team in recent weeks. Should the St Kevin’s youth product reclaim his place and find form in advance of Serbia he has a great chance but Ireland do have more experienced options perhaps better equipped to deal with such a threat in a vital qualifying match.

Burnley’s 30 year-old Kevin Long has always been a reliable deputy for club and country. Experienced and street-wise, Long will fancy himself this time around in response to Shane Duffy’s difficult season and untimely injuries to both Egan and Collins. A lack of sharpness may stand in his way with even Richard Keogh at Huddersfield playing more often.

Many have written off Shane Duffy‘s Ireland starting place credentials such has been his demise at Celtic – but there have been arguments made for his inclusion in some quarters. Despite his many catastrophes at club level, the Derryman has a wealth of credit built up in the green shirt and remains his country’s greatest goal-threat. Duffy’s unique level of physicality capable of matching the monstrous Mitrovic could also help him feature against Serbia for tactical reasons. The big man’s limitations on the ball and potentially unfocused head-space would in my view make exploring other options a more worthwhile risk-free exercise, however.

Ciaran Clark suddenly finds himself in poll position. With 34 Ireland caps already to his name and playing regularly for Newcastle United this season, Clark would bring both experience and a welcomed left-footed option to Stephen Kenny’s team. Having debuted for the Republic of Ireland a decade ago, Clark is a more than familiar face that the likes of James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy would be well used to playing with. Stephen Kenny’s dedication to playing out from the back makes Clark’s ability on the ball and familiarity with key defenders and midfielders a particularly appealing option.

No matter who starts in John Egan’s place, Serbia will still prove a massive test for Ireland. Some hope can be taken from the fact that things are beginning to look a little more promising further up the park where box-to-box midfielders Jason Knight (20) and Jayson Molumby (21) have cemented starting places for Derby County and Preston North End respectively. The pair of youngsters bring a huge degree of energy and tenacity to the team that could be complemented by Josh Cullen (24) who has been performing well for Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht this season at the base of midfield.

Rumours that David McGoldrick is set to announce a U-turn on his international retirement is potentially another significant cause for cheer. The Sheffield United playmaker last week deleted his retirement statement from social media before changing his profile photo to a picture of himself in an Ireland jersey and adding @FAIreland to his Instagram bio.

Possible Ireland XI: Kelleher; Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Stevens; Hourihane, Knight, Hendrick; Robinson, McGoldrick/Collins, Connolly

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