Monday night’s match between Ireland and France was a significant moment in the ongoing conflict known as the Stephen Kenny Wars. The feel-good defeat to France was a heavy blow to the separatist rump of Irish football men, who had dug themselves into entrenched positions on Results Hill. However, the ruling junta received a major boost from the complimentary words of General Deschamps, whose entente cordiale allowed Ireland to escape with a light beating. Despite the loss, the battle for hearts and minds seems all but over.
There was a lot of shouting after the match, particularly in the direction of Brian Kerr, spiritual leader of the refuseniks, who was once an ally of the great leader. Kerr’s refusal to praise the gallant night’s work drew hostile fire from Kenny partisans. After bitter house-to-house fighting, a moral victory was declared. The RTÉ panel, once a hostile enclave for any Ireland manager, joined in the applause. Meanwhile, Kerr, along with battle-hardened veterans like Martin O’Neill, Richard Dunne, and Damien Delaney, cast a cold eye on the festivities.
“Whatever spin Stephen puts on it, we got beaten in the match and had very little possession, until the last few minutes,” said Kerr on Virgin Media. “We’ve got to go on now, we’ve got to win matches in the group…since Stephen has been the manager, we got three points in the first group out of six games in the Nations League. In the [World Cup qualifiers] he got nine points out of eight games. And then he got seven points from six games last year in the Nations League.”
Kerr’s comments were factually correct, but he was accused of war crimes against the current incumbent. Kenny’s admirers claimed that Kerr had a personal grudge borne of his own battle scars in the job. There would be no room for dissent in the emboldened aftermath of having given France a game. Those watching from the UN observer’s position began to wonder what the football men were fighting about. Hadn’t this been what they wanted, a performance of pragmatism and grit in the grand Irish traditions?
Hadn’t the manager offered concessions and watered down his doctrine? Ten men behind the ball in a solid 5-4-1, a lusty late surge to the backing of raucous Lansdowne, the agony of denial, once again, by a pesky French hand? Surely this was the tentative basis for diplomacy? An uneasy ceasefire reigns, at least until June 16th in Greece. But there has been too much blood spilled on either side. Only total annihilation will do now. Greece could be the decisive battle. For those backing El Presidente, victory will be final proof of the righteousness of their cause, the last doubters routed. For the Irish football men, Athens could be their Thermopylae.
All civil wars are tragic, blood divided by beliefs. Though there is more that unites them than divides, the factions in the Kenny wars are separated by fundamentals. On one side is the belief that football is something that should make you feel good. On the other is the belief that it is a job of work. There are nuances to this, of course. Kenny may strike the pose of a prophet, but he is well versed in the game’s cold realities. So too do the football men have an appreciation for romance.
But the strength of feeling on either side is dogmatic. When Kenny was appointed, he found a lost tribe in search of a leader. His promise to change the perception of Irish football around the world was a clarion call to a wounded generation, fed lately only on tasteless gruel. Irish fans in their huddled masses flocked to Kenny’s torch of freedom and have stayed true to its light. They see the aspiration to attractive, technical football and the young men throwing themselves into the task and they are bathed in joy. Kenny may not yet have been successful, but like martyrs strapped to the stake, his supporters feel the ecstasy of spiritual salvation.
“We’ve been working on a way of playing for the last two years”, he said before the France game when asked if his team would adopt more conservative tactics. “We’re very, very comfortable in possession; as comfortable as any team in Europe now in possession. Why would we change now? Why would we take a step back now? This is the time that the team needs to show conviction.” Hallelujah, cried the believers. Bollocks, harrumphed the others, who saw Kenny’s claim that Ireland could match anyone in Europe in possession as more self-serving hyperbole. After the match, they would point out that the suggestion that Ireland would not ‘take a step back’ had been simply untrue.
For the football men, the game is a task to be accomplished, a matter of vocation. Talking about it doesn’t get the job done. Loose lips sink ships. Was Kenny’s lofty rhetoric in Josh Cullen’s head when he played that fatal square pass that led to the French goal? Ireland nil, France one. All the rest is propaganda.
Maybe Greece will be the war to end all wars. But probably not. A win might see resistance finally quelled. Lose and the football men will come out firing. Most likely is a draw, and both sides will live to fight another day.