“FOOTBALL IS a business of results.” It’s a phrase Irish fans who have paid attention to the media coverage around the team have heard quite often over the past couple of years.
The overarching point invariably made in relation to Stephen Kenny is that while it’s all very well to play a different brand of football to previous managers and bleed an abundance of promising young players, at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is the score and how many times it is in favor of your team.
And those sentiments are true on some level. Generally, in football, managers who lose are often fired and coaches who win regularly are given new contracts.
But if anything, what Stephen Kenny’s reign proves is that it’s far too simplistic to broadly describe football as a ‘results business’. Context is always crucial.
A draw is a better result than a loss, but the Irish were much happier after the 2-1 loss to Portugal than the 1-1 debacle against Azerbaijan a few days later.
A win is also a better result than a loss, but the Irish were apparently much happier after the 2-1 loss to Scotland compared to last night’s 3-2 win over Armenia.
To suggest that the result is all that matters ignores the level of nuance that is always required in the analysis of teams and managers.
There has been heavy criticism, including ex-international Damien Delaney on Virgin Media of late, but it seems the vast majority of Irish football fans and the media have largely backed Kenny since the start of his reign and backed the decision to award him a new contract. .
“Football is a results business” also implies an almost scientific detachment, but few businesses are as influenced by emotion as football and sport in general.
Kenny is now set for his third attempt to try to qualify for a major tournament, with the caveat that the Slovakia qualifiers were a one-off with a team that had been managed by Mick McCarthy up to that point.
However, Irish managers do not always enjoy this kind of leeway. Brian Kerr had just two qualifying attempts (again after Mick McCarthy’s reign the first time around), while Steve Staunton had just one.
If football was all about results, Kenny wouldn’t have been treated better than these two aforementioned coaches. But context matters and the majority of Irish supporters and critics understand this point.
The young players that the coach has introduced need time to adapt to this level. There is an oft-overlooked degree of pragmatism to Kenny’s style, although it wasn’t really on display in last night’s performance, but there is still an acknowledgment that the changes the manager has implemented went further than ever from Jack Charlton’s plan that successive managers before him had only tweaked with diminishing returns. Moreover, while the team’s potential is clear, they currently don’t have attackers available at the level of Robbie Keane or Damien Duff among others.
While skepticism was palpable after an error-laden display against Armenia last night, time is needed and inconsistency inevitable given the scale of change that has taken place over the past two years.
Kenny deserves at least until the end of the Euros campaign to justify his project – any sudden reversal in the FAI hierarchy would be completely irrational after the two-year contract extension in March.
There may be people who don’t agree, but they are surely very much in the minority.
A curious contrast to Kenny, however, is the challenge currently facing Gareth Southgate.
If football were simply a results business, Southgate would essentially be revered by now.
He inherited a beleaguered England team. Sam Allardyce’s short-lived stint as manager had ended controversially and almost by accident the Three Lions came across this accomplished new coach. Shortly before, the team suffered a humiliating exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland.
It looked like an unenviable job to undertake, and one that was often described as a “poisoned gift”. Still, Southgate defied skeptics and exceeded expectations.
The former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough player equaled Bobby Robson’s feat by taking England to the semi-finals of the World Cup. They were just one penalty shootout away from Euro 2020 glory amid a hotly contested final with Italy.
He is therefore indisputably the most successful England national team manager since legendary World Cup winner Alf Ramsey.
Yet, remarkably, after some disappointing Nations League results, Southgate has been under significant pressure of late.
He was booed by fans after the defeat to Italy last Friday, while he was met with an equally hostile reaction after a 4-0 home loss to Hungary in June.
The pressure was such that Southgate was recently pressured into launching an impassioned defense of their position.
“I’m the right person to take the team into the tournament,” he said. “I think it’s more stable that way, no doubt.”
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Southgate in recent days has arguably been under more pressure than Kenny has ever faced during his tenure in Ireland, despite the England boss having performed better than almost any other national manager at the last two major tournaments. The atmosphere around the Three Lions squad has even been described as “toxic”.
That wouldn’t be the case if football was all about results.
So how do you explain it? Why is there ostensibly more disappointment with Southgate than with Kenny? Again, context is key.
While the Irish boss is often praised for his style of football, Southgate is frequently ridiculed for what is seen as an ultra-defensive approach. The England side were considered too negative under his leadership, scoring only twice in the group stage at Euro 2020 for example.
What is also key to understanding the storyline are the expectations of the fans. England fans and elements of the media have long been criticized for overhyping their team and setting them up for a crash at major tournaments.
This bad habit first seemed to change under Southgate. Perhaps the infamous loss to Iceland forced a reassessment of expectation levels, to the point where England fans no longer entered every tournament with a sense of entitlement and a sense that anything but a triumph was tantamount to failure.
Yet Southgate’s success amid this more moderate and humble environment seems to have had the unfortunate effect of once again raising unreasonably high hopes, to the point that any setbacks are met with a chorus of invective.
Compare this situation with the current situation of Irish fans. For years they had watched a largely uninspired style of football that only saw them sporadically compete in major tournaments.
Kenny’s initiation has yet to lead to the team being any more successful than they were before, so the only explanation for the relatively generous reception he received overall is that the audience is ready to embrace an individual willing to try something a little different from what came before.
The results, at least in the short term, are not all that matters.
So if Kenny and Southgate’s respective tenures prove anything, it’s the futility of the phrase ‘football is a results business’ – the reality is far more complex and nuanced than can be conveyed with this cliché. inept.