rock bottom | 

Roy Curtis: Apathy is Stephen Kenny’s ultimate legacy after disastrous reign as Ireland boss

Fans thirst for optimism, but the FAI binges on dysfunction

Ireland reached rock bottom under Stephen Kenny as just one competitive win against a top-75 ranked opponent proved. He couldn’t even manage a win against 103rd-rated New Zealand in his final game in charge. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

Rock bottom, a point so low and distressing that it compels a person to confront their dependence and submit to getting well, is a familiar concept in addiction treatment.

Enslaved to mediocrity, unable to kick a debilitating losing habit, lost in a fog of hopelessness, the unmoored elevator that is Irish football has plunged to that grim emotional basement.

“My name is FAI and I’m an incompetence addict...”

From such oceanic depths of despair, even a faint glow of hope – a single pinprick of light – is not easily discerned.

Short of unveiling a messianic Pep/Klopp dugout double act, or the Fab Four of Brady, McGrath, Giles and Keane emerging from a time-tunnel in their athletic prime, the wattage of expectation is set to remain unrelentingly pale.

However much he departed the stage railing against reality, regardless of the public goodwill that offered initial psychic fuel, no honest post-mortem of Stephen Kenny’s interregnum can avoid a verdict of death by continuously self-inflicted wounds.

With just one competitive victory against a top-75 ranked opponent, the Kenny bankruptcy was the equivalent of a non-stop, three-year Mike Tyson barrage, a disfiguring flurry to the jaw, mutilating the face Irish football presents to the world.

Rock bottom.

Lee Carsley has quietly constructed an impressive underage coaching pedigree and is a worthy, timely candidate to coax the potential of Evan Ferguson, Chiedozie Ogbene, Festy Ebosele and others into something resembling a coherent end-product.

That the artisan former Irish midfielder might prefer to bide his time with the English underage programme reflects the FAI’s standing as the sick man of Europe.

Ireland thirsts for optimism but has been compelled for too long to drink from a bone-dry cup.

A November Tuesday end of the affair at a sedated Lansdowne Road, Kenny’s broken design exposed by opponents from outside the world’s top 100, the half-empty arena as hushed as a silent movie, felt post-apocalyptic, dystopian.

So many thousand light years from Genoa or Giants Stadium, or, more recently and relevantly, from fevered nights when Shane Long and Robbie Brady filleted Germany and Italy, that such eternal days of thunder would not have been visible through the planet’s most powerful telescope.

From Kenny’s stillborn vision to the FAI finding ever new ways to binge on dysfunction, Irish football requires urgent admission to the sporting equivalent of the Mayo Clinic.

In a single tweet, my colleague Ciaran Lennon eloquently distilled the mess down to its toxic essence.

“No men’s manager, no women’s manager, no chairperson of the board, no men’s sponsor, no gender quota ... and a CEO hanging on. Some crossroads at the FAI.”

A 12-step programme may not yet have been invented that can kick-start recovery and nurse Ireland back to health.

One sobering statistic trumpet-blasts the scale of Kenny’s impotence to summon a single breath of Irish defiance.

Uniquely among all the number one to number four seeds contesting the European Championship qualifiers across the ten groups (that’s 40 nations), Ireland failed to summon a single point against any opponent other than the bottom-seeded minnows – Gibraltar in their case.

Alone, Kenny stood on a remote island of ineptitude, a barren land beyond the normal metrics of arid impoverishment.

Nine hours in the company of France, Holland and Greece yielded a single goal from open play, Nathan Collins’s lonely midsummer strike in a 2-1 Athens loss.

As that untethered Irish elevator tumbled into the void, the general public turned elsewhere for their kicks.

Apathy on an unprecedented scale is Kenny’s ultimate gift to Irish football.

With the worst winning percentage of any Irish manager over the last half a century, he failed to deliver even one night that would be added to the nation’s greatest sports hits.

And the great unwashed largely switched off.

Sport, at its best, is a comfort, a distraction, a unifier, a mood-altering escape, one that dares us to dream. It carries us out of slumps and slouches, satisfies the human yearning to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

It splashes beauty and rapture onto the canvass of life.

If the harrowing events in Dublin city on Thursday offered a rebuke to Bill Shankly’s most quoted observation, still the words of another Liverpool manager shine through the murk.

Jurgen Klopp’s description of football as “the most important of the least important things” will resonate with those whose lives have been enriched by a group of players from any code.

An All-Ireland or a Heineken Cup or a Premier League rising up by a favourite team can, for a little while at least, unchain an entire tribe from its troubles.

Even if international football is no longer the pinnacle in the age of Champions League super clubs, an Irish team asserting itself on the global stage tends to feel like a brilliant centrepiece for the nation’s hopes.

When a manager and team and supporters are plugged into the same emotional circuitry, everyone breathes rarefied air and giddiness abounds.

So much pivots on what happens next.

An inspired regime change followed by a few volcanic moments of sharp-edged conviction from Ferguson or Ogbene early in next year’s World Cup qualification campaign might be enough to re-light the touchpaper.

Momentum, whether of the positive or negative kind, can be self-perpetuating.

Perhaps a renaissance – even a limited one – is not such an entirely impossible dream. There have been green shoots.

Jim Crawford’s U-21s accumulated 19 points in advancing to the European Championship play-offs for the first time in Irish history last year and more recently went toe-to-toe with Italy and Turkey without flinching.

The assembly line of talent might not be moving as fast as in times past, but neither has it ground to a standstill.

Ferguson is already being feted as a future £100m footballer; Ogbene outshone Mo Salah when Luton faced Liverpool.

Even with chaos again enveloping the FAI and with a limited concentration of talent, instant improvement can be triggered by a more coherent gameplan and a pragmatic upgrade.

Perhaps holding on against New Zealand on a winter Tuesday, the air infused with a terrible and palpable indifference, really was the low point.

Some, searching for a fix of celebrity stardust, would not be averse to a second coming of Roy Keane and all the accompanying wild, unpredictable, box-office moments.

Roller-coaster rides, however dizzying and stomach-churning, however wildly they lurch across the terrain, remain compelling precisely because of the madness looming around the next bend.

Carsley, even with a hugely impressive body of work with England U-21s that yielded European Championship glory, would not offer the same instant sugar rush.

A further cautionary tale is offered by recent history: Kenny’s ascension to the senior throne was facilitated by a degree of underage success.

But, then, so to was Jim Gavin’s – an All-Ireland U-21 in 2010 the first advertisement of skills that would carry Dublin’s senior team to the unimagined heights of Gaelic football’s first five-in-a-row.

Gavin was a relatively low-profile figure before his appointment, a workaday footballer, though one armed with a bright, curious intellect, an intense student of his chosen code.

The similarities with the current favourite to replace Kenny are self-evident.

Success is relative and with no apparent limits to FIFA’s appetite for bloat, 48 teams will compete at the 2026 World Cup, offering Carsley a clear pathway to qualification.

Sitting at rock bottom, as Ireland presently are, any faint glow of hope will have to suffice.

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