Stephen Kenny contract debate ignores obvious fact as 'candidates' for Ireland job shows
Alternatives show why the Kenny contract debate makes no sense.
Stephen Kenny is likely to receive a new contract from the FAI to continue as Republic of Ireland manager, according to multiple reports. However, the debate surrounding the coach's contract in recent days and weeks has been ignored an obvious fact - there are no realistic candidates to replace him.
Some pundits have said that the association should bide their time before giving the former Dundalk coach another contract. Former Ireland Under-21 manager Noel King even said that Kenny would be a "lucky man" to be rewarded with an extension.
But why? Kenny is doing a respectable job as Ireland coach after an extremely difficult first year in the position. He warrants at least another qualification campaign in the position and the chance to build a squad to reach the 2024 European Championships.
Yet, regardless of how you rate his performance as Ireland manager, there is no escaping that there are no viable contenders to replace Kenny. As such, there is no debate to be had. And to fully emphasise this point, we have looked at some candidates who could potentially be considered as contenders to take over from Kenny. None of them are viable options.
Over the last 25 years, when Ireland search for a new manager, the contenders usually fall into three categories: The former Premier League manager (Martin O'Neill, Mick McCarthy), the homegrown option, (Brian Kerr, Stephen Kenny) and the left-field option (Giovanni Trapattoni, Steve Staunton). There are currently no stand out candidates from any of these categories.
The ex-Premier League managers.
For many Ireland fans, scouting for the next coach of the national team usually starts by looking through managers who previously worked in the Premier League. The FAI have often taken this approach too.
In 2002, former Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson was the favourite to succeed Mick McCarthy before the job went to Brian Kerr. A few years later, in 2008, ex-Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur manager Terry Venables was said to be the front-runner before Giovanni Trapattoni took charge. Martin O'Neill became Ireland manager in 2013, a few months after leaving Sunderland. While McCarthy succeeded O'Neill in 2018, albeit six years after he last coached in the Premier League.
In 2021, however, the option of the out of work Premier League manager is no longer viable due to the association's financial condition after the John Delaney years. The FAI simply don't have the funds to secure any manager who has recently worked in the richest league in the world. Yet, this is a good thing when we consider potential candidates from this pool.
Chris Hughton has been mentioned as a possible successor to Kenny. The former Brighton and Hove Albion manager has a good reputation as a coach and has had a respectable career in the dugout. But he is not the answer for the current Ireland team. His teams play a direct style of football that is unsuited to the young players Kenny has blooded over the last year. It would represent a step backwards for a side that have shown that they can play progressive football.
Hughton's coaching career has also plateaued in recent years. He was sacked by Brighton in 2019, a move that looked harsh at the time but his successor Graham Potter has taken the team to another level. At Nottingham Forest, the 62-year-old was sacked in September after seven games of the Championship season, with Forest on a run of six straight defeats. Steve Cooper, Hughton's replacement, has overseen five wins and just one loss since taking charge.
Unfortunately for Hughton, he has been replaced in his last two jobs by younger, more progressive coaches. He may thrive as a manager in international football, but he is not the right fit for Ireland. With Hughton a non-runner, that doesn't leave the FAI with many other options. Mick McCarthy, like Hughton, looks to be past his best as a manager. The former Ireland captain was recently sacked by Cardiff City after a run of eight losses in a row.
Roy Keane, McCarthy's nemesis, hasn't been a manager since 2011 but has repeatedly stated he wants to get back into the game. Keane is currently working as a pundit for Sky Sports and ITV but would surely jump at the chance to become coach of the national team.
Yet, if the above are backwards steps, Keane would be the nuclear option. He had the potential to be a top-level manager and did amazingly well in his first season with Sunderland back in 2006. However, that was a lifetime ago in football terms.
So, who's left? Sam Allardyce is out of work and he has done well in the Premier League at various clubs. But surely even Kenny's biggest detractors wouldn't view this as a positive move for Irish football? And even then, could the FAI afford the former England manager?
The Irish coaches and homegrown options.
So, with the ex-Premier League manager option completely unviable, that leaves the category of Irish coaches who could make the step up to the national team. There are even fewer options in this category. Given that Kenny was the most successful League of Ireland manager of the last decade, it is hard to make a case for any coach currently working in Irish football to replace him. There are no homegrown or Irish coaches available who could be currently considered an upgrade on Kenny.
Meanwhile, in an alternative timeline, Robbie Keane could possibly be the Ireland manager now as the team prepare to try to qualify for Euro 2024. John Delaney reportedly viewed Keane as a future Ireland coach and was eager for him to be on McCarthy's coaching team in 2018. It hasn't worked out that way and Keane is not currently working in coaching after a brief stint as Middlesbrough assistant manager. Kenny decided against including him in his coaching team, despite Keane having a contract with the FAI until 2022. For a myriad of reasons, this is not an option.
How about Damien Duff? The Ireland legend may have just been appointed as Shelbourne manager, his first post in senior management, but he is highly rated as a coach. Could he step up for the big job? Again, no, for several reasons.
Firstly, Duff has chosen to build his coaching career in a careful manner and is learning his craft. He also abruptly left his role as a coach with the Ireland team in January, reportedly unhappy with the FAI over their investigation into a motivational video shown to the Ireland players before a friendly against England. The chances of him returning to work for the FAI, never mind replacing his former colleague, is extremely remote.
Lee Carsley is another ex-Ireland international who is highly rated as a coach. Carsley, however, is currently the England Under-21 manager. Would he walk away to take over the Ireland team? Possibly. But should Ireland let Kenny go to make it happen? Almost certainly not.
The left-field option.
That leaves the left-field option and from this category, Michael O'Neill could possibly be a contender. He had tremendous success as Northern Ireland manager between 2011 and 2020.
The Stoke City coach has a proven track record at international level and squad building with limited resources. He is, however, unlikely to leave Stoke mid-season with the club currently in the Championship play-off places.
But let's imagine the FAI wanted to appoint O'Neill, and the coach was keen on the job, could the association afford to pay compensation given he is under contract until 2024? It seems unlikely.
As for any other potential candidates, the truth is that elite coaches want to work in club football rather than manage a national team that has not qualified for a World Cup for 20 years. Therefore, any coach who could be considered an upgrade on Kenny is financially unattainable or simply not interested in the job or both.
In essence, there are no viable candidates to replace the current Ireland manager but that's a positive at this juncture. Kenny has the support of the Ireland players and is backed by the majority of fans. He warrants more time to put his shape on an improving team and to be free from speculation regarding the security of his job.