The Republic are set to miss out on Euro 2024 after failing to reach Euro 2020 and last year’s World Cup under Stephen Kenny
For the Republic of Ireland, it was a night when hope turned to utter devastation as another qualifying campaign slipped away from them and the dark clouds gathered over boss Stephen Kenny.
Having been outclassed by France, the Republic went into Sunday’s Tqualifier against the Netherlands needing three points to breathe new life into their bid to reach next summer’s European Championship in Germany.
The night began with much promise. Roared on by a raucous atmosphere at Aviva Stadium, the Irish players started the game like they finished March’s 1-0 defeat by France here: with purpose, belief and on the hunt for goals.
It was an admirable approach that quickly bore fruit. Adam Idah tucked away a fourth-minute penalty, and in the moments that followed, the home support’s renewed hope was palpable.
At times during an absorbing first half, the Dutch defence – led by captain Virgil van Dijk – looked rattled. There were flashes of Dutch threat, though, with Donyell Malen twice denied by Gavin Bazunu. It was just enough to remind the Republic that they had a long way to go before they emulated the famous World Cup qualifying win over the Dutch in 2001.
In truth, they didn’t come close. Cody Gakpo levelled from the spot 15 minutes after Idah’s opener, and having quivered against a hard-pressing Irish unit early on, the visitors asserted their superiority after the break.
The crucial moment arrived 11 minutes into the second half when Wout Weghorst struck, finishing a move that was lit up by the vision of Frenkie de Jong, who chipped an inch-perfect pass into Denzel Dumfries’ path.
As for the Republic, they failed to take their chances, as they have done so often under Kenny. Chiedozie Ogbene had two shots charged down after the Irish press had forced the Dutch to cough up possession near their goal, although one of the resulting corners led to Idah’s penalty.
There are still three games remaining but, with the exception of a possible play-off via Nations League rankings, the Republic are facing up to the prospect of watching another tournament from home.
Kenny had set his stall out before the Netherlands’ visit to Lansdowne Road, admitting that he had attempted to shape his squad with this campaign in mind.
But his plan has fallen apart. Four defeats in five, with the solitary win coming at home to Gibraltar. In his post-match remarks, Kenny said he expects to remain in charge for the remainder of the campaign while acknowledging that his future beyond that is for other people to decide.
Injuries – Evan Ferguson’s absence for this double-header a key example – Covid issues and suspensions have played their part, of course, during his reign but Kenny’s record now stands five wins, eight draws and 13 defeats from 26 competitive games in charge.
Those victories have come against Gibraltar, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Scotland and Armenia. But shock defeats by Luxembourg and Armenia have served to give Kenny’s detractors the most ammunition.
The Football Association of Ireland now find themselves with another manager’s future to mull over. Just a few weeks after Vera Pauw was not offered a new contract despite leading the senior women’s side to the World Cup, the FAI must soon decide Kenny’s fate, with his deal set to expire at the end of this campaign.
The potential play-off creates an interesting dilemma. Given their poor Nations League performance – seven points from six games against Scotland, Ukraine and Armenia last year – the Republic are far from assured of a play-off spot.
If they do squeeze in but Kenny departs before it takes place, it would be a bitter pill for him to swallow given that he was parachuted into the job sooner than planned ahead of the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final – which they lost on penalties to Slovakia – during the Covid lockdown.
Kenny’s crestfallen demeanour at full-time was telling. So, too, was the mixed reaction when his name was read out by the stadium announcer prior to kick-off.
But while patience is clearly wearing thin among the supporters, Kenny has not yet lost the faith of the players.
Speaking to BBC Sport NI after the game, midfielder Jamie McGrath said Kenny was “the right man for the job” when asked if he would like to see the 51-year-old continue to lead the team.
“It goes without saying the gaffer’s the right man for the job,” said McGrath.
“I know all the players are certainly of the same opinion.”
Reflecting on the Republic’s defeat on Sunday, the Aberdeen midfielder added: “We’re all on the floor after that. We put so much into it. We had the crowd on our backs.
“We smothered them [the Netherlands] at times in the first half and there was some really good stuff, but we had to take advantage of it and get that second goal.”
Sunday was the 10th anniversary of Giovanni Trapattoni’s last game as Republic boss, but whether 10 September proves the endpoint for Kenny remains to be seen.
He has endured several setbacks during his reign, but this certainly feels like the hardest one to come back from.