A new era for Irish football begins in Bulgaria tonight as Stephen Kenny takes charge of the senior international side for the first time in the UEFA Nations League clash at the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia.
The former Dundalk manager steps up from the Under-21 role to lead the side throughout the Nations League, the Euro 2020 play-off and on to the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
Two years in the making, Kenny was promised the job back in 2018 at the same time that Mick McCarthy was announced as the senior manager for the Euro 2020 campaign.
A controversial call at the time that led to all sorts of speculation as to when exactly Kenny would take charge, however, the Covid chaos has proved calming in one aspect at least, as former manager McCarthy left his position with Euro qualification still in the balance.
All going well, Ireland will play Slovakia in October and hopefully a play-off final the following month, but first, Kenny will kick-off his tenure with an away trip to Bulgaria, followed three days later by a home clash against Finland in this still novel Nations League format.
A dream job for the new Ireland manager, yet hardly how it would have appeared in his mind's eye as Ireland travel to Bulgaria in their UEFA bubble, with the coronavirus crisis still wreaking havoc with world sport.
There will of course be a dreamlike feel to the fixture set in surreal surroundings of a behind closed doors encounter at the Sofia venue.
And so far so good for the new Ireland manager, with everything going to plan since announcing his squad for the opening fixtures.
Aside from the odd social media grumble, things have been very encouraging for Kenny, who got his first chance to work with the squad this week.
A getting-to-know-you sort of maiden training camp for these opening games, as opposed to a week-long exercise in tactics and thinking, and it appears that the manager has hit the right chord with the players who have arrived in camp with real vigour.
The manager has promised attacking and entertaining football, and has a history of producing good ball-playing sides who appear rather easy on the eye.
A sign of what is to come could be garnered from the recent Under-21 campaign when Ireland played Italy in Tallaght Stadium and outplayed their illustrious opponents in large segments of the game, while they dismantled a decent Sweden side with attacking intent and flair both home and away.
Kenny’s style is more in the guise of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool rather than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Barcelona, with a real emphasis on speed and the ability to attack at pace on either flank or through the middle.
But the manager is far from reckless in his approach, and will build his team on strong foundations with real emphasis on a reliable defence and hard-working midfield.
Kenny has already spoken about the defence that he has inherited and one which he ranks as being as good as any other in Europe, which is also why he is speaking about the possibilities that are achievable over the coming years.
And Kenny is also convinced that there is a strong group of young talent coming through the ranks, which can make Ireland a real force in European football over the coming decade.
To emphasise, as well as to add some sort of continuity from the job he was doing at Under-21 level, Kenny named strikers Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott in his 23-man squad.
Parrott, of course, has had to pull out of the squad through injury, but there is a good chance that Idah or Connolly will see some action in Sofia tonight.
Despite the competitive nature of the away fixture, Kenny will surely name an exciting side for his opening encounter, which should lay down a marker as to what to expect throughout his regime.
And the former Derry City boss can do this without proving too experimental in these opening fixtures as there are plenty of experienced players available who can play the game the way he sees it.
As well as a strong defence, Kenny will place a major emphasis on the patrolling of midfield, and for this reason, he appears really keen to get James McCarthy back performing in a green jersey.
Players like McCarthy, Harry Arter, Alan Browne, Conor Hourihane and Jayson Molumby all have a key role to play in a Kenny side, yet it will be interesting to see who he starts with against Bulgaria.
A fully fit McCarthy will surely get the nod, while the manager is also a fan of Arter’s energetic style and should Kenny name two defence-minded midfielders, it still leaves him with four attacking options, to add to his two full-backs that will be expected to push forward at every viable opportunity.
Mick McCarthy’s brief tenure was played out amidst a Coleman-Doherty selection debate that lasted from first game to last and it had a habit of taking over pre- and post-match conversations.
Perhaps the previous manager’s Achilles heel, as the value of Doherty surfaced too late, with a commanding and goalscoring performance in that final group game at home to Denmark.
McCarthy played the two right-sided defenders in the opening game in Gibraltar then called a halt to the experiment before the night was out and vowed never to revisit.
Kenny will, no doubt, have spoken to both players about the situation, yet he needs to make a big decision in his opening game to assert his authority on a matter that has rumbled on for over two years.
There is, of course, ways of working both into his starting eleven, however, Kenny did all-but admit in a pre-match press conference that he would start with a flat back-four.
The manager will have to pick his strongest right back to start in Sofia, and on current form, that has to be Matt Doherty.
Granted, Doherty plays in a wing-back position for his club – although we await with anticipation, and just a touch of trepidation as to what Jose Mourinho has planned for him at Spurs – so unless Kenny sees him filling a wide midfield berth, it looks like Seamus Coleman will start on the bench.
A three-man defence would allow Kenny to play Coleman on the right of Shane Duffy and John Egan, but it does not appear that it will happen against Bulgaria.
Kenny will most likely send out a side playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation with two wide attackers either side of the "10" and a lone striker leading the line.
The options and permutations for these four positions will have Kenny scratching his head when considering his first ever Ireland team, but he is likely to err on the side of experience and hope that players like Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick can rediscover their international form.
There is a sense that Brady could become a really important figure throughout Kenny's tenure and the Burnley man could be asked to play in any of three positions in that attacking four, whether wide left or right, or centrally tasked with linking midfield with the front man.
Hendrick is most comfortable in the middle of the park, but it remains to be seen whether Kenny can use him in a central role alongside McCarthy, providing defensive and attacking options.
The manager has called on the need for speed in his side, and while Hendrick has a good engine, he is unlikely to be able to fill a wide role in the attack.
Similarly, the new Newcastle recruit has not excelled in the 10 role, playing with his back to goal, so there remains the possibility that he will not make the final cut for the first Kenny selection.
Aaron Connolly’s pace and confidence ticks most of the boxes that Kenny is looking for in an attacking player and the Brighton youngster could well get the nod over attacking stalwart James McClean.
McClean’s wide play is perhaps not needed when Enda Stevens is constantly bombing forward up the flank, and while manager’s do tend to find a place for someone as energetic and enthusiastic as the Stoke City man, his oft-wrecking ball style may be kept in reserve for impact situations.
The manager’s eyes appear to light up every time Adam Idah is mentioned, and there is a chance that the Norwich City striker could be handed an unlikely start in this opening encounter.
Shane Long’s energy and experience makes him the obvious choice to lead the line, however, the Southampton man could be equally effective on the right of the attacking unit, which could leave the door open for Idah.
The more realistic situation would see Long up front, with Callum Robinson asked to fill the wide right berth.
It’s less than 12 months since Ireland last played a Bulgaria side that was easily accounted for in a friendly encounter at the Aviva Stadium, with the home side winning 3-1.
At that time, Ireland were revving up for a last blast at automatic qualification for the Euros, while the visitors were still smarting from a 4-0 mauling by England at Wembley Stadium just three days earlier with their qualification hopes long-since dashed.
But since then, former Ludogorets manager, Georgi Dermendzhiev, has been appointed as head coach of the national side and appears to be getting results within a short space of time, having already beaten the Czech Republic in their final Euro qualifier.
Bulgaria, like Ireland, are also planning for next month’s Euro 2020 play-offs and will be using these Nations League games to prepare for that vital semi-final against Hungary in October.
And while Kenny has emphasised that his side will play attacking and entertaining football during his time as Ireland manager, he was also quick to point out the value of winning games, starting with this away trip to Bulgaria.
"It’s only the first game, we’ve only been in for two days. For us, we’re looking at it on many levels really," said the manager.
"First of all, we want to win the game. That’s important for us. And there is also the bigger picture of the Slovakia game in October.
"And to have a good start in the Nations League group would help the confidence, of course.
"But Bulgaria I’m sure feel the same, they’ve had a very good win in the last competitive game, they beat the Czech Republic 1-0. I’m sure they feel likewise and want a win at home. We’ll have to work really hard to earn the victory.
"They’re very well drilled, very compact as a team. They’ve got speed in their attack; we’ll have to earn anything we get in Sofia for sure."
Follow Bulgaria v Republic of Ireland via our live blog on RTÉ.ie and the RTÉ News app or listen to live commentary on RTÉ 2fm's Game On.
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