A whirlwind week for Stephen Kenny, and it is fair to say that the new Ireland manager has come through it virtually unscathed.
With only two days training with his new squad before setting off for an away trip to Bulgaria, this new-look Ireland side gave Irish football fans glimpses into what may be possible in the coming years, and will surely have raised hopes going into next month's Euro 2020 play-off.
Squad solidarity was never a question, and it would appear that this Seamus Coleman-led unit have proved very receptive to what the new management team are trying to do, while showing great heart to fight back for a last-gasp point in Sofia.
That trip home from the East would have been a lot more enjoyable thanks to Shane Duffy’s late, late header, and now the new man in charge can take real heart into this evening’s home clash with Finland at the Aviva Stadium.
A week on and Kenny will send his side out for this Nations League encounter with a lot more knowledge of what is asked of them, as well as having the bonus of 90 tough minutes under their belt, considering the squad are all still in pre-season mode.
The Didzy Factor
Everyone trained on Saturday and they would have been buoyed by the arrival of David McGoldrick, who flew in on Friday to join up with the rest of the 24-man squad.
McGoldrick proved Ireland’s best player throughout the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and was probably the best bit of business done by the former manager to bring him back in from the cold and make the versatile frontman such a vital player for Ireland.
Kenny, likewise, understands the quality of the player and will know how important a fit McGoldrick could prove in next month’s playoff in Slovakia.
McGoldrick did not come to Dublin to win the game against Finland, rather to get acquainted with the new management team and start to learn about the international project that is starting to take shape.
The Sheffield United striker was named Ireland player of the year for 2019, however, he has been troubled by a foot injury during pre-season and the best that can be expected from him against Finland will be a second-half cameo, which will have been sanctioned by a club who have proved very accessible to Ireland in recent years.
Who Will Face the Finns?
Stephen Kenny wants to establish a core group of players to build his team around and he needs to be decisive over this international window to give him a chance of getting a semi-settled team ready for Slovakia next month.
Whatever happens in Slovakia and potentially in a play-off final in November is the manager’s primary focus right now, and surely the bigger picture of transforming Irish football will begin in earnest once Ireland’s Euro 2020 status has been decided one way or another.
In an ideal world, Kenny would send the same eleven back into the fray at the Aviva to take on Finland to maintain momentum and continuity for the vital knock-out match.
Yet the nature of those who played will make it impossible for all eleven to start this match, as the manager explained that some had not played 90 minutes in six months. So two games in three days will dictate that new players will get a chance to stake their claim for future starting spots in Kenny’s side.
The manager admitted that James McCarthy is not fully fit and needs to be managed, while others will be feeling the effects of Thursday’s game.
The exuberance of youth should dictate that players like Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah could happily go out and race about for another 90 minutes, however, the mental fatigue for such inexperienced players attempting to exceed expectations will no doubt see the manager make some changes in his front three.
Likewise, in the middle of the pitch, the manager must be keen to see how players like Jayson Molumby, Alan Browne or Harry Arter would fare within his system. Brighton man Molumby knows all about the manager, having played for him at Under-21 level, while Arter would most likely be the man to sit in for McCarthy, if he is not ready to start.
The continuity in his side will surely start from the back, where key players like Shane Duffy, John Egan and Darren Randolph will start to form the spine of Kenny’s Ireland side.
Are You Denmark in Disguise?
Stephen Kenny is attempting to create an Ireland side not seen in these parts since the pre-Jack Charlton days, yet the new manager’s formation against Bulgaria did have a very familiar look to it.
And that is probably a result of playing Denmark so many times in recent years as the formation and characteristics of the players is very similar to the way that the Danes have lined out in recent games against Ireland.
Denmark’s team is built around a central three of Lasse Schone, Thomas "tin of beans" Delaney, and Christian Eriksen.
Schone sits in front of the back four, orchestrates the play and players around him and begins all that is good about the Danes.
Delaney is a robust box-to-box midfielder who likes to also get into advanced positions and has an eye for goal, while Eriksen’s qualities are firmly etched in the memories of all Irish players and fans alike.
Kenny’s ideal three would be something similar with McCarthy playing that Schone role and either Jeff Hendrick or Conor Hourihane replicating what Delaney does for the Scandanavian side.
Of course, Eriksen is a world class operator and Ireland do not have an equivalent, and this may prove the most difficult piece of the jigsaw for the new coach to fit.
Perhaps the manager thinks either Hourihane or Hendrick can play that creative role, but his acceptance that his side lacked that ingenuity to play through the defence shows that it is firmly a work in progress.
Robbie Brady gained the plaudits of the manager after the Bulgaria game following his role in the equaliser and the Burnley man may be ready to step into a midfield three that is looking to be more penetrative, which was one area pencilled in for improvement by the manager.
A player not in the squad, but one who, ironically enough, proved he could play that role against Bulgaria 12 months ago is Shamrock Rovers’ Jack Byrne, yet the Hoops playmaker has not hit top form since the return to play in recent weeks and it would appear that Kenny thinks he is just behind those named in the squad.
Otherwise, Kenny may need to wait for players like Conor Ronan to break through to senior level, having played that role with such ease and knowledge during the Under-21 campaign, most notably in his second half display against Sweden at home, when he came on at the break and turned a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 victory.
Aside from that midfield three, Denmark also play with attacking full-backs, and two wide front men who are encouraged to cut inside, which is exactly what we saw from Aaron Connolly and Callum O’Dowda, while the Danes also employ a big man up top to lead the line, with the ability to play with their back to goal and threaten in behind.
Doherty Versus Coleman – The Saga Rumbles On
Matt Doherty got the jersey on Thursday night, but to say that the Wolves man is guaranteed to hold onto it for the foreseeable may be jumping the gun just a little.
Such has been the quality of Doherty in the Premier League, that it appeared almost criminal that he was not starting every game for Ireland.
However, when the captain of the side and an exceptional footballer is your competition, it leaves a very big decision for the manager to make.
Kenny admitted in Saturday’s pre-match press conference that the decision to pick Doherty over Coleman was a marginal one, and while Doherty’s quality is undeniable, he may need to prove that he is undroppable in the green jersey.
Doherty did nothing wrong in Bulgaria on Thursday night, yet there were not too many forays forward down that right flank into the opposition half, and in fact, one notable move forward resulted in a sloppy loss of possession, which led to a very dangerous counter attack.
The manager also made a point about the defensive unit as a whole, stating that they needed to be more cohesive.
"Our back four would want to be more cohesive," he said. "We got exploited on at least two occasions, and we need to be cohesive as a back four and make sure we have the correct balance in there."
These words suggest that the manager was concerned about the performance from the back four as a unit and not just for the one-off mistake that allowed the goal to be scored.
Enda Stevens plays the majority of his club football in the wing-back role as part of a back five, while Doherty played an even more liberal role on the right side for his now former club, Wolves, whose two holding midfielders and three central defenders give him free rein to play that effective attacking role.
Coleman’s role as captain of the side would make him a natural organiser in that unit and would perhaps offer more stability in line with the manager’s thinking and philosophy.
The only solution would be a back five with Coleman and Doherty to be facilitated, but for the time being it will be a back four and a selection headache for the manager.
Randolph the Sweeper-Keeper
Darren Randolph has been one of the most consistent players for Ireland since the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, receiving many plaudits for his plethora of outstanding saves throughout several high-profile games, not to mention his assist for Shane Long's goal in the defeat of world champions, Germany.
And while the Bray native has been likened to some of the great shot-stoppers of the game, Randolph has probably never been compared to the ultimate sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer.
Randolph rarely had to stray out of his six-yard box throughout the Martin O’Neill era, such was the deep line that the defence would invariably take, setting up camp on the edge of the box, while the keeper did not appear to be encouraged to push out during the McCarthy years either.
But now Ireland are set to play a high-line in defence and there will be large gaps in behind, which means that there is a new responsibility on Randolph to be alert and ready to react when necessary.
"That is important. If you are going to press forward, you are going to leave space," said Kenny.
"Darren Randolph is very sharp off his line, reads it brilliantly, a good decision maker, and he was very consistent in the previous campaign.
"We watched the eight games, scrutinised them, and he was one of our most consistent performers, one of our best performers, so we are happy to have him."
Empty Stadium, Full Support
Stephen Kenny has been getting ready for this week for the past two years since he was told that he would be taking over as Ireland manager in the summer of 2020.
Little did he realise that he would be leading out his side for his first home international at an empty Aviva Stadium.
And while there will be no full house roaring on the Boys in Green to give them a proper send off for Slovakia next month, the manager is convinced that the entire nation is behind the team.
"We’d love to be there with a full house," said the manager.
"The players dream of playing in front of a full house, but that is not the case. Nevertheless, every match and opportunity to play for your country is such a proud moment.
"The players will be looking forward to it, playing Finland at home, and they know that the Irish supporters will be with us and they certainly will be."
Follow Republic of Ireland v Finland (KO 5pm) via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app, or listen to commentary on RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Sport.