Opining on the extraordinary hold that sport has on society and the human psyche veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson declared that sport “is not war, or death, or famine – it’s not that at all. It’s the opposite of that. It’s to persuade us of a life outside of that…that’s why sport’s important.”
As Ireland and the rest of the world battles the coronavirus pandemic and the normality of life pre Covid-19 seems like a distant memory amid lockdowns and checkpoints, the words of Parkinson - speaking on the Second Captains Podcast in 2014 – came to mind after I was reprimanded by a family friend for switching the topic of conversation from the difficulties of social distancing in the local supermarket to the appointment of Stephen Kenny as the new Republic of Ireland manager.
The Tallaght native’s strange succession to the top job in Irish football was compounded by his first official press conference with the media which was conducted via video-link on Thursday.
However, the vagaries of remote media briefings aside, Kenny impressed in his first day in the role he describes as “the ultimate honour”.
Perhaps it is a symptom of the current mood in the country and the desperate desire to find a shaft of light in the dark coronavirus tunnel, but the 48-year-old’s enthusiasm and positivity was striking particularly, coming from someone who’s more comfortable within the confines of the dressing room and training pitch rather than dealing with the off-field stuff.
Kenny is engaging and erudite when speaking about the game, but he’s not exactly box-office compared to the combustible and combative media appearances of the Martin O’Neill/Roy Keane era or Mick McCarthy’s bloke-ish banter putdowns.
That said, for all of us invested in the fortunes of Irish football Kenny’s appointment as senior team manager genuinely feels like an exciting step not least because - on this Easter weekend - you get the impression he sees his role as a guardian of the game in the ‘national’ sense; preaching from the gospel of the game according to Kenny.
“I want people to come to the Aviva Stadium and look forward to watching this team,” said the former Longford Town, Derry City and Dundalk boss.
“And ideally I would want every schoolboy team looking at the international team and thinking: ‘that’s how we want to play’. That is my dream.”
Granted, these sentiments can be viewed as the idealistic hopes of a newly-appointed manager as yet untested at the truly elite level of the game, but Kenny’s belief in playing attractive football and trusting in the ability of his players is in stark contrast to the attitude of the previous regimes of Giovanni Trapattoni, O’Neill and to a lesser extent McCarthy in his second spell in charge; all of whom bemoaned a lack of quality to choose from during their tenures.
All three can rightly point to the fact that they guided the Boys in Green to major tournament finals providing some of the most memorable moments in Irish football history along the way.
Many fans will argue that Shane Long’s goal against world champions Germany or Robbie Brady’s dramatic header in Lille against the Italians are what make following the national side so special; and they are absolutely right.
However, those same fans (and I am one of them) railed against the caution and lack of ambition that has characterised most Irish performances in recent campaigns.
That accusation cannot be levelled at Kenny who said he “disagreed fundamentally” with the notion that it was “in our DNA to play long ball and that our players had the characteristics over the generations to play in a more direct way.”
His Dundalk side’s run to the Europa League group stages in 2016 saw the Oriel Park men produce some eye-catching and fearless displays against more established continental clubs with the likes of Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Michael Duffy flourishing under his tutelage.
Since taking charge of the Ireland under-21s in November 2018, Kenny has brilliantly harnessed the talents of players such as Troy Parrott, Jayson Molumby, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly to produce some spectacular performances including a 4-1 thrashing of Sweden in qualifiers for the UEFA Under-21 Championship leaving them currently top of a group that also includes Italy.
Rarely has an Irish team played with such confidence and obvious belief from their manager and it is this connection with many of those players that provides the basis for optimism as they seek to make the step-up to senior level under the guidance of Kenny.
“The majority of the Irish sporting public love football and they want to see an exciting Irish team,” said Kenny on Thursday.
“They want the team to do well and I hope that they can really connect with the team over the next year so I’ve got to make sure the team plays well first and foremost and the rest will hopefully follow.”
Ultimately, Kenny, whose credentials for the job have already been questioned by former internationals Gary Breen and Stephen Hunt in recent days, knows that it will be results that determine how he will be judged.
The fall-out from the end of the financially calamitous John Delaney era at the FAI may have brought football in this country to the brink but that pales into insignificance in light of the nation’s current battle against a deadly virus.
However, referring to the possibility of football internationals starting up in September again, Kenny pointed out “Everyone in lockdown needs something to look forward to.”
Let’s all hope the Resurrection has begun…