Who will Stephen Kenny select as his first-ever Ireland XI to face Bulgaria?

Thu, Sep 03 2020

New Tottenham signing Matt Doherty will compete with captain Seamus Coleman for the right-back slot - but who will make the cut for Bulgaria? Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

It’s been a long five-month wait for Stephen Kenny to take charge of his first game as senior Republic of Ireland manager, but it comes to an end in Sofia on Thursday night.

Kenny will lead out his side at the Vasil Levski National Stadium in the Bulgarian capital for the first of six UEFA Nations League games.

The Bulgaria game, and the meeting with Finland in Dublin on Sunday, will serve as dress rehearsals ahead of next month’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Slovakia.

Like his predecessor, Mick McCarthy, Kenny will have little time to put a system in place to get the most from the players at his disposal but he does at least have these two games to warm up.

The Tallaght man will be eager to put his stamp on the side but, with the Slovakia game just four weeks away, the teams he puts out against Bulgaria and Finland will need to gel quickly.

Much has rightly been made of Kenny’s openness to youth – he’s included four uncapped under-21s in the final squad – and he has criticised past manager’s reluctance to cap young players.

His Dundalk teams saw youngsters like Jamie McGrath and Richie Towell blossom but they were surrounded by cultured, experienced players in Stephen O’Donnell, Ronan Finn and Brian Gartland.

Kenny will be wary of throwing too many young players in at the deep end at once and will ensure his team is built around a spine of experience.

So who will get the nod for the 48-year-old’s first game in charge on Thursday?

Goalkeeper: Darren Randolph

This is an easy one. Randolph’s 42 caps somewhat dwarf the combined two caps boasted by the other goalkeepers in the squad, Mark Travers of Bournemouth and Caoimhín Kelleher of Liverpool.

Kelleher himself was called in as a replacement for the injured Kieran O’Hara, twice capped under Mick McCarthy, which shows the dearth of experience behind Randolph.

Kelleher, Travers, O’Hara, as well as Gavin Bazunu, are undoubtedly the future but the Bray man is still very much the now of Irish goalkeeping.

With Kenny intent of playing positive, attacking football, some might see Randolph’s place being a little vulnerable but the West Ham stopper’s footballing skills have always flown under the radar.

Few goalkeepers can boast a match-winning assist on their competitive international debuts (against Germany) and he may well flourish with a more expansive style.

Defence: Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Enda Stevens

Immediately, the name that sticks out is the one that isn’t there: Matt Doherty.

Kenny confirmed on taking up the job in April that Seamus Coleman would continue as captain but made no commitment that he’d be automatic starter.

He has spoken at length about the paucity of caps Doherty has earned, nine at the age of 28, when he has been one of the stand-out Irish full backs around for several years.

The Swords man’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur has amplified the discussion around him but, having cut short a holiday to do the deal, Doherty is behind the rest of the squad in preparation.

It may just be a convenient excuse for Kenny to avoid making any hard decisions ahead of the Slovakia game by giving Coleman a run-out in Sofia and Doherty in Dublin.

The rest of the defence picks itself as Shane Duffy and John Egan form a natural partnership with Enda Stevens the obvious choice at left back.

Midfield: James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane

Here’s where Kenny will break firmly with the practices of his predecessors McCarthy and Martin O’Neill, who were never fully convinced of the merits of a three-man midfield.

McCarthy’s team selections often sacrificed a wing option for a fourth centrally-minded midfielder to help out with the dogwork in the middle of the park.

In Kenny’s team the midfield is there to play ball. So it’s ironic that Kenny will likely start with what would have been McCarthy’s ideal trio.

McCarthy wasn’t fortunate enough to have his namesake James available during his tenure, and the Crystal Palace man amazingly hasn’t featured in red due to injury in four years.

Every team needs its pivot and, at Dundalk, that was Stephen O’Donnell, the man through whom everything flowed and by whom the tempo was set.

McCarthy showed signs in the latter part of the 2019/20 season that he was returning to the level he was at during Euro 2016 and a fit McCarthy is Kenny’s dream selection.

With McCarthy’s calm presence, excellent positional sense and tidy presence in the middle, Jeff Hendrick can offer more of the attacking attributes he’s shown in fits and spurts in past years.

The odd man out might appear to be Hourihane but Kenny’s Dundalk was built on set-piece excellence – from Darren Meenan breaking records to Michael Duffy. Hourihane offers just that.

Forwards: Callum O’Dowda, Adam Idah, James McClean

Easily the toughest area of consideration for selection is the front line, where the options are very much dependent on what Kenny wants from his widemen.

Only two of the attacking options look suited to the traditional number nine role, which Kenny tends to favour: the experienced Shane Long and the uncapped Adam Idah.

The conservative choice would be the hard-working and wily Long but, at international level in particular, a striker needs to score goals.

With none of the wide options a natural goalscorer, Kenny has to decide if he should go with the reliable workman or the man he has watched score goals every time he steps up a level.

In his former Derry City charge James McClean and Callum O’Dowda, Kenny is blessed with two very different types of winger.

McClean will run all day and is capable of real quality when on song, while O’Dowda is as frustrating to watch at times as he is to defend against.

With pacey, direct options out wide and the goalpoaching instincts of the striker from Cork, Kenny has a forward line capable of producing goals.