On Friday lunchtime in Abbotstown, Stephen Kenny was involved in a press conference back and forth about his use of statistics in the post-mortem from a grim start to this UEFA Nations League campaign.
e was told that the only one that mattered was a return of two wins from 17 games in the hotseat, with the tepid reverses at the hands of Armenia and Ukraine casting fresh doubt over the standing of the Dubliner.
Talk of unnamed FAI board members apparently preparing a ‘reverse ferret’ fuelled the belief that what Kenny needed against Scotland was a result by whatever means possible.
What followed exceeded all expectations. Seven days earlier in Yerevan, Michael Obafemi was shoved off the ball in the lead-up to the long-range Armenian strike that brought the momentum this group was building to a shuddering halt.
On this boisterous Dublin evening, Obafemi’s stunning right-footed thunderbolt six minutes into the second half gave Ireland a three-goal lead. It also delivered a few lines for statistic lovers that go beyond the ending of Ireland’s miserable winless UEFA Nations League record at the 13th attempt.
This was a first competitive Dublin win over a higher ranked side since the play-off success over Bosnia in November 2015 and largest competitive victory over a higher ranked team since a three-goal defeat of the late Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland in October 1989.
Goals from Troy Parrott and Obafemi also make it the first meaningful fixture since 1997 where two Irishmen aged 21 or under hit the target.
The injection of youth and energy was the key to this triumph. In the same way that some of the reaction to the opening defeats was hysterical, any jubilation in the aftermath of this result should be tempered by caution.
It doesn’t change the fact that Ireland put themselves in a very difficult position with abject displays against Armenia and Ukraine, and any belief that this group is capable of qualifying for major tournaments has to be tempered by the fear that a level of inconsistency will cost you over the lifespan of a campaign.
Still, the biggest stick to beat Kenny with was the absence of a victory over a decent side. Scotland had a stodgy afternoon at the office, of that there is no doubt, but they are the level of team that will need to be defeated if Ireland are to get anywhere.
Kenny’s argument ahead of this encounter was that his charges had succumbed to fine margins in tight contests devoid of chances for either side. It was a debateable point, yet the winning of this game was in a first half where both goals were threatened and the pivotal moments swung green.
Before kick-off, Shane Duffy, Nathan Collins, the unexpectedly fit John Egan and Josh Cullen worked at length on a passing drill designed to improve the harmony between the back three and the main sitting midfielder in terms of playing the ball out. In practice, it proved a tad more difficult to execute, especially when Scotland began to sit on Cullen’s shoulder.
Twice in the first half, Ireland got in a muddle when Duffy tried to send the ball out towards right-wing-back Alan Browne, preferred here to Cyrus Christie, and the guests seized upon it. On both occasions, it culminated with left footers from John McGinn that lacked either accuracy or precision.
If they go in, another story is crafted.
But Kenny shaped his own destiny here, getting the major tactical and personnel calls right. Cullen and Jeff Hendrick were isolated for long spells against Ukraine. Kenny took out Hendrick, sent in the busy and disruptive Jayson Molumby and dropped Jason Knight back into what was basically a midfield three.
Parrott and Obafemi were brought in to replace Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson. The shape was much more compact and Scotland’s capable engine room players couldn’t really get into a rhythm. Irish pressure yielded a pair of goals. The opener followed a decent passage and a McClean cross that was nicked away from Obafemi. Set-piece efficiency was another improvement with Duffy clearly instructed to go to the far post and meet McClean deliveries with the big man’s header across the box somehow turned in by Browne’s body.
It wasn’t pretty, but the second goal certainly was, a spark of inspiration that Ireland have generally been on the receiving end of under this management team. Obafemi is known as a threat off the shoulder of the last man, yet he is evolving into a superior force, and the Swansea performer dropped into the number ten pocket and instinctively attempted a deft lob which caught the Scots napping but was read by his strike partner Parrott who was on the run as he gleefully steered a header beyond the advancing Craig Gordon.
There were signs of nervousness in the aftermath. Winning is not a habit for this group, and it showed in this spell. But Scotland were doing their bit to boost their confidence, an overhit cross from Andy Robertson (who was booed by a section of home support presumably because of his Liverpool affiliations) highlighting how their superior players were not at the races.
The game was over as a contest shortly after the restart courtesy of Obafemi’s rocket, an extraordinary contribution from a player whose relationship with Kenny has negotiated a few hiccups prior to his attendance for this window. Persistence from Browne and Molumby to create it was in keeping with the theme of the turnaround. Obafemi hobbled off a few minutes later, a concern with Tuesday’s return fixture with Ukraine in mind.
A header from his replacement Scott Hogan looked to have crossed the line but VAR decided otherwise, an incident that might have constituted a basis for frenzied debate on another evening. On this day, it was a footnote, with the final quarter probably the least stressful period of Kenny’s stint in the hotseat. The challenge now is to build on it.