Goals don’t just change games. In the international football sphere, where the calendar is built around a select number of dates, they can change the course of a year.
hen Michael Obafemi executed that deft chip over the Scottish defence on Saturday evening for Troy Parrott to nod home Ireland’s second goal, it took the heat out of Stephen Kenny’s summer.
His future was never out of his hands, but a winless Nations League window would certainly have led to sweaty palms in the FAI’s corridors of power.
Before Saturday’s game, Kenny’s main backers remained confident in their man yet talk of board jitters began to pop up in familiar channels.
There’s a pre-Delaney era vibe to elements of the palace intrigue, the always unnamed top table members who are portrayed as borderline conscientious objectors as regards the Association’s backing of this management team.
Alternative soundings suggest board meetings on the issue are far less volatile than any briefings, but what the dismissal of Scotland has succeeded in doing is postponing further instalments of the circus act for the time being.
This is not to say Kenny has a free pass going into Tuesday’s return meeting with Ukraine. Far from it. If Ireland lose in what promises to be the toughest fixture of this window, then a return of three defeats from four sets a low bar for success.
The best home win in Dublin since the 2015 play-off success over Bosnia does not erase the memory or the damage of what went before.
But it again teased us with the idea of a brighter future, with the actual delivery of a win rather than a heroic near miss lodging serious credit in the bank for Kenny just when it was required.
There were a fair few miserable Scots in attendance, yet the bulk of the 46,947 crowd went home happy and heartened.
When a regime is nearing the end of its days, there’s a weariness around performances that shines a light on the cracks and whispers of player grumbles start to filter out. The lethargic midweek struggle against Ukraine prompted relevant questions about whether belief was ebbing away.
Dismissing Scotland with a healthy mix of structure, sturdiness and style demonstrated that the dressing-room remains on the same page. Fringe players seized their moment, and improved as the minutes progressed.
Kenny did launch some questionable defences of his tenure in the aftermath of back-to-back defeats but his argument about the importance of a first goal was valid. Throughout his time in charge, a series of promising starts have evaporated to nothing without a breakthrough.
Prior to Alan Browne’s opener against Scotland, the last time Ireland scored at home in a first half in a competitive fixture against a higher ranked team was Shane Duffy’s play-off opener against Denmark. We all know what happened next.
Of course, it would be stretching it to put this fixture on the same platform. For all that this encounter carries substance, it’s hard to imagine Scotland would have performed in such an abject manner if a World Cup spot was at stake. They came here smarting from their defeat to Ukraine that ended their Qatar hopes.
Nevertheless, we are accustomed to Ireland teams freezing when ahead, leading to repeated observations of the frustratingly accurate theory that they play better when behind. What changed here is that their application levels improved with an advantage.
Once they escaped early punishment for overplaying at the back – not a reason for abandoning the tactic, more so evidence that it’s going to be harder to execute with Shane Duffy in the middle of the three – Ireland relaxed and improved.
Obafemi’s pass demonstrated that the 21-year-old was operating with a refreshing freedom. The third goal was the perfect illustration of the display, with his stunning effort facilitated by Browne and Jayson Molumby’s aggression to win the ball.
Ireland’s shape was much more compact, with Browne cutting in from wing-back and Molumby as an extra man in the middle with Josh Cullen and Jason Knight. Trusting Parrott again also worked.
Nathan Collins was exceptional once more at the back, with Caoimhín Kelleher composed behind him.
With six members of the starting XI aged 23 or under, it was an endorsement of faith in youth. It was nicely balanced by a recall for James McClean and John Egan’s willingness to declare himself fit next to Duffy, but it was the young players that dominated discussion leaving the stadium.
Incredibly, there have been attempts to suggest Kenny’s attitude to using emerging talent is not dissimilar to the other Irish managers of the last decade, a comical take built on the selective use of statistics.
Whether he lives or dies in this role, the former Dundalk boss has gambled on a higher volume of fresh faces in meaningful games than any 21st century Irish supremo. It can reasonably be argued that he overdid it initially, although it’s possible that the benefits of that will come down the line.
He referenced Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele on Saturday, the Norwich duo who he views as part of a maturing generation. This was raised in the context of John Giles describing this Irish group as the weakest in his memory.
Kenny is liked because he accentuates the positive of their abilities, but he was visibly keen to temper his comments in the aftermath, perhaps wary of how previous post-match pronouncements about winning Nations League groups before the draw was made have come back to bite him.
“I have always been excited about this team,” he said. “I don’t want to make too big a statement either. We have seen a lot of good performances tonight from young players and from experienced players also.
“After the 2-2 with Belgium here people thought we were absolutely brilliant, then we win the next game (Lithuania) 1-0, and then lose a game (Armenia) and it’s a catastrophe.
“That is part of the business and I understand that, but I am very clear in what we’re doing and what we want to do. I think we will definitely emerge to be a very exciting team, I definitely do feel that.”
The rational consequence of Saturday is that Kenny will be at the helm for the Euro 2024 qualifiers, barring a dismal showing at home to Armenia in September which somehow flips the mood spectacularly.
This comes after the away match to Scotland, which should have a bit of spice, but finishing up the campaign in Dublin with another home win will realistically ensure he will be in the dugout for the regular qualifying business in 2023 with a pair of November friendlies the only bridge to that.
Of course, Kenny’s overall record will come right back into sharp focus if it goes awry in Lodz, but the doomsday scenario that might have been presented by a visible losing of the room in Dublin has been avoided.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, and whatever reservations may linger, this show will go on.