Crisis, what crisis? Stephen Kenny has responded to suggestions his job as Republic of Ireland manager could be at risk by presiding over a demolition job in Scotland. Ireland entered this Nations League encounter with a record two wins in 17 competitive games under Kenny. They left him with the hope of a fully restored better future. Kenny’s fame was emphatic in style.
“We came into this game having had some real setbacks,” Kenny said. “Any sort of win over Scotland is important. But it wasn’t perfect. We’re still a work in progress.
As for Scotland? What a horror show this quickly became for Steve Clarke. Gibraltar were the last team to concede three or more goals in Dublin. Gibraltar were the last team to lose a competitive game here; three years ago. The scale of embarrassment for the Scots could and should have been much worse. Given how important the Nations League was to this team – it was their road to Euro 2020 – the fact that the Scots were beaten and overtaken was a real headache. Scotland went through the motions in a way that bore an eerie similarity to a 4-0 draw at Wales during the dying embers of Berti Vogts’ regime.
Clarke admitted his players “didn’t cope” with Ireland’s “front foot” approach and was “lost” to explain why. He added: “We played poorly. This group of players has been fantastic for me and fantastic for their country. I’m not going to criticize this band.
The scent of negativity returned to the Irish scene after the 1-0 defeat in Armenia last weekend. Kenny has reason to point out how few resources are available to him, but results like this fall firmly into the “unacceptable” category.
The situation in Scotland seemed not to be so gloomy. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s success in the World Cup playoffs in Glasgow continues to sting. The feeling that Clarke and his players feel they were harshly criticized for their performance in this game is real. Whether it’s a fair perception or not, a solid performance was needed here from the Scots in order to win back some hearts and minds.
Such a dismal Scottish start in Dublin was therefore hard to imagine. The brutality in attack was demonstrated by John McGinn – twice – after blunders in the home defense. The Aston Villa midfielder obediently fired into Caoimhin Kelleher’s hands before aiming an effort away from the goalkeeper’s right post. On both occasions, McGinn should have done much better.
Ireland sensed and capitalized on Scotland’s vulnerability. In fact, that first half was comfortably the worst of Clarke’s tenure. Scott McKenna’s clear header deprived Michael Obafemi of some goal on his first international start. The Irish celebration was only suspended for a few seconds. From the resulting James McClean corner, Shane Duffy nodded towards goal for Alan Browne to drive home. Scotland’s generosity from the set piece was something.
Aviva Stadium roared with approval once again when Troy Parrott doubled the hosts’ lead. Obafemi was the creator, with a deft chip as he caught Jack Hendry and Tony Ralston in the Scottish defence. Parrott’s header was enough to beat Craig Gordon, who had stormed out of his goal.
Clarke’s response at half-time was to introduce Billy Gilmour in place of Hendry, who had endured a particularly steamy 45 minutes. Yet, by mixing in Scott McTominay in place of Hendry in the bottom three, Scotland retained a system that had failed them. Critics of the Scottish coach, who was quick to point out his supposed lack of flexibility, quickly added fuel.
Obafemi struck high beyond Gordon from 25 yards out in a wonderful moment for the Swansea City striker. The Scottish midfielders tiptoed around the ball before it landed at Obafemi’s feet, which rather summed up their pitiful lack of conviction all evening. Ireland was in dreamland.
Scotland survived a VAR check as Ireland chased a fourth. Scott Hogan’s header appeared to have crossed the line before Grant Hanley latched on, but Obafemi’s substitute – the 21-year-old had limped off with a groin problem – may have been offside from the last threatening cross from McClean. By this point, Clarke had pulled McGinn, who was horrible, Che Adams, who was also horrible, and Ryan Christie, whose only contribution had been picking up a yellow card.
The only cause for concern for the Irish regarding the final stages of the match was that they were living in unusual territory. Surprisingly – especially given the hospitality offered in this beautiful city – great Scottish support remained throughout until it was full time. Considering the scene at the time, perhaps all they had to do was make their anger perfectly clear. They did that well. “The fans who booed us were absolutely right to do that,” said Scotland captain Andy Robertson. Tuesday evening in Armenia suddenly takes on a new dimension; which Clarke could do without.