Uefa Nations League B, Group A: Scotland v Republic of Ireland
Hampden Park, 7.45pm – Live on RTÉ Two
A Glasgow welcome, straight down to business for Ireland manager Stephen Kenny, sitting beside his all-but-confirmed captain John Egan, in a stadium full of ghosts.
“Stephen, welcome back to Scotland,” began a local reporter. “Firstly, coming back to Hampden Park, tell us about your memories here — the cup run.”
Back in 2006, Kenny had a 34-match stint as Dunfermline Athletic manager. There were highs and lows, a Scottish Cup final loss to Celtic being overshadowed by relegation and competing in the Uefa Cup from the First Division.
“It’s obviously a long time ago,” said Kenny of those formative years in management. “I had four children under seven at the cup final. They are coming tomorrow and the youngest is now 16. The rest are finished school and in the real world. That gives an indication of how long ago it was.”
The same could be said of Kenny taking over from Mick McCarthy in the depths of a pandemic. Even these past three months, since Ireland’s humiliating defeat to Armenia in Yerevan, monumental change has occurred as multiple players loosened the grip of Premier League contracts to attain loan moves that ensured they played regularly and stopped trading on reputation when it came to international selection.
Shane Duffy opted to remain in the top flight, switching from Brighton to Fulham, a decision that has not yielded any game time. Despite the Derry giant’s struggles at Celtic in 2020, the Scots respect his physical ability to tame Lyndon Dykes, who plundered two headers against Ukraine last Wednesday, as much as they will target his faulty distribution.
“He’s revered in Ireland,” said Kenny. “He’s been a tremendous player for Ireland. He’s still in the Premier League. It’s only seven games into the season. I’m sure he’ll get his opportunities at Fulham. He’s a proven player. I’d have no qualms about playing Shane.”
It was a leading question but still suggests the starting XI will be similar to the side that cut Scotland open, winning 3-0 at the Aviva stadium last summer thanks to stunning contributions from Troy Parrott and Michael Obafemi.
The Obafemi goal produced every element Irish people desire from their football team. Jayson Molumby and Alan Browne scrapping for the ball deep in Scottish territory, an instinctive prod forward by Parrott, flawless control from Obafemi before a heat-seeking missile of a shot left Craig Gordon flapping at thin air. Delirium ensued.
That result put Scottish manager Steve Clarke under severe pressure. Having already failed to reach the Qatar World Cup, due to defeat at home to Ukraine, he changed to a back four as Manchester United’s Scott McTominay came of age in his natural midfield holding berth.
“The four at the back just felt the right way to go,” said Clarke. “It worked well but maybe in games going forward the back three is the way to go. I’ve always said I want to be flexible.”
A wee game of chess is developing between the camps. Kenny has several “dilemmas” with Matt Doherty’s creativity expected to be favoured over Browne and Seámus Coleman while Chiedozie Ogbene’s goals for Rotherham United and general impact in a green jersey brings Parrott’s goal-free start to the season into sharp focus.
These are the calls that Kenny must get right, essential to escaping Hampden with the three points that are needed for Ireland to maintain fading hopes of winning this group and qualifying for the Nations League top tier come 2024.
Scottish players openly spoke this week about revenge for Dublin as their media eviscerated them for losing to a “spectacularly limited” Irish team last time out.
“To be honest that is the first I’ve heard of it, we just focus on trying to play our game,” said Egan, unmoved by the insult. “We don’t pay attention to much of media and stuff. We just want to meet up, prepare really well for the games and go out to try and win games of football.”
Egan was calmness personified, gearing up to form an enormous back three alongside Nathan Collins and Duffy with Gavin Bazunu in behind.
“I’ve seen everyone train this week, we’ll be very strong going into tomorrow,” said Kenny, refusing to drop hints about other calls like James McClean or the fit again Robbie Brady at left wing-back.
Perhaps Preston’s Dubliners, Parrott and Brady, would offer a flash of magic off the bench as the light declines.
Much of what made Scotland so effective against Ukraine three days ago, when they had eight shots on target, six in the second half, was the heat John McGinn and Celtic skipper Callum McGregor brought to midfield, with the Aston Villa man gaining a reputation for fending off defenders with his rear, as seen for the first goal after 70 long minutes.
Kenny could have turned the other cheek when asked about the impact of McGinn’s backside, but instead of giggling like the rest of auditorium he invoked the greatest Scottish arse of them all.
“In terms of shielding the ball,” said Kenny cautiously. “Kenny Dalglish turned it into an art form. He was one of the greats at doing that. It is a skill in itself being able to do that, holding people off and getting goals.”
Scotland (possible): Gordon (Hearts); Hickey (Brentford), Hendry (Cremonese), McKenna (Nottingham Forest), Tierney (Arsenal); McGregor (Celtic), McTominay (Manchester United); Fraser (Newcastle United), McGinn (Aston Villa) Christie (Bournemouth); Dykes (QPR).
Ireland (possible): Bazunu (Southampton); Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Duffy (Fulham), Egan (Sheffield United) ©; Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Cullen (Burnley), Hendrick (Reading), Knight (Derby County), McClean (Wigan Athletic); Obafemi (Swansea City), Ogbene (Rotherham United).
Referee: Sandro Schärer (Switzerland).