While the game itself will hardly live long in the memory, the Republic of Ireland’s friendly against New Zealand was significant for the emotions it provoked and the era – or eras, it seems – that ended with it.
For James McClean, there was pride and contentment as he drew the curtain on his 11-year international career in heart-warming fashion, surrounded by his family and adoring fans.
The result – a 1-1 draw after another patchy Republic display – aside, it was all good for McClean. He started the night with three of his children alongside him prior to kick-off, his name prompting the loudest cheer when it was called out on the Aviva Stadium’s PA.
Then there was the on-pitch farewell. Subbed off halfway through the second half, he was embraced by his team-mates and applauded by the Irish fans as he waved goodbye to an international career that brought highs like beating Italy in the Euros, but lows like home defeats by Luxembourg.
McClean was given a guard of honour as he disappeared down the tunnel. He appeared totally at peace as he told BBC Sport NI that he had “no regrets” about his decision to call it a day.
For Stephen Kenny, however, his post-match comments in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium struck a much more solemn tone as he faced the media for what felt like the last time.
By the time Kenny entered the press conference room, he had already seemingly waved goodbye to the Irish fans before fighting back the tears in his television interview as he spoke of the “huge privilege” of “managing my country”.
But as he noted in the matchday programme, with that privilege has been a journey to the “darkest of places”, a reference to the struggles he has faced at every turn.
Kenny’s contract as Republic boss is now up, and while the Football Association of Ireland have not yet confirmed his departure, the 52-year-old cut a crestfallen figure during a press conference in which he tried hard to keep his emotions in check.
The Dubliner, who realised a lifelong dream of leading his country when he was appointed as Mick McCarthy’s successor in April 2020, admitted he does not expect to be offered the chance to further develop the young team he has assembled.
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It now appears inevitable rather than likely that Kenny will vacate the role, leaving the FAI with two managers to find after Vera Pauw’s departure from the women’s team earlier this year.
But while Pauw’s exit was certainly acrimonious, it came after the Dutchwoman blazed a trail by guiding the Republic to the Women’s World Cup finals for the first time in their history.
For Kenny, however, there was no achievement on that scale, nothing to rival previous accomplishments like leading Dundalk to the Europa League group stages. Instead, his dream job brought regular anguish during a three-and-a-half-year stint when he was constantly forced to defend himself from criticism.
When Kenny replaced McCarthy in the midst of the global pandemic, there was a healthy dose of optimism that he could help the Republic realise their potential after his impressive spell as Under-21s boss.
His big opportunity came early. In just his third match in charge, the Republic faced Slovakia in a Euro 2020 play-off semi-final. But with Covid regulations having robbed Kenny of key players Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly, his side were beaten on penalties and the Euro dream slipped away.
From there, Kenny’s reign never really got started. The World Cup qualifying campaign was effectively over after two games: a narrow loss away to Serbia and a humiliating home defeat by Luxembourg which ranks among the worst in the team’s history.
The Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, which ended on Saturday in Amsterdam, followed a similar pattern. It was the one Kenny had been building towards, but while the Republic stirred belief after pushing France all the way in a 1-0 home defeat in their opener, losing to Greece in the next match hammered Irish hopes and weakened Kenny’s position.
While some will say the Republic’s hopes of reaching Euro 2024 were dashed the moment they were drawn alongside France and the Netherlands, amassing six points from eight matches was unanimously regarded as unacceptable.
‘I’ve been under a lot of pressure’
And if Tuesday’s draw with New Zealand, a team ranked 45 places below the Republic at 103rd, proves to be Kenny’s swansong, he will leave with a record of 11 wins, 12 draws and 17 defeats in 40 matches. A win percentage of 27.5%. In competitive games, he managed just six wins in 29.
The good times have been few and far between – beating Scotland 3-0 at home in the Nations League was undoubtedly the high point – but Kenny’s passion for the job is such that he even considers games that he didn’t win as some of his “highlights”, like losing 2-1 away to Portugal thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s late double or drawing at home to Serbia six days later in World Cup qualifying.
“At different stages of the last few years, I’ve been under pressure a lot in that period,” he explained.
“I think people speculated that I was one game away [from being sacked] a few times and that could have been the truth, I don’t know.
“It did feel like that sometimes, but never in the dressing room, in the inner sanctum of the dressing room, never so. I think it’s a great dressing room now.”
McClean and Kenny, two key figures for the Republic of Ireland in recent years, now embark on different paths.
McClean still has a lot to be excited about with Wrexham, the club he joined in the summer, battling for promotion to League One under their Hollywood celebrity co-owners.
The future for Kenny, however, is filled with uncertainty, but after the way he spoke on Tuesday, confirmation that he will not lead the Republic of Ireland in 2024 is surely a matter of when and not if.