Stephen Kenny saluted his Republic of Ireland players as a bruising Nations League campaign ravaged by coronavirus and injuries ended with him still awaiting his first win.
Ireland have gone eight games without a victory under their new manager and perhaps more worryingly, 11 hours without a goal after a 0-0 draw with Bulgaria in Dublin which was enough to secure their League B status, but nothing more substantial.
However, after seeing Crystal Palace midfielder James McCarthy leave the camp after losing his father and four players having to self-isolate following Covid-19 tests, Kenny had nothing put praise for the character within his squad.
He said: “The fact that the players have had to endure what they’ve had to endure over the last couple of months, having to deal with Covid-related nearly every day in the camp, it’s very unsettling for players, very unsettling for them in their lives and all their connected families.
“It’s been a very, very difficult period over the last two windows with all of that. We lost some players with bereavement in this camp – James McCarthy’s father unfortunately passed away – and we lost players through injury.
“There were a lot of issues and in the last two camps, we were probably missing players in double figures.
“But regardless, all of the players showed a brilliant mentality, gave everything of themselves took everything in their stride and just applied themselves correctly, so I applaud them for that and for their determination even though we didn’t win the game.”
The clash between the group’s third and fourth-placed teams was never likely to be a classic, and so it proved with Robbie Brady’s 68th-minute shot, which came back off the crossbar the closest either came to winning it.
The statistics make for depressing reading for Ireland – they have not won a game of any description since they beat the Bulgarians in a friendly in September last year, and their most recent competitive victory came against minnows Gibraltar three months earlier.
Had they ended that run at the Aviva Stadium, they would have remained among the second pot of seeds for the forthcoming World Cup draw, and while their failure to do so could yet prove costly, Kenny was at least able to take comfort from a round of fixtures which has seen new players – among them Dara O’Shea, Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight – emerge.
Asked if avoiding Nations League relegation had come as a relief, he said: “It was very important that we weren’t relegated, that was very important. It’s not something to celebrate, not particularly.
“We’ve used the Nations League to blood a lot of players, some by design and some because we’ve had an inordinate players ruled out for a variety of reasons. That will stand us well in the future, for sure, and it gives us more options.
“The team that wasn’t available tonight would be stronger than the team that was – and that’s not being disparaging. We’d just so many frontline players not available tonight.
“But having said that, now some players have really put themselves in contention to challenge for places and that’s what we needed.”