Stephen Kenny is confident the Republic of Ireland will be better for the experiences of a traumatic three months when they reconvene next year ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Ireland boss sent his players back to their clubs in the wake of Wednesday night’s drab 0-0 Nations League draw with Bulgaria still awaiting the first win of his reign after eight games, the last seven of which have passed without a single goal to their name.
In mitigation, Kenny has had to contend with an unprecedented selection crisis with positive coronavirus tests, injuries and bereavement having decimated his squad, but his frustration has been eased by the emergence of a new generation of senior internationals.
Asked what his message was to the players as they left, he said: “We appreciate their commitment over the last couple of windows because it hasn’t been easy for them. They have given everything.
“They have given us a lot of food for thought for the World Cup qualifiers. A lot of people have put themselves forward. We will have genuine competition for places.
“The World Cup qualifiers are in March, three games. We haven’t been in a World Cup since 2002, so it is something to get excited about. We have to prepare really well.
“We’ll be all the better for what we have learned over the last couple of windows, myself and the coaching staff.
“We have a lot to look forward to in March when we finalise the group, and I think we will have a fair degree of quality overall.”
Kenny’s optimism is perhaps commendable given the tide of negative statistics surrounding Ireland’s latest Nations League campaign, and the heartbreaking Euro 2020 play-off semi-final exit which punctuated it.
They have now played 10 games in two editions of the competition and have won none of them, and they managed just a single goal in their six ties this time around.
However, four men – Dara O’Shea, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight and Adam Idah – have made the step up from the Under-21s, following in the footsteps of Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott, and Swansea defender Ryan Manning has also won a first cap.
West Brom defender O’Shea, Brighton midfielder Molumby and 19-year-old Derby counterpart Knight in particular have impressed during what has otherwise been a desperately difficult start for the manager.
Luton striker James Collins said: “I’ve only met him for the first time this camp and he’s been excellent with me. I feel really sorry for him because it feels like it’s just one thing after another. But the lads are all fighting hard for him and his staff, because his staff are excellent as well.
“The players in this squad won’t shy away from it. They’re men, they play at the highest level for their clubs and they understand what it means to people and what it means to them to play for their country.
“We want to win games, so we know what we have to do to win those games and that’s scoring goals. I don’t think you’ll get anyone in that squad in the dressing room, myself included, that will shy away from that.”