Conor Hourihane is hoping Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny can celebrate his new contract with a period of calm as he prepares for the resumption of competitive football.
Kenny, who replaced Mick McCarthy at the helm in April 2020, had to wait until his 12th game to taste victory as the coronavirus pandemic and injuries plagued his first year in charge.
However, only Portugal, and they in fortuitous circumstances, have beaten Ireland in their last nine outings as a remodeled squad has gelled to suggest there could be better times ahead, prompting the Football Association of Ireland to hand the manager a two-year contract extension , and one Hourihane believes is richly deserved.
The midfielder, currently on loan at Sheffield United from Aston Villa, said: “It’s great for him and well deserved.
“In the last couple of camps we feel like we are turning a corner, playing some good stuff and getting some good results. It’s an exciting time.
“The manager had a really tough time when he first took over with Covid cases and pull-outs and it got to a ridiculous stage at one stage for a country like ourselves.
“We haven’t got the luxury of loads and loads of players, so when you have four or five drop-outs it affects the squad and we had countless amounts of Covids there at one stage.
“Hopefully we have seen the back of that and hopefully we can kick on now with the positive results we have had in the last couple of camps with Covid behind us, and on to exciting times.”
Kenny has also had to deal with departures from his staff, the latest of which saw highly-regarded Chelsea coach Anthony Barry leave his part-time position to take up a similar role with Belgium, and that vacancy was filled on Monday by QPR assistant manager John Eustace, who will combine the two posts during the forthcoming Nations League and Euro 2024 campaigns.
Hourihane said: “It’s no secret that Anthony was fantastic. When he first came in, he was a breath of fresh air. He had great ideas and the way he coached was great.
“He was at Chelsea and you’re not a bad coach if you’re at a top club like Chelsea. They’ve won a few trophies and he’s been heavily involved.
“He was very impressive in his time here, put his stamp on the group and was brilliant. He’s gone to Belgium and we have to move on.
“Hopefully John coming in can give us a few different ideas, along with Keith [Andrews], who is brilliant. Thanks to Anthony for everything he did, but it’s a new chapter now. We’ll try to move forward.”
By coincidence, Barry will be in the opposition dug-out for the first time when FIFA’s top-ranked side Belgium head for the Aviva Stadium in a friendly to mark the FAI’s centenary on Saturday.
Roberto Martinez has only selected players with fewer than 50 senior caps, meaning the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois or Eden Hazard will not be on show in Dublin, although Hourihane is under no illusions about the threat posed by those who will be on duty.
He said: “I’d say they’ll be all right. They’re pretty exciting, a fantastic squad. With a few out, they’ll have lads champing at the bit ready to go.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.