Almost five years on, the fall-out from Ireland’s humiliation in Nicosia seems to go on. That galling 5-2 hammering at the hands of Cyprus signaled the end of the international road for three of the starters that night. Clinton Morrison has only appeared once in a 40-man provisional squad since, whilst sliding down the divisions in England, currently scoring occasionally at League One Sheffield Wednesday. Andy O’Brien was callously dropped by then-manager Steve Staunton, but submitted his international retirement when called up by caretaker Don Given in early 2008. The final member of the alternative three amigos is goalkeeper Paddy Kenny. His situation is unique compared the aforementioned duo, in that many observers feel Kenny has a chance of representing his adopted country again. Starting with this evening’s vital Euro 2012 qualifier at home to Macedonia.
Kenny’s rather remarkable renaissance under the stewardship of Neil Warnock has arguably been the story of the Championship season to date. Whilst OPR have been inspired by the sporadic bursts of brilliance by Moroccan magician Abel Taarbat, it has been Kenny’s solidity and presence between the sticks that has been that basis of their success this season. The Londoner lead the division by nine points. The stopper’s 21 clean sheets has been pivotal to Rangers success, conceding a miserly 23 goals in the 38 league games to date. All this after a few turbulent years for the 32-year-old.
His much-puslibhcised martial difficulties and the infamous assault he suffered outside a Halifax curryhouse that left him short an eyebrow led to Kenny excusing himself from international duty in 2007. His employers at the time, Sheffield United, then suffered relegation from the Premier League in that May in the most bizarre of circumstances, followed by years of stagnation in the Championship. From international and Premier League football back to the second tier all in a couple of months.
Then a seemly innocent purchase of cough medicine led to a positive drugs test in 2009. Kenny had trace of the banned substance ephedrine in his system, which resulted in a nine-month ban. At the age of 31, it seemed all over for the Halifax native. Sheffield United extended his contract, out of pity perhaps, but a series of such crushing blows in the preceding years would have seen a weaker character give up on his career in the game. Not Paddy Kenny though.
He returned to the game leaner, fitter and hungrier. Like he had a point to prove. His £750,000 move to QPR last summer raised many eyebrows. United fans were furious that after standing by the player in his darkest hour this was a display of gross disloyalty. Warnock was accused of overpaying and using tunnel-vision in his pursuit of new signings. This has proved to be an expectational investment, of which Warnock is never afraid to speak up about, using his own touch of hyperbole:
Paddy’s the best keeper in the country, and I wouldn’t swap for anyone – even in the Premier League.
That may seem a touch excessive, but Kenny has revitalised himself in such a way that would have seem unimaginable not so long ago.
So what of Ireland? It is no surprise that he has not been recalled to squad. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni commonly ignores to merits of players deserving of a place in the squad, as the like of Stephen Ward and Anthony Stokes will know only too well. Goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was part of the Ireland set-up back in 2006, and is said to have recommended David Forde and Darren Randolph as cover for Keiren Westwood, who in turn is deputising for the injury-stricken Shay Given. Both Forde and Randolph have impressed at Millwall and Motherwell respectively this season, but neither can claim to have hit the heights of Kenny. Even Westwood’s campaign is not going as swimmingly as expected. Coventry are struggling at the wrong end of the Championship, and doubts have been raised regarding Westwood’s commitment to the Sky Blue cause.
This, to be fair, would have to be deemed as a convenient assumption, giving City’s failings and the fact the goalkeeper rejected a contract extension in the autumn. Free to leave on a Bosman in the summer, Westwood has his pick of clubs to join. Whether he would be guaranteed a first-team spot is another matter. But these are further distractions, which will hopefully be banished from the custodian’s mind when he steps out onto the Aviva Stadium pitch tonight for his competitive debut. The Cypriot debacle was Kenny’s first competitive game for Ireland, and rarely has there been a more chastening one. Westwood carries himself in a confident manner,which will hopefully spread to the makeshift back four in front of him. This is a defining game in Trap’s tenure as Ireland manager. If it does not go to plan, it will have as adverse effect on his reign as the Nicosia nightmare had on Staunton before him.