Stephen Kenny is confident people are “excited” about his new-look Republic of Ireland team as he rebuilds for a tilt at qualification for Euro 2024.
Ireland will bring an end to their World Cup qualifying campaign next week when they face Portugal in Dublin before travelling to Luxembourg, but will do so already knowing they will not be in Qatar for next year’s finals.
Kenny’s men currently lie in fourth place in Group A behind Luxembourg, who pulled off a shock 1-0 victory at the Aviva Stadium in March, and only secured their first competitive victory under their new manager at the 13th attempt last month when they won 3-0 in Azerbaijan.
Squad announced for Portugal & Luxembourg matches
Skipper Seamus Coleman returns to the squad following injury 😍@WBA midfielder Jayson Molumby & @pnefc midfielder Alan Browne return following suspension 🙌
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Nevertheless, they will run out to face the Portuguese in front of a full house in Dublin next Thursday evening and Kenny insists he can sense mounting support.
Asked if he saw the sell-out as a vindication of his reign, he said: “No, I don’t really see it as a vindication of myself, but I do think there’s huge interest around the country. Even when we were losing games, I was feeling that around the country.
“Fifteen players have come in and 14 [have made] competitive international debuts. It’s unprecedented in the history of football in Ireland to have that many players come through in one calendar year into the senior international team – in fact, it’s unprecedented in most countries.
“People are excited by that. They know we’re not perfect, we’re still emerging.
“We’ve gone from a period of not scoring goals to scoring 14 goals in our last seven games and now we’re creating a lot of chances in the games and the goals are spread throughout the team, so it’s an exciting period of development and players getting better and the team evolving.”
Kenny has welcomed skipper Seamus Coleman, who missed October’s trip to Baku and the 4-0 friendly victory over World Cup hosts Qatar which followed it because of a hamstring injury, back into a squad also boosted by the return of midfield duo Jayson Molumby and Alan Browne, who were suspended for the last qualifier.
However, there is no place for Brighton striker Aaron Connolly, whose efforts to establish himself on the senior international stage have been hit by a heel problem.
Kenny said: “I spoke to Aaron yesterday myself and we both decided. He didn’t feel he was really right, although technically he could possibly be available next Thursday for selection, but he hasn’t been training at all, so he feels sore.”
The Republic will lock horns with Portugal once again having been denied a famous victory over the former European champions in September when Cristiano Ronaldo snatched a late double to break Irish hearts, although Kenny is well aware they are not a one-man team.
Asked about the Manchester United superstar, he said: “He’s terrific, he’s been a phenomenon and the sheer volume of goals is simply incredible.
“But even when he wasn’t playing recently, they won 5-0, so they have players right throughout the team.
“They’re obviously previous European champions, Nations League holders and have all played in either the Champions League final or the Europa League final, so they have a very, very talented team.”