Brian Kerr reflects on his time at the helm of Irish soccer
IT was a reception fit for a rock star. Brian Kerr emerged from the stage wings and the Shelbourne Hotel erupted.
Amid the rapturous applause the 49-year-old was surrounded by a posse of cameramen.
He inched towards his reserved seat at the top table.
He’d scaled the highest mountain peak and the view was spectacular.
His story had romance written all over it.
Drimnagh to his marrow and thoroughly blue-collar, few men step on the bottom rung and reach the top.
But Brian Kerr did.
That’s why there was so much emotion in the room on January 28 2003.
A grassroots man had graduated to the top football job in the country.
Sufficiently seduced by Kerr’s incredible journey, members of the media punched the air.
League of Irelanders hollered from every corner of the room.
The former St Pat’s manager had delivered unprecedented success with the Republic’s youth teams.
The FAI simply couldn’t refuse this working-class hero a crack at succeeding Mick McCarthy as senior manager and, in the process, trying to patch up the team’s faltering Euro 2004 qualification campaign.
Fourteen years on from that glorious winter’s afternoon, there are still some things that remain pristinely preserved in the mind’s eye.
Kerr remembers seeing Mick Wallace – now an Independent TD – in the middle of the mayhem.
“Mick turned up in his big working boots with cement on them,” Kerr recalls.
“Mick might’ve been working on the paths on Grafton Street that day. But he was in the middle of the throng.”
Another well-wisher – a Shels fan – wrote Kerr a poem celebrating his historic ascent.
“The poem was about the appreciation of the League of Ireland and that he was from the same background as me and [it was] celebrating me getting the job.”
Eamonn Coughlan, a three-time Irish Olympian, and Kerr grew up together in Drimnagh.
They were best friends who shared childish dreams.
“Eamonn flew back from Boston that morning to be there. He was my best mate as a kid... I was shocked.
“We used to play and run together. We played for the same team and ran together for the same club but then when we got to 15, he stayed at the running and I stayed with the football.
“I used to often joke with Eamonn and say: ‘I think you did better at the running than I did!’
“We still banter about it. It’s hard to believe we lived opposite each other and he ended up a world champion and I ended up having the Irish manager’s job.
“They were little dreams that we both had when we were kids…”
“[But] it was a great day,” Kerr adds.
“I kind of felt I was representing everyone who’d ever been involved in football in Ireland, school-boy level, junior football level, people who have played in the League of Ireland which I never managed to get a game in.
“And anyone who’d managed or coached a team with a bag of gear on the back of their bike. I felt I was representing all those people.
“That’s where I came from. I didn’t have a good playing career. I loved playing but I hadn’t been a great player – and I was getting to become the manager.
“I felt I deserved to be the manager based on what I felt I did. I had served my apprenticeship, I had achieved at every level I was at, and I deserved to get a go at it.
“The day was absolutely exhilarating.
“I knew it was a massive responsibility. I felt it was also a reward for people around me who had supported me, and my family.
“You miss Holy Communions, you miss Confirmations. My kids say to me: ‘Do you remember you brought me to a match on my Confirmation?’
“I went out for a meal that night with my family and a few friends of mine and we’d a great night.”
What Kerr achieved with Ireland’s youth teams was truly staggering.
His side won bronze at the 1997 World Youth Championships before guiding the U16s and U18s to European Championship glory.
Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, John O’Shea and Richard Dunne were just some of the players that progressed under Kerr’s tutelage.
The shadow of Saipan complicated the picture for Mick McCarthy.
After losing to Russia and Switzerland in the early throes of Euro 2004 qualification, the former centre-half resigned.
Kerr did two interviews for the senior post as the FAI whittled down the contenders to succeed McCarthy.
Kerr was in Abu Dhabi with the U20s when he received a call from the Association’s Acting General Secretary Kevin Fahy offering him the job.
“Kevin said: ‘We’d like to offer you the job. But you need to keep it to yourself. Don’t tell anyone.’
A meeting was arranged in London a couple of days later to put the finishing touches to the contract.
After Fahy’s phone-call, Kerr was like a kid on Christmas Eve.
Noel O’Reilly, his erstwhile assistant and great friend, was staying across the corridor in the team hotel.
O’Reilly and Kerr were joined at the hip.
At an early stage, Kerr recognised O’Reilly’s gift for coaching and first recruited him at St Pat’s.
O’Reilly worked at St Joseph’s School for the Blind but Kerr coaxed him to come on board on a full-time basis with the FAI youth teams.
“Noel worked at nights in the school and he was keeping that going,” explains Kerr.
“It was only when I got into the FAI he gave up his work.
“I had to negotiate for Noel to make sure he got enough money to give up his job and give up Pat’s. And that was the start of it.”
Naturally, Kerr couldn’t sleep after being told he was the next Republic of Ireland manager.
“So this was about 2am and I knocked at Noel’s door. We used to address each other as ‘Murphy’.
“I said: ‘Murphy, are you awake?’
“He said: ‘Yeah.’
“He must have been reading or whatever. ‘Can I talk to you?’
“So I told Noel.
‘What do you think? Would be able?’
“Noel said: ‘Of course we’d be able.’
“He couldn’t believe it. He was hugging me. It was a great moment to share with him, great to be there with Noel.”
He adds: “Noel’s story was the same. He was a junior player; he used to play in goal. He got into coaching and started with Belvedere, a renowned coach, and had a bit of time at Rovers with [Eamonn] Dunphy and [Ray] Treacy. Liam Tuohy brought us together; I’d met him on coaching courses and the three of us had a great time together.”
Noel O’Reilly died on September 26 2008, aged 60.
When Kerr took over, the nation was still divided by the events of Saipan and Roy Keane was still in self-imposed exile.
But the new manager saw no insurmountable obstacle in trying to get Keane back on board.
“Initially, I made the effort,” explains Kerr.
“I had a good meeting with him, thought we were on. It was before the Scotland friendly game [February 2003] but it broke down. Manchester United got involved and it appeared that was the end of it, but in my mind it wasn’t the end of it.
“I always felt there was going to be another day and I think things settled down by the time the 2006 World Cup qualification came around.”
A chance meeting between Kerr and Keane at the Special Olympics ceremony at Croke Park paved the way for the midfielder’s international return after a 23-month absence.
“That kicked the thing on again and he was saying to me: ‘We should be getting out of that group.’
“And I said: ‘Well, we’d have a better chance if you put your boots back on and played.’
“It wouldn’t have been right for Roy, after the great career he’d had for Ireland and the great contribution he’d made under Jack and Mick, to finish like that.
“It wasn’t to do with any sympathy I had for him; I just saw it in black and white.
“Would we be a better team with him playing? I didn’t have any fall-out with him. I wasn’t part of what happened in Saipan. So I felt it was open to me. The FAI also wanted it to happen.
“It was great to work with him, it really was. But it was for the good of the team.”
The mid-2000s were different times.
Expectations rose as loud as the Celtic Tiger roared.
Kerr repaired much of the early qualification damage but the side narrowly missed out on a Euro 2004 play-off berth.
Although the Republic were still in the hunt right up until the last game of their 2006 World Cup qualification bid, the concession of late goals, notably against Israel, proved their undoing.
Kerr’s position was more vulnerable than it should have been.
It reached the press that some players were allegedly critical of Kerr’s over-zealous use of video analysis.
“One of the biggest criticisms of my time was that there was too much science involved; too much emphasis on analysis and [the perception] players were bored by video analysis.
“It was total bunkum. The video sessions were kept to a minimum.
“If a player couldn’t watch a half an hour of video, which was actually broken down…”
The Republic chiselled out a 1-0 win over Cyprus in Nicosia with Shay Given saving a penalty on the night “maybe because we showed Shay every penalty any of the Cypriot forwards had taken in the previous three years.”
After missing out on the 2006 World Cup finals, Kerr lobbied hard for a contract extension and appeared on RTE’s The Late, Late Show to try and sway the doubtful members of the FAI’s top brass.
But Kerr was let go and replaced by Steve Staunton.
History tells us it was a catastrophic decision by the Association and, inevitably, more qualification heartache followed.
Reflecting on his exit, Kerr says: “I would regard it as propaganda what the FAI put out. They were going to replace me with a “world-class management team”.
“I found that quite insulting to Chris Hughton, Packie Bonner and Noel O’Reilly as much as myself.
“Those guys were exceptional people and to throw out a line like that was kind of a low kick.”
The thing that frustrated Kerr most was the fact he didn’t get the chance to integrate many of the players he managed at underage level.
“The team I inherited was a good team, good players but I would gradually bring younger players into it.”
It was a desperate injustice for the game to see Kerr cut loose by the FAI after his history-making achievements.
He felt “frustrated and annoyed” by the way in which his nine years of service ended.
“Leave me out of it,” he says. “Look at Staunton and how he’s been treated. He was one of the greatest players we ever had; very loyal, played every position, he was a seven or eight [out of 10] every match, sometimes nine or 10. And he was brilliant.
“He was thrown into the role as manager and then he’s cut out of it.
“I think about someone like Liam Tuohy, who died recently; I think about Eoin Hand, I think about Staunton and how the three of them were treated.
“I hear they have something up in Abbotstown dedicated to Liam. It took a long time for that to happen. I kept beating the drum for Tuohy after the Charlton fall-out when the FAI dropped him like a hot potato. He was one of the greatest people in Irish football.
“Eoin Hand narrowly missed out on qualification by the smallest of margins, did a great job in player mentoring and then cut him off...
“If you’re Jack or Mick they’ll name a room after you…That’s what I find galling.”
Kerr raised all boats up in the Faroe Islands during his successful two-year stint but it had a natural shelf life.
“I loved the Faroes and the challenge of it but it was frustrating because you were never going to get too many good results.”
Kerr was linked to several jobs after that but none of them came off. He’s now working in the media and has evolved into the best football analyst in the country.
A return to the sidelines is unlikely at this stage.
“I have no interest in working in the League of Ireland,” he says.
“I did that. I love the league. I made a bit of a name for myself out of my work. I love going to the games and working around the games.
“I don’t want to work in it as a manager or a coach because it’s too volatile, it’s not supported well enough…
“So to get a decent job in the circumstances it would have to be abroad. I did my time in the Faroes but I’m not inclined to want to do that as time goes on.
“Why should I want to work far away from where my people are, where my friends are?”
Now 64, Kerr has lost none of his passion for the game.
He enjoys his media work but it doesn’t come close to plotting and scheming and winning football matches as a manager.
“I didn’t have many bad days in it. I had disappointing days and frustrating days – but I didn’t have many bad days.
“I got out of management without having a day where the crowd booed. That’s the truth.”
Managing his country at senior level was the pinnacle for the Drimnagh man.
“It was very intense,” he reflects.
“You were constantly under scrutiny because I was living here. But the excitement of the match-day, the travelling on the bus to the game, absorbing the atmosphere as the bus came from Malahide along Clontarf, past Connolly Train Station and on to Ballsbridge.”
That was living…