Brendan Crossan: FAI can ill-afford to waste the coaching talent of Brian Kerr
MARTIN O’NEILL and Séamus Coleman’s pre-match press conference had just concluded in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, in early October.
It had taken place in what resembled an opulent old band hall adjacent to Moldova’s neat little national stadium. The only complaint was the room was freezing. Despite the cold, the scores of journalists in attendance unfolded their lap-tops and got to work.
Sitting at one of the big round tables in the room was former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr. Glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose Kerr was buried in his own research for the following night’s World Cup qualifier. The depth of his research would put us all to shame.
Kerr has been working in the print and broadcast media for the last number of years and continues to earn rave reviews for his analysis.
The 63-year-old has cracked our profession - he informs and entertains in equal measure. His sheer enthusiasm for the game lights up TV studios and his newspaper columns are the envy of the press box.
There was a feeling RTÉ’s popular soccer magazine programme Soccer Republic was overloaded with Dublin accents and that there mightn’t be room for one more.
But the Drimnagh native nailed that myth: “There was a danger that Brian mightn’t go down well because he’s so Dublin,” explained RTÉ sports presenter Tony O’Donoghue.
“But he has transcended that because of how interesting and how colourful he is. Someone once said: ‘The best gift the English gave to us was the language - we just added the personality’.
“The way Brian describes things, you wouldn’t hear that on Match of the Day. He takes the long way round to get to the point - but it’s beautiful.”
I got to know Kerr after he was appointed Republic of Ireland senior manager in January 2003. His father hailed from Belfast and he spent many summers with his cousins in Ardoyne.
His unveiling at the Shelbourne Hotel was fit for a rock star. Camera bulbs flashed. People cheered. His family wept with pride. Amid the swaying crowds patting Kerr’s back, reporters tried to conduct interviews with out-stretched tape recorders. It was bedlam, but a happy kind of bedlam.
From football’s grassroots, a blue-collar Dubliner had climbed the highest peak. For that reason alone, it was hard not to like and admire the man.
With the brooding shadow of Roy Keane hanging over Mick McCarthy, the Republic made a dispiriting start to their Euro 2004 qualifying campaign.
The top brass at the FAI could ignore his claims for the top job no longer after guiding Ireland’s youth teams to unprecedented success.
Kerr got the nod. It was regrettable he was in charge for less than two qualification campaigns. He lost just four out of 32 games as senior manager.
The team narrowly missed out on Euro 2004 and the World Cup finals in Germany two years later. He appeared on The Late Late Show, lobbying to remain as manager.
But the FAI had already made their minds up. Kerr would be replaced by a “world class manager” in Steve Staunton. We all know how that ended.
I remember Kerr’s two-year reign as a tense period. During his time as St Patrick’s Athletic manager and in charge of Ireland’s underage teams, Kerr was liked and well-regarded among the media.
But that all changed when he stepped up to the big job. These were deeper waters and the scrutiny so intense. Some of my colleagues in the media no longer had the same access to him as before and some felt slighted by it.
And then there were the ‘leaks’ from sources ‘close to players’, that there was too much video analysis and players were bored by it.
I remember squirming at one of Kerr’s press conferences on the eve of a 2006 World Cup qualifier in Cyprus when his captain Kenny Cunningham, sitting alongside him, couldn’t bring himself to back his international manager in the face of some criticism.
“Brian accepts his responsibilities,” Cunningham told the press.
“Being honest, players are quite selfish in moments like this. They look to themselves and the opportunity of playing in a World Cup. They’re not too concerned about what’s happening on the periphery.”
Cunningham waffled his way through the entire press conference. Ireland won 1-0 in Nicosia the following night, with Shay Given saving a Cypriot penalty.
Answering the criticism of overloading the players with video analysis, Kerr recalled: “Maybe Shay saved that penalty because we’d shown him every spot-kick the Cypriot player had taken in the last three years.”
Despite his protestations and his gutsy Drimnagh pitch on The Late Late Show, Kerr was cut loose by the FAI soon after the team’s goalless draw at home to Switzerland.
A win would have put the Irish through to the World Cup play-offs. Instead, the Swiss reached the finals in Germany, seeing off Turkey over two legs.
Kerr went on to put the Faroe Islands on the map and enhanced his own managerial standing. That adventure in Europe’s northern outpost came to a natural end in 2011.
In that band hall in Moldova back in October, the 63-year-old was buried in his work, diligently collating information for his co-commentary the following evening.
But Brian Kerr should never have been anywhere near the room, enriching our profession. He should be feeling the grass under his feet on the pitches around Abbotstown.
He should be devising policy, creating structures and offering a guiding hand to the country’s next generation of young footballers. That’s where he should be. Not in a cold, soulless press room in Chisinau.
Such a waste of talent. It’s a crying shame the FAI don’t feel the same.