Profile: Brian Kerr back for an unlikely encore with Republic of Ireland

Former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr
Former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr

AFTER 19 years in the wilderness – or to be more precise, the fringes of Irish football - Brian Kerr is back working for the FAI again.

Many people, including Kerr himself, probably thought that boat had sailed some time ago.

With the association forced to abort its unveiling of former defender John O’Shea as the Republic of Ireland’s interim manager last Friday because of heavy snow in the capital – it has been rescheduled for Monday afternoon – it later emerged that Kerr would be a member of his backroom team for the upcoming friendly games with Belgium and Switzerland later this month.

Glenn Whelan, the former midfielder who won 91 caps, Crystal Palace coach Paddy McCarthy, goalkeeping coach Rene Gilmartin all come in, and Martin Doyle steps up from the U21s.

Kerr, who managed the senior team for 33 games between 2003 to 2005, has returned as ‘technical adviser.’

Last week, the Drimnagh man wasn’t getting carried away with his grandiose job title.

“I told John that I’ll chase balls into the bushes or go look at players, whatever he needs,” said Kerr. “I’m delighted he feels I’ve something to contribute to international football after all these years.

“I’ve been stuck on 33 Ireland matches for a while now, so I’ll get to 34 and 35 against Belgium and Switzerland but I’m not sure about what happens after that.”

When Stephen Kenny’s contract wasn’t renewed by the FAI last November, Kerr was the media’s go-to man - an astute and eminently quotable Irish football observer – who was asked constantly about his own availability.

Kerr laughed off these enquiries as pie in the sky and even when Liam Brady put his name forward for the vacancy while promoting his autobiography before Christmas, he bristled at the source as the former Irish great was often critical of Kerr during his time as Ireland manager.

It’s over 100 days since Kenny was let go by the FAI.

Football Director Marc Canham has intimated to the media on a number of occasions that the managerial search was coming to an end, but the association is still not in a position to announce a permanent coach.

Whether it’s down to an inability to land their favoured candidate or an issue around timing is unknown - so no-one is quite sure if O’Shea is auditioning for the role on a permanent basis or merely holding the managerial reins for two games.

Eileen Gleeson insisted she was only temporary manager of the women’s team until results went so well, she ended up accepting the role permanently.

Could it be the same for O’Shea if results and performances are good in the two friendlies later this month?

Since the news broke, there has been as much talk about Kerr’s return to the fold as O’Shea’s.

Kerr enjoyed unprecedented success at underage level with Ireland, finishing third at the 1997 World Cup (U20) Youth Games in Malaysia.

Kerr’s kids, as they became known, lost their semi-final 1-0 to an Argentina side, the eventual winners, which boasted Pablo Aimar, Juan Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso before the Irish edged out Ghana in the third-fourth play-off tie to claim bronze.

Under the Dubliner’s guidance, Ireland also won European titles at U16 and U18 level in 1998, and when the wheels started to come off Mick McCarthy’s reign in the autumn of 2002, Kerr was promoted to the senior job in a fire-fighting capacity, with Ireland having lost their opening two Euro 2004 qualifiers.

Kerr, though, still managed to bring the senior side to the last game in qualifying.

He brought Roy Keane back in from the cold too, but the side fell short in their 2006 World Cup qualification bid, largely due to spurning a two-goal advantage against Israel in Tel Aviv while also drawing the home leg.

Kerr’s senior international record compares favourably to any Ireland manager: 18 wins, 11 draws and just four defeats – with one observer noting that there were “no Andorras in there either”.

Despite only one full campaign the FAI, somewhat unfairly, didn’t renew Kerr’s contract and was later replaced by Steve Staunton whose reign was disastrous.

There were some leaks from within the camp that suggested the players weren’t too enamoured with Kerr’s focus on video analysis, which prompted him to say several years later that perhaps the footage he showed Shay Given of the Cypriot penalty takers helped him save one in a tense 2006 World Cup Qualifier in Nicosia.

“One of the biggest criticisms of my time,” Kerr told The Irish News some years after his reign, “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…. And you think what’s going on rugby now.

“Why shouldn’t we be doing that stuff?”

Ironically, the modern-day player can’t get enough video analysis.

Johnny McDonnell (left) was assistant manager to Brian Kerr during his fellow Dubliner's spell in charge of the Faroe Islands
Johnny McDonnell (left) was assistant manager to Brian Kerr during his fellow Dubliner's spell in charge of the Faroe Islands Brian Kerr during his spell in charge of the Faroe Islands

When the FAI was debating whether to stick or twist with Kerr, large swathes of the media at the time were pushing for change.

In hindsight, Kerr was right to feel aggrieved.

“I would regard it as propaganda what the FAI put out,” he would later say. “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.”

On one of his many visits to Belfast, where he spent many childhood summers in Ardoyne with relatives, Kerr commented in 2008: “In Ireland, I think I saw a figure recently of 17 Sunday newspapers, national newspapers, and 14 daily newspapers that are available in Dublin.

“So, it’s a very competitive market for extravagant headlines, which maybe can also lead to abusive stuff, off-the-wall stuff.

“To be honest, I looked at none of it.”

After 2005, the-then 51-year-old was linked to various jobs, but he ended up becoming manager of the Faroe Islands where he raised standards and expectations.

His claim to fame at one of Europe’s most northerly outposts was guiding them to their first-ever competitive win – a 2-1 victory over Lithuania in the 2010 World Cup qualification – and the blue-collared Dubliner followed up that historic win by grabbing a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in a Euro 2012 qualifier.

The Dubliner was linked to the Northern Ireland job when Nigel Worthington vacated the post in 2011.

While preparing the Faroes for their return match with Northern Ireland at Donegal Celtic FC in August 2011, Kerr caused a few ripples by suggesting that the south should ease up on their recruitment drive north of the border.

“I know some of the northern players have an identity with the Republic because of the communities they’re living in,” he said.

“I think, over time, that can change. But I don’t think the Republic should be taking advantage of the Belfast Agreement to the extent they’re using it in football as a way of recruiting players.”

He added: “I’ve always been someone who’s fought for the small man and tried to see things in a fair-minded way.

“I’m not playing to the gallery in saying that – I’ve always felt that.”

When he left the Faroes in 2011 and his name was no longer being linked to different jobs, Kerr began writing newspaper columns – for a while with The Irish Times and later for The Irish Independent.

He soon earned a weighty reputation for his incisive, articulate commentary and wonderful storytelling about his sporting past and became a highly respected pundit with RTE and later as a resident talking head with Virgin Media.

“There was a danger that Brian mightn’t go down well because he’s so Dublin,” explained RTÉ sports presenter Tony O’Donoghue in 2016.

“But he 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.”

Kerr, though, spared no-one in his analysis - and even though Stephen Kenny climbed the same ladder as he did to reach the top job in the country, the Drimnagh man showed his Dublin compatriot no sympathy with positive results hard to come by.

A beloved follower of St Pat’s Athletic, Kerr has always been left-leaning in his outlook.

It sometimes feels a life-time ago when he was unveiled as Ireland’s senior international manager in 2003 at a packed and delirious Shelbourne Hotel.

It was just as much a celebration about what Brian Kerr represented than his obvious credentials for the job.

He grew up on Cooley Road and became best friends with his close neighbour Eamonn Coghlan, who became a famous Irish runner, an Olympian and world champion.

Former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr is a strong advocate of Kieran Lucid's all-island league proposals
Former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr is a strong advocate of Kieran Lucid's all-island league proposals Brian Kerr fashioned a brilliant punditry career in both print and broadcast

“Eamonn flew back from Boston that morning to be there,” Kerr recalled.

“He was my best mate as a kid... 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.

“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…

“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.”

Asked by The Irish News in 2017 what was the best part of managing his country, Kerr replied: “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.

“Just the excitement on the faces of the people going to the matches and then arriving at the ground, the tension, the pre-match and the excitement around the game.”

Brian Kerr was 49 when he was appointed Ireland manager in 2003. He turned 71 on Sunday.

There were definitely some lost years in there where he should’ve been brought back in by the FAI to develop Irish football.

But he’s back for an encore and he will savour sitting on the team bus looking out along Clontarf, past Connolly Train Station and on to Ballsbridge – seeing the excitement on the faces of the people going to the matches later this month.

Absolutely no-one will begrudge him re-living that experience…