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Is it time for Irish football to invite Brian Kerr in from the cold?

There have been calls for the FAI to use the former manager’s expertise, more than 10 years after he parted ways with the association.

Brian Kerr has not been involved in Irish football for a number of years.
Brian Kerr has not been involved in Irish football for a number of years.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

IN FOOTBALL, AS in all aspects of life, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Consider the debates being had a little over 12 years ago. At the time, Brian Kerr was far from the most popular man in Irish football.

After replacing Mick McCarthy as manager, Ireland had failed to qualify for two successive major tournaments with the ex-St Patrick’s Athletic manager in charge.

The knives were out following a 0-0 draw with Switzerland at Lansdowne Road that confirmed the team would play no part in the 2006 World Cup.

Kerr was criticised on a number of issues following the disappointing climax to the team’s campaign. His teams were seen as too conservative. They supposedly lacked creativity and relied too heavily on star man Damien Duff.

The Boys in Green failed to hold onto leads in crucial games and looked technically inferior to supposedly small footballing nations they came up against such as Albania.

Source: PeteTop Carton/YouTube

Some of the strongest criticisms, as is often the case with Irish football team, were made by the RTÉ panel.

Liam Brady complained that, under Kerr, Ireland lacked a distinctive style, compared with the direct football of the Charlton era or the insistence on patient build-up play and playing through the midfield when John Giles was manager.

“I don’t see what Brian Kerr wants out there… He’s just chancing to get results,” the Arsenal legend said.

Eamon Dunphy was even more harsh in his assessment, claiming: “The guy’s lost the plot.”

Kerr even had his own controversial substitution in his final game as manager. Just as Martin O’Neill has been pilloried in recent days for replacing Harry Arter and David Meyler with Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady during the Denmark game, the former Ireland boss drew criticism for taking off Robbie Keane and Clinton Morrison and bringing on Stephen Elliot and Gary Doherty when the team desperately needed a goal in the 0-0 draw with Switzerland that would consequently cost the then-manager his job.

Yet Kerr’s Ireland reign has arguably aged well. In the Euro 2004 qualifiers, Ireland finished three points outside the play-off spots. However, the Dubliner was at a distinct disadvantage from the start. Under Mick McCarthy, the side had lost their opening two qualifiers against group rivals Russia and Switzerland.

The new manager was taking over a team not expecting to qualify, but a degree of resilience thereafter ensured the Boys in Green were still in contention up until the final game.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

In the subsequent 2006 World Cup qualifiers, a tight group saw France finish top on 20 points, with Switzerland and Israel on 18 points and Ireland on 17 points. Somewhat remarkably, of the 12 matches between the top four teams in the group, 11 were drawn.

Essentially, a piece of Thierry Henry magic and some missed chances during a key game at Lansdowne Road was the difference between the Irish side winning the group and not qualifying. And remember, it was the same French team that would only lose the World Cup final against Italy on penalties the following summer.

They had bad luck elsewhere too. In Israel, a last-minute goal denied them victory. In the return fixture against the same opposition in Dublin, good fortune deserted Kerr and co once again. The hosts were 2-0 up and coasting, before Robbie Keane was forced to go off injured after 27 minutes. Some individual errors at the back subsequently got the Israelis back in the game.

Kerr was praised by some commentators for the decision to re-introduce the divisive figure of Roy Keane back into the set-up, though injuries meant the then-Man United star was involved in just six of the 10 2006 World Cup qualifiers. He was missing for the crucial Switzerland game, as was another star man in Damien Duff.

“I’ve been described as a lucky manager, I don’t think I’ve had any luck the last few months,” Kerr reflected after the draw against Switzerland with some justification.

Ultimately, the manager was dismissed by the FAI despite having only lost two competitive games in just under three years as manager.

Source: killianM2/YouTube

The man who had presided over some of Irish football’s greatest ever achievements in helping the underage sides enjoy unprecedented success (winning a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships, in addition to triumphing at the U16 and U18 European Championships) was ruthlessly cast aside.

Therefore, was Kerr gotten rid of too readily? There is evidence to suggest so. Consider how only scraping a 1-0 win against Cyprus in Nicosia was considered egregious by many critics at the time. This performance may have been heavily criticised, but history judges it in a more favourable light, when you consider that the Irish team lost 5-2 at the same venue almost exactly a year later under Steve Staunton.

In the intervening years, Kerr has had a brief stint as Director of Football at St Patrick’s Athletic in addition to managing Faroe Islands for two and a half years. During that time, he is widely believed to have done a good job under limited resources, helping the team beat Estonia 2-0 in 2011 — their first European Championships qualifying win since overcoming San Marino in 1995 — in addition to drawing with Northern Ireland and beating Lithuania in a 2010 World Cup qualifier (the country’s first World Cup qualifying victory since 2001).

But since stepping down as Faroes boss in 2011, Kerr has moved away from coaching and instead become a respected football pundit. Yet oddly, despite having a fairly low-key managerial career in more recent times, his reputation has seemingly grown at least in the eyes of some since his Ireland reign ended.

Soccer - UEFA Euro 2012 - Qualifying - Group C - Faroe Islands v Northern Ireland - Svangaskard Brian Kerr pictured during his time as Faroe Islands manager in 2010. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Of course, the Drimnagh native came into the senior Irish set-up at a time when expectations were high. The 2002 World Cup was still fresh in people’s memories. There was a belief that Ireland should be qualifying for major tournaments on a regular basis. Roy Keane, more than anyone else, had insisted on Irish players refusing to accept mediocrity.

Perhaps Kerr was assessed too harshly as a result of the high hopes of a nation that some would regard in hindsight as unrealistic. Current boss O’Neill reportedly thinks he has been treated unfairly for similar reasons.

What has also contributed to Kerr being perceived as a better manager in the eyes of many with the passing of time is that those coached that followed him hardly did a considerably better job.

Kerr had a superior group of players to work with, but Martin O’Neill had the advantage of being able to qualify for the Euros despite Ireland finishing third in their group.

Meanwhile, under Steve Staunton, the team went backwards in the aftermath of Kerr’s stint at the helm.

And while Giovanni Trapattoni may have secured Ireland major tournament football for the first time in 10 years, the legendary Italian coach probably had a degree of luck in achieving this fear (i.e. drawing Estonia in the play-offs and Richard Dunne’s miracle display in Moscow) that the Dubliner did not get the benefit of by any means.

These factors, along with a series of disappointing performances from Ireland’s underage teams — albeit, there have been signs of improvement of late with  the U19s and U21s both performing well — and a lack of truly top-quality players coming through in key areas has created a nostalgia for the Kerr era in certain Irish footballing circles.

Having heavily criticised him during his Ireland tenure, Liam Brady this week suggested Kerr should return to the Irish set-up.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2010 - Play Offs - Second Leg - France  v Republic of Ireland - Stade de France Liam Brady has suggested Kerr should be involved in Irish football again. Source: EMPICS Sport

Writing in his Irish Examiner column, the former Ireland international explained: ”It’s common knowledge that Delaney and Kerr don’t see eye to eye but that should be an irrelevance when it’s something as important as the future of Irish football that’s at stake.

“We’ve had two successive Dutchmen charged with the overarching task of technical development by the FAI and I’ve yet to see convincing evidence their work has paid off.

“I think it’s time for the FAI to make a fresh appointment in this crucial role, someone with knowledge of the schoolboy game and experience and feel for the culture and character of this country and its football.

For me, Brian Kerr is that man. He would know what needs to be done and I’m convinced his appointment would help to put things right.”

Kerr himself feels change in Irish football is needed, though in a piece for the Irish Independent, the 64-year-old stopped short of suggesting the management team should necessarily depart.

“Results are almost everything in most people’s eyes. But there has to be a requirement for a bit of style.

“Nobody else in the world plays the game like we do. Nobody else in Ireland plays the game like we do!

Ireland’s underage teams are attempting to play in a completely different manner, albeit with no tangible success as of yet.

“Yet there is no apparent link to emulate what the senior team is trying to do; that linkage is something which every other country is attempting.

“Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps if we’re booting it up the field at senior level, then all of our underage teams should do that as well, and then become consistently good at it and never mind the begrudgers.

“At least that would be consistent.”

Kerr is clearly a man with a deep knowledge of football and as mentioned already, has a proven track record at underage level.

Ruud Dokter Ruud Dokter has been FAI High Performance Director since 2013. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Any suggestion that he should replace Ruud Dokter is harsh, given that it is less than five years since the Dutchman’s appointment as FAI High Performance Director, so it is still too early to judge his tenure unequivocally. The introduction of the U17 and U19 national leagues are positive developments that have taken place under Dokter’s watch, and it would be unrealistic to expect instantaneous results from these initiatives.

Moreover, as has been written about in detail earlier this week, Irish underage football is a dysfunctional entity affected by numerous complex issues. Without taking anything away from Kerr’s many phenomenal past achievements, it is too simplistic to suggest that simply hiring one individual will solve the multitude of problems that clearly exist when it comes to player development in this country.

The good work already being done by plenty of people at grassroots and underage level should also not be overlooked — the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady may not be world beaters, but they are certainly very good footballers and better players than their recent performances in a green jersey have indicated.

But notwithstanding all those factors, Liam Brady is right to point to Kerr as a man of considerable footballing repute. His presence in some capacity, even in an advisory role to the FAI, would surely be beneficial to all concerned ultimately.

The Dubliner has been one of the most influential and successful figures in Irish soccer over the past 30 years. In other countries, his expertise would be deemed invaluable. Nonetheless, in Irish football, he has been largely conspicuous by his absence for over a decade, and it is surely not a complete coincidence that the country has struggled to produce players of the calibre of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea — footballers that Kerr played an integral role in developing — in the ensuing period.

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